The Augury

Ever since I first pitched pennies with my chums, I have been unlucky at games of chance whenever money is involved; if I’m playing just to have something to do with my hands while we talk, I’d do OK. As time went on, I began to notice that when I played for money and did win, something unpleasant soon followed. I never kept records, you understand, but by the time I reached my twenties, I was satisfied there was enough of a correlation to where I avoided gambling.

Did this mean that a win caused the Bad Thing, or was the Bad Thing causing the win? –Well, whichever, I wasn’t having any of it.

Of course, once in a while I was inveigled into buying into a game with my chums and when I did, I was always relieved when I lost. And the sooner my stake was gone, the better I liked it.

In 1977, while living in Seattle, an old friend back in Minneapolis told me of his acquiring an MBA through a new and novel university in Minneapolis. This institution – which, by the way, was fully accredited by the various sanctioning boards – would grant credit towards a degree for your work experience. A guy could cut a 4-year program in half. Hey.

So I called the school and got all the information. Turned out the school would take the college credits I already had, add to that my numerous years in the telephone business, and place me at the Senior level. So I sold my poor wife on moving to Minneapolis and up I signed.

I went on ahead, got a job selling phones, rented a townhouse out in Wayzetta and completed my registration. A few weeks later, just before Halloween, my long-suffering wife joined me. Neither of us liked the town but, hey, I was going to get a degree. School was to start in the Winter Quarter, so we had a couple of months to squirrel away money for tuition, books, supplies and the like.

One Monday afternoon in December, the boss invited the whole crew over to his place for beer and pizza while we watched the football game. Jo didn’t mind, so I went directly from work. After saying hello to everyone and popping a beer, I noticed some of the fellows over at a corner table hooting and hollering as they played some kind of game.

After the pizza was gone and the Vikings lost fourteen zip, the dice game over in the corner resumed and, sure enough, I was invited to play. I begged off, but my comrades wouldn’t take No for an answer so despite my better judgement, I reached in my pocket for some change and went on over.

Sitting on the table was this little velvet-lined box across the top of which were a dozen or so toggles. As I recall, the object of the game was to roll a pair of dice, then turn the toggle corresponding to the number you rolled. You then rolled again and if the next number was higher, you got another roll. And so on until you either won, or rolled a lower number. Bets were, of course, placed after each roll.

Well wouldn’t you know, I won my very first game. “Beginner’s luck,” cried the assembly. “Try again,” they insisted. So I did. And I won again. And again, and again. Soon table grew quiet and a churlish comment about loaded dice was made.

A sense of dread began to settle on me: I was winning money.

To my sorrow, I won the next game and then I knew: I couldn’t lose.

By now only the hard cases were left to play against me, though almost everyone had gathered round to witness my streak of luck. With the certainty of the sun’s rising in the East, I turned to the fellow next to me, looked him square in the eye. Not taking my eyes from his, I picked up the dice: “Watch,” I said as I tossed them into the box and won again. “Save your money, Pete,” I said with a joyless voice as I rolled another winning number. “Because I can do this all night,” and I rolled yet another winner.

Followed by another.

You could have heard a pin drop.

Everyone was looking at me with strange expressions that were part wonder, part perplexity and part fear. “Hey, Sprague,” groused the company’s Installations Manager, “That ain’t natural!” (Didn’t I know. )

I had a knot in the pit of my stomach.

I reached into my pocket, hauled out my winnings and dropped them on the table; perhaps if I renounced the money I might avert the calamitous denouement that was surely in store. “I gotta go home, guys,” I said as I walked to the closet and got my coat. “See you tomorrow,” and I was out the door.

I was so disturbed I almost had an accident on the way home.

Two days later a letter arrived from the university’s registrar. It seems two of the sanctioning committees had become uncomfortable with the overly liberal use the university was making of those work experience credits. Until the university could revamp the program in a way that pleased these nabobs, the school couldn’t accept any more such students. “Your application for enrollment is hereby denied,” it said.

And there we were. Stuck. Two thousand miles away from home, we went through a winter of sub-zero temperatures, a storm-wracked spring and a sweltering, mosquito infested summer. Jo and I had to slog through six miserable months of Minneapolis before we could flee that awful place and return to our beloved Seattle.

I never did get a degree.


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