Cribbage is all about community for WWII veteran and other local players
Mryl Jean Hughes anticipates the question, and she answers it before it’s asked.
“Good genes and the grace of God,” is part one.
“Vegetables are highly overrated — I never liked them,” is part two.
These come in response to the query the sprightly 99-year-old Army veteran receives on a regular basis. “Everyone wants to know how I got here,” she says with a smile.
While Hughes’ “here” refers to her age — just a few months shy of her centennial birthday on January 1, 2023 — the literal “here” is the Monday-night cribbage game at Grace Lutheran Church in downtown Hendersonville.
It’s a game her parents taught her and her older brother to play when they were in second and third grade, respectively, growing up in Hibbing, Minnesota (also Bob Dylan’s hometown). History attests that the card game was invented by English poet Sir James Suckling in the early 17th century. While not as mainstream as bridge or poker — perhaps due to the board required to play — it has endured. “Once you learn, it’s like riding a bike to pick it back up again,” Hughes says.
She did not bring a cribbage board with her to Hibbing Junior College, where she enrolled after high school to pursue her interest in a medical career. She was there two years when World War II broke out; when she discovered a course of study on physical therapy offered by the Mayo Clinic and the US Army, she signed up. “To get into it, you either had to be a physical-education teacher, a nurse, or a pre-med major, which I was.”
After a year’s training, she did an apprenticeship at an Army hospital in Louisville, Kentucky; then, once she turned 21 on January 1, 1944, she was permitted to serve overseas, first in Australia and then in New Guinea.
Back in the States, the GI Bill sent her to college, and the Masters she earned in Christian Education took her to Presbyterian churches in St. Paul, Cincinnati, and then, for 25 years, in Summit, New Jersey. When she retired, she wanted to settle somewhere more affordable, and thanks to a friend who had family in Western North Carolina, she moved to Hendersonville in 1994, joining Trinity Presbyterian Church right away. When she moved into Lake Pointe Landing Independent Living eight years ago, she picked up cribbage again at a weekly game there.
Though she is the eldest member of the group, she is not the longest tenured. That position is held by Jack Angel, who, with his friend Ian Bradley, founded the club about 25 years ago in a room of Opportunity House.
“I learned it as a kid from my uncle, who was in the Air Force. When he came home, he had a board and taught me to play,” says Angel. “It’s a good way to make friends and socialize, so we found other people who played and just got started. I like being around the people I play with. I [couldn’t] care less if I win,” he says.
When pushed, he admits he has competed in national tournaments, and that he used to make cribbage boards for himself and friends.
To win a game — most often played with two people — a succession of hands is played. Points are earned as pegs are moved up and down the “street” on the cribbage board. The first player to reach 121 points wins that game; opponents rotate through the group for six games, and whoever has the most points at the end wins the night —and about $10.
“We’re not doing it for the money,” Jan Belleme admits with a laugh. She joined the group about ten years ago and is now the keeper of the crate — the box that contains all the boards, decks of cards, and score cards. She also collects $2 per player at the start of the evening; half goes to the winner’s purse and half to the kitty for a holiday luncheon with spouses.
On this first Monday night in October, 12 players are at the long table, two rows of six facing one another. Wrapped butterscotch candies and Lifesaver mints are passed up and down, a couple dozen cookies baked by the widow of the group’s best player are in a bag. Tanya Kukral, whom the group refers to as their “social secretary” for keeping up with birthdays, has brought jars of homemade blackberry jam for everyone to take home.
Players laugh and rib one another, and when Hughes describes herself as an “average” player, the others protest her modesty.
“I don’t really have strategy,” Hughes says. “Like any other card game, it all depends on your hand.”
The Hendersonville Cribbage Group meets on Monday nights and welcomes new members of every age. Contact Jan Belleme (828-749-9537 or firstname.lastname@example.org) for details.