by Dennis Dalman
They call the game Squiggle Farkle, but anyone who hears the group of people huddled in the southeast corner of the Local Blend would swear they’re playing not a dice game but fast-and-furious verbal ping-pong.
They sound like a bunch of lippy overgrown kids being given a time-out in the corner.
Between rolls of the dice, zinging phrases ping-pong back and forth – wisecracks, mock insults, teasing taunts, cheeky challenges, bloated braggadocio. The lippy players are having a blast.
“Sounds like Jeff is being a hot shot this morning,” one of the players says.
“Hot shot?” asks another. “No, he’s not a hot shot, he’s being a hot head. Again.”
Ripples of laughter follow, as Jeff gives a poor-old-me, put-upon look.
“Your wife is such a sweetheart,” one guy says to the man at his left..
“Is she?” the score-keeping husband asks with mock surprise, casting a teasing-but-mock-wary look at his wife as she gets ready to toss the dice.
The players on that particular early August morning were Galen Keyes, a retired computer and marketing worker; Jeff Young, a retired St. Joseph police officer; Kevin Schirmers, retired sales-department employee for Bernick’s beverage company; Jen Detert, a physician’s assistant and retired U.S. Army major who did a tour of duty in Iraq; and her husband, Ross, a semi-retired construction expert and all-‘round handyman. All five of those players are St. Joseph residents.
Other sometime-participants include Art Novak, retired owner of a travel business and Vietnam veteran; Richard Loso, retired grocery-store owner; Pete Jansky, retired St. Joseph police chief; Keith Gruber, Byerly’s grocery store manager; Steve Johnson, sales manager for MidCo Cable; the late Ken Twit, St. Joseph pharmacist and city council member; and – through the years – many “Johnnies” and “Bennies” from St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict. In all, about 35 people have participated in the ongoing farkle game, some quite frequently, others just now and then. Savannah Pierson, a graduate of St. Cloud State University, loves to play Squiggle Farkle with the gang and does frequent fun postings about the players and their verbal badinage on Facebook.
For at least 15 years, those people and others have been meeting at the Local Blend in St. Joseph, always sitting at the same table in the same corner, tossing dice, flinging remarks. It’s become a morning tradition six days a week, a kind of extended family. The “Squiggle” moniker of the farkle dice game derives from the name of a flavored iced-coffee drink served at the Local Blend.
Some of the players go back as long as 30 years ago when the Local Blend was a pizza joint called Herk’s Pizza.
“We’re not a club or anything,” Keyes said. “It’s just whoever shows up. Stacie Engholm, the owner of the Local Blend, always lets us sit in the southeast corner, every morning.”
“It’s a way for us to have our morning laughs,” Schirmers said. “We like to start our day with laughter.”
“We have a no-politics rule at the table,” said Keyes, a sly smile forming on his face. “And that is the major rule that we ignore.”
“Yes, and they call me the token liberal,” moped Young with a mock hang-dog frown.
“We like to pick on Jeff,” said Ross Detert.
“You can say that again!” Young practically shouted.
Young is one of the longest-time players – about 30 years.
Anywhere from five people to as many as 10 will show up for Squiggle Farkle on any given morning. Some, Keyes said, cannot show up because of jobs or busy lifestyles.
Affection and loyalty
Much as they love to razz one another, there is a bond of affection and loyalty among the players. They even attended the graduations and weddings of two Bennies, who then moved to other places. But a few students, when visiting back in St. Joseph, stop in to play.
The “old-timers,” when they re-appear out of the blue, are always a cause for celebration and delight to the more-regular players.
“Not too long ago, a Bennie stopped in to play for old-time’s sake,” Schirmers said. “She just happened to be in town that morning.”
“Camaraderie” is Schirmers’ favorite reason for playing Squiggle Farkle and the rapid-fire conversations it unleashes. Through the many years, the many games, players have gotten to know one another’s history, their families, their jobs, their personal milestones, their joys and, yes, sadly even some sorrows.
“We really are a kind of big family,” Schirmers said. “Our conversations run the gamut.”
And then, to be sure, there’s that iron-clad rule of “no politics,” which all too often players are eager to ignore.
“Some of us kind of cringe when politics comes up because we know a war is about to start,” said Schrimers, laughing.
But – usually anyway – it’s a good war, a fun war, and the players have a chance to start their day with laughter. And yes, even politics, that toxic topic, can sometimes raise a laugh or two.