The Symbiotic Club

This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

This work contains adult themes and is not intended for children.

Chapter 2 - The Ritual Games

The Circle of Stars had its origin in a group of Philadelphia musicians who practiced together and formed friendships in the late 1800's. They enjoyed partying together, and, when musical engagements were scarce, they shared their resources. Theirs was a rebel-rousing group that restricted its benevolence to itself until one night when a theater, where five of them were playing, burned.

The fire started in the lobby, blocking the main exit. The five musicians lined the halls that lead as a maze to the rear exit and directed the patrons to safety. One by one, as the five emerged from the collapsing building, they joined hands in their jubilation.

The journalist covering their act of heroism wrote, "These musical stars became stars of light guiding the helpless to safety." The five realized the importance of life, and the fulfillment gained by helping others. Based on this inspiration, they founded the Circle of Stars before the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Circle grew from its small numbers of musicians to a national organization for white men of all professions. Its publications stressed the importance of the five guiding principles loyalty, benevolence, justice, brotherhood and patriotism in contributing to the growth and strength of the organization. The organization's many rituals articulated the truth of these principles.

Our club was the local affiliate of the Circle of Stars. The club building, sitting on a small rise, dominated a stretch of land along the four lane strip north of the air base. It was a two-story building modeled after an antebellum home. The asphalt parking lot surrounding the building made it clearly new south.

On walking through the front door, one got the impression of entering the waiting room of a hospital: quiet, a glassed in office area directly in front, couches lined two walls, but seldom any people. To the right was the meeting/dining room, to the left the lounge and dance floor. There was no attempt to maintain the antebellum motif of the building; instead, the furnishings were modern in design and plastic in materials.

Obscured behind the office was the stairwell to the upper floor. A brown metal door with two inch gold lettering stating MEMBERS ONLY blocked access to the stairwell. At the top of the stairs was a room with two pool tables, two pinball machines, and a ping pong table. Off this game room was the card room. The card room contained a small casino: a blackjack table, a crap table, a poker table and several card tables. Lockers lined one wall. The room had no windows but it did have an outside door leading to a metal fire escape which ran down the rear of the building.

I was initiated into the club in November of 1973. I dressed in a tan sport coat, a pin striped shirt, light tan tie and matching slacks. I thought I might be overdressed.

I didn't anticipate any hazing; but, I wasn't sure what to expect. My only basis for prediction the working of such organizations was Ralph Crandon's involvement with the Raccoons in reruns of "The Honeymooners."

All I wanted was diversion: the opportunity to have a good time, perhaps dance with a special woman and play cards. Membership in the club represented the only means to such activities readily open to me.

As I parked my Karmann Ghia, I noticed that it was the only foreign made vehicle on the lot. Most were pickups with racks for shot guns. The parking lot was full. Several men walked up the porch steps as I approached. A couple of them looked as uncertain as I felt. Others chatted together and moved with relaxed pace representative of those who had done this repeatedly and had no concern about what to expect. The nervous two were dressed similarly to me, both had on suits, one without a tie. The relaxed ones wore jeans, or khakis, mostly; some were in slacks, but none wore ties; some still had on overalls from their day at the shop.

Inside, one man greeted us. He spoke to everyone calling most by name. He wore a tuxedo. Obviously well past his prime, he was still a handsome man. The tux flattered his barrel chest. At about 5'8", his waist was trim. His broad smile seemed habitual; lines remained in those moments between smiles. His dentures were even and well polished. A cheap, but neatly combed toupee covered most of his head. His badge told me that he was Dale Chase, Secretary. He had signed the letter telling me that I had been approved for initiation into the Circle of Stars and to report to the club at 6:00 P. M. on November 1, 1973, for supper and the initiation ceremony.

"Hello, I am Russell Hunter," I told him.

"Oh, yes," he smiled, "it is good to meet you. I have a copy of our constitution and bylaws for you; and you will need to sign the membership book after the initiation. Just make yourself at home for the moment. Go on back to the bar. Have a drink."

Two women, college age, tended bar. They smiled and chatted with the members while supplying their desired beverages. I listened to the chatter of the other men while I waited.

"A good turnout."

"Yap. How many are coming in tonight?

"I ain't sure...."

"Twenty six."

"That's the biggest in some time, ain't it?"

"Y'all know any of them?"

"I don't, do you?"

"No, I just came out for the free dinner."

"Hey, do you know the difference between a condom and a casket?"

"No, can't say I've heared that one."

"One is for coming and the other for going."

"Hey, I can top that one! How are they alike?"

"They both carry a load?"

"They are both built for stiffs."

One of the bartenders had worked her way to me, "What can I get for you?"

"Oh, a beer I guess."

"What kinda beer?"

"Gees, I don't know, what you got on draft?"

"We don't have any draft. Just bottles and cans."

"Do you have Olympia?"

"What? Is that the name of a beer?"

I shook my head, unsure of what to do next. Then, I noticed the name of a national brand on a can down the bar and told it to her. She nodded and walked away. I felt as if I had just answered the $64 question.

I had sipped about half my beer when I felt someone touch my arm, "Are y'all coming in tonight?"

It took me a second to interpret his question, "Yes, I'm joining."

"Well go get a head of the line. Y'all get to eat first tonight. That's to make sure your food is well settled for the festivities." I interpreted his last statement as a joke, but I wasn't sure. I took my place with the other nervous ones.

The officers in their tuxedos followed us in the line. As we were sitting down, one of the officers said, "Eat up men. Enjoy it as if it were y'all's last, and pray that it's not." The officers laughed and the speaker said something else about condemned men. His name tag identified him as Wayne Fello, High Priest.

The dining room reminded me of an Army chow hall. As it filled with men, the similarity increased. It was loud and messy; there was little concern with table manners. Uninhibited, I thought, as I sat having cleaned my plate, as I had learned to do in the military. Did this "brotherhood" fulfill some innate need? I could not believe such could be learned.

"Get enough to eat?" a man in tux asked me as I sat there. "Help yourself to seconds if you like." He was obviously on his best behavior. He cut a striking figure at about 6' 3". He was in his mid forties and straight as a rail. He didn't wear a badge.

"No thanks," I replied. "What's next?"

"Just relax, have a drink, make yourself at home. The meeting doesn't start 'till 8:00."

"Is that when we'll be initiated?"

"During it; they'll call y'all in when they're ready. I'll wait with y'all in the lobby and give y'all instructions at that time." His voice had a forced hoarseness. "Just relax; y'all got the easy part."

I heard his admonition but I didn't relax. His statement reassured me somewhat that I wouldn't be required to perform any socially embarrassing acts, but that still left uncertainties as to what to expect.

At 8:15, the man with the hoarse voice gathered all of us initiates and introduced himself as Charles Lansburg. He escorted us through the ceremony. We walked in pairs into the meeting room and proceeded around The Inner Circle past each Point of The Star surrounding us.

Wayne Fello stood at the front of the room at the position of The High Priest. Each Point or position was illuminated by a foot tall, three inch round candle. The candle was in a brass holder setting on a flat wooden lectern at the front of the raised platform which constituted the Point. At the rear of the platform was a chair that could easily be termed a throne. An officer, a Priest, stood at each Point.

Lansburg took us first to the position at Fello's immediate left. The American flag stood beside the platform. The candle at this point was red. The man rose and introduced himself as the Priest of Peace and, speaking in a hesitant monotone, told us of the importance of being patriotic. His memory failed him several times and he was prompted in finishing his part. Still, I comprehended the thrust of the speech, the Circle supported The United States and the American way of life.

We then moved clockwise to the Priest of Partnership, who had a gold candle. In a harsh voice, he exhorted us to be good to our fellow brothers. He had his part memorized and quoted it with little difficulty, but he gave no indication that he understood the significance of love of humanity or the pleasures of comradeship which were the themes of his message. The incongruity between the sentiments expressed and his expression suggested a comic routine.

The third light was a white candle. The nervousness of the Priest of Purity at this position showed in his face and in his voice. His southern accent made his speech difficult to understand, even more than that of the others. He told us to be just in our dealing with other members and to use the Panels of the Circle to gain justice if a member should wrong us. His message assured us that if we violated the rules of the Circle we would be punished. As such, it stated the first warning.

The fourth priest stood behind a purple candle. He was the Priest of Piety who talked to us of benevolence. In contrast to the others, his expressions were consistent with his message to do good to all peoples. My apprehension abated as I listened to him. His words were antiracist; they reflected sentiments with which I could be associated with pride.

Finally, we arrived at the position of The High Priest. He told us that he was going to administer the oath which would bring us into the Circle. I held my breath. Then he said, "There is nothing in this oath which will require you to go against your conscience, nor will it stop you from completing your obligations to your family." That assurance established a clear loophole. He asked if we were willing to take the oath.

I said, "Yes," within the muffled response of the others.

Fello continued with the oath which committed us to maintain secrecy for the confidential matters of the Circle, to obey the laws of the country, to exercise judgment in recruiting new members and not to sue fellow members without first appealing to the Panels of the Circle. Once the oath was completed, Fello repeated the earlier warning.

By the time I had signed the membership roll and got my rule books, the card room was alive with action. Most of the people were around the blackjack table.

The table itself was specially constructed, kidney shaped and felt covered similar to those in major casinos, yet its height permitted the dealer to sit. Across from him, there were seven members sitting at the table playing the hands. Standing behind the players were a dozen men adding their bets to that of the players.

A balding man who looked to be in his early fifties was dealing. He was short and rather small with stubby hands and thin arms. The big exception to his thinness was his large belly that protruded over the table's edge as he dealt. It didn't take me long to hear his name, Bob Dalton.

He dealt two cards face down to each player and turned his second, an eight of spades. The first two men stuck their cards under the money and Bob moved the deck past them. The next player scratched his cards on the felt and Bob tossed the two of hearts in front of the player.

The player frowned and said, "Hit it again."

Bob dropped a face card next to the deuce.

"Bust me," the man said as he pitched his cards toward Bob.

The next player indicated that he wanted a hit. Bob pulled a six from atop the deck. The player said, "Good," and slid his cards under his money.

Dalton shifted his attention to the next player who smiled and showed an ace and a king.

"How much y'all playing?" Dalton asked.

"Well if y'all hafta ask, I'd say at least $150."

"Looks more like a dollar and a half to me," Dalton said as he counted the money. "Let's see blackjacks pay one and a half times. That means y'all get $22.50 coming." He laid a twenty and two ones down. Holding a third dollar, he said, "Call this one."

The man said, "Odd."

"Let me see." Bob extended the bill to the length of his short arms to better focus on the serial number. "Odd it is," Bob said and handed the player the third one.

The next person asked for a hit. He smiled when Bob tossed a face card and then covered all three cards with the money.

The last man took a card that put him over 21; he pitched his cards and money at Bob in mock anger.

"Keep those cards and money comin in," Bob smiled. "We'll take um anyway we can get them. I guess it's up to me." Bob took a drink from his highball before he turned his hole card. From the look of his eyes he had finished a few cocktails already. The effects of the alcohol showed only in the redness of his eyes and the volume of his speech.

"Read um an weep," he bellowed as he turned an ace.

"Shit, I thought you just had eighteen. I already had the money spent," said the player on the end. He shoved forward his three cards; they totaled nineteen.

"We push," said Bob. He left the man's original bet. Bob proceeded around the table collecting from those who had less than nineteen and paying those who had more.

Dalton dealt another round. This time he turned an ace. "Insurance anyone?" he asked. No one responded. "Good, I don't sell it anyway."

He looked at his hole card. "Bingo," he said as he showed the players that he had a blackjack. "Good thang I don't sell no insurance or I wouldn't have won all this money." He began to collect everyone's bet.

"Wait," one of the players said, "I have a blackjack too."

"You mean I can't have all the money? Well, alright, push then."

On the next hand, Dalton turned a five. The first player stuck his cards under his bet. The next man turned to those behind him and said, "Send more money, boys. I'm doubling." He laid his two cards face up. They were an ace and a six.

A man in a sport coat asked, "You can double that?"

"Y'all can double anything as long as it's the first two cards," Bob said. "Although, I won't recommend y'all double a blackjack. I have seen it done. That there ain't a bad double."

The new member seemed satisfied and contributed his portion to double the bet. Dalton placed a card face down on the two up cards.

"Anyone else?" Dalton asked as he moved the deck across the table.

The only player not to have his cards under the cash was the one who had pushed with a nineteen the hand before. He said, "What the hell! I'm gonna split these." He spaced two threes face up before him and moved the stack of bills to the first of these. The men behind him gave him their share to put with the second three. Bob placed a seven on the first three.

"Can we double that?" the man asked.

"Hell no!" Bob said. "What y'all want to do break me in one hand?

"That's a laugh. We're just trying to get some of our money back. Well, hit it then." Dalton pitched a nine to bring the total on the first hand to nineteen. Then, he tossed a king on the second three.

"I'll stay on that one," the player said.

"It's up to me?" Dalton asked. He turned his hole card; it was a six. The men standing around the table moaned.

"I could have used that king," Dalton said pointing toward the split hand. "Could there be two in a row? Kings run in pairs you know." Bob was obviously enjoying the little drama. He had destiny in his little palm and could reveal it at his choosing. "I think I'll just double my hand. Everyone double y'all's bet. That would be something if'n the dealer could do that. Alright, here we go boys. What will it be? It's not a king, but it is a jack. That's the point, boys, the name of the game; and, I know all this money on the table is mine unless y'all caught a four on that double. No, it's a eight. Then all this money is mine."

The ones seated collected money from those standing behind them for the next deal. It was apparent that I was not going to participate in that game at that time. I wandered to the next table.

At the poker table, they were playing for low stakes, but all the seats were taken. The craps table was also crowded and the bets were high. I returned to the 21 table.

Everyone was having a good time. The noise level was high. Dalton presided over these rituals in high form; he certainly made the most noise of anyone. He paused in the middle of dealing around the table to tell how the IRS had been after him all week, but before he finished, he lost the thread of his thought and started to talk about how hard his wife worked at their wholesale furniture business. The players were patient with him. They either simply listened or continued their own conversations.

As the players got drunker, the noise and smoke levels increased. They would be there for a long time. I wasn't to be a participant that evening.

All week I anticipated the next meeting night. I did not consider going to the club to gamble before the following Thursday. I didn't even consider there being games at the club on any other day.

When I arrived at 7:00 on that second meeting night, I somewhat expected Bob Dalton to again be in charge of the blackjack ritual, but instead I found another fifty-something man. He was dealing to five players. Of course, at that time I did not know any of them and I had no particular interest in meeting them. I was focused on getting into the game.

"There's a seat open if'n you want it," the dealer said gesturing to a chair on his right.

As I started to sit down, he extended his hand, "Don't think I've made your acquaintance. I'm Henry Ruth."

"Russell Hunter," I said, shaking his hand.

"Welcome to third baseman, Mr. Hunter," said the man in the middle in a clear and resonant voice. "Perhaps you will change our luck."

"That distinguished gentleman," said Ruth, "is Dr. Clyde Miller, a speech professor at the college."

"I'm just Clyde, here," said the man with a nod.

The dealer was hot, but Miller and I won. I did not know what I was doing, but Ruth was good at explaining my options to me. All the players were interested in having the third baseman make reasonable plays; so, I had ample help. On one hand, I hit a fourteen when Ruth had a five showing. It didn't seem to be a bad play to me since two face cards had just come off the deck. The player next to me shook his head and showed me that he had stayed on a twelve.

He said, "The dealer's got to hit. No need for you to risk busting."

But, I received a seven. Ruth had a nine in the hole. I made twenty one and prevented him from having twenty one. He drew a five. The player to my right lost. Miller with a twenty was the only other player to win.

That is the way it went before the meeting. I split a pair of nines against a five, which I was told was the thing to do. I caught a deuce and a face card on one nine and an ace on the other. Ruth drew to an eighteen and paid three of us including Miller. I was only betting two dollars a hand, and I won $26 in the hour before someone told us it was time for the meeting.

As we entered the lobby, I was surprised that most of the men left through the front door. Only then did I even consider not going to the meeting. I was already walking toward the meeting room. I was curious about its rituals.

The members sat at the rear of the room in a semicircle on the outside of the Priests' Circle, The Circle of Stars. Wayne Fello as High Priest began the opening ritual by lighting his blue candle and telling us that his Point represented loyalty without which none of the virtues of the other lights could exist. Fello had obviously been some high school's nose guard twenty odd years past. He still had most of the muscles. His voice was equally as strong; so, it was possible to understand most of what he said. Once he lit his Point, the other Priests, each in turn, lit their candles and told what their position represented. They were much less nervous this week than they were the one previous, but their presentations were void of sincerity, presented in rote fashion. They were sometimes cued by Dale Chase, as secretary, who had a small desk to Fello's right.

I was surprised to see Charles Lansburg, our escort from the previous week, at the position of the Priest of Peace. I later learned that he was replacing Gary Sampson, who was absent this week. Charles, as a Former High Priest (FHP), was qualified to substitute for absent Priests. The officers served at each position for a year, starting in April, and then were elected to the next position in rotation until each served a year as High Priest, HP. Thus, they knew all the positions. Charles lit the red candle of Patriotism with a flurry. He then led the members in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. Arnold James, the Priest of Piety, said his part and offered the ritual's opening prayer and Wayne Fello told us the meeting was officially open.

The business portion of the meeting was as ritualized as its opening. For each item on the agenda, Fello announced the topic, Chase told what needed to be done, the appropriate Priest made a motion that it be done, the motion was seconded and then approved by a show of hands. Chase read the bills, and in the same manner as the other business, they were approved to be paid. Then, a member told a dirty joke and there was a drawing for a cash attendance prize. The member drawn wasn't present and the prize amount was increased by ten dollars for the next meeting. The last business was the financial report. It was given by the Treasurer who sat at a small desk on the High Priest's left.

The Club was doing well financially. The members supported it handsomely through its bar, dining room and its weekly dances.

The closing ceremony was short. Each Priest, in turn, extinguished his candle with a brass snuffer and a brief statement appropriate to the position.

Upstairs, the rituals were more spontaneous. There were already games at the card tables. Obviously they had started before the meeting ended; all the tables were full.

I watch the blackjack game. Dalton was again behind the table. I recognized Miller and Ruth among the players.

"Well, Mr. Lucky," Ruth said to me. "Come on and join us. Bob has a $40 limit and I'm only playing $30. Put some money down. Bring me some luck."

"Yes," said Miller. "Don't let Dalton scare you. His bark is worse than his bite!"

"He's a good man, really," side Ruth. "A self-made success story. He began as a delivery person for Sears, expanded his service to several area furniture stores and made contacts with national furniture manufacturers If you bought furniture anywhere in the three-state area, Dalton was probably the jobber."

"He has been intoxicated during all the critical phases of developing this enterprise, I bet," said Miller.

Dalton said, "Yep, Lady Luck looked after us drunks."

I put $2 on Henry's hand. We lost. I hadn't brought luck to the players; Bob made hand after hand without busting. Two of the players left to join a couple who had started rolling dice.

I took one of their seats. I counted my money to discover that I was down $20. I was surprised that it was that much. "Perhaps my luck will change now that I can play for myself," I thought.

As I sat down, Bob Dalton placed the deck for me to cut. "What's y'all's name?" he asked.

"Russell Hunter."

"Y'all at the air base?"

"No, I work at the paper."

"Oh, yes. Y'all write sports." I was impressed. Even drunk, Bob placed the name. He obviously read the paper. "Meet my son, Bob, Jr." The player on my left turned and shook my hand. About my age, he looked nothing like Bob; instead, he was tall with broad shoulders. "He's my oldest son by my second marriage."

"I wasn't interested. I was losing $2 almost every hand, but Bob talked on as if I were hanging on every word.

"My first wife was a fine lady. We were dirt poor back then. She worked at Woolworths and I was hauling furniture trying to get this business off the ground, and she got sick. I couldn't take time off to look after her like I should of. I tried to get her to see a doctor. She kept telling me she was fine. She was worried about me. Told me I needed a new pair of boots. And I did. The ones I had had holes in the soles and the toes. But, we couldn't really afford food much less boots for me. Finally, she did went to the doctor. By then she had pneumonia. I went by the hospital to see her. The last words she said to me was that she loved me, but she didn't want me to live my life alone. Of course I was a young man then."

At that point in his story, I had only $3 left. I had to force myself to remember how much money I had when I started. I knew that it was $60, but I continued to remember it as $40. Finally, I was able to clarify for myself that I had $40 when I got a seat. The realization that I had lost $57 left me trembling. As my mind focused on the reality of it, I remembered my VW was running on empty. I needed some cash simply to buy enough gas to get back into town. One thing was clear, if I was going to play this game, I needed to improve.

"But y'all know," Bob continued, "the day after she died, I got a new pair of boots in the mail. Somehow, as sick as she had been, she had managed to order me a new pair of boots."

Bob set the cards for me to cut.

"No thanks," I said. "I've really got to go."

"Well, Mr. Hunter, It was good to finally learn your name. See y'all later."

"Yeah, good to meet y'all," echoed Bob, Jr.

"Yes, good to meet you, too."

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