Dot Brabham was driving past the local Kiwanis Club in Ellicott City when she decided to stop in and indulge her passion for pinochle.
She became so wrapped up in the game that, before long, she was late for her line dancing class at the Mount Airy senior center. When she finally arrived, Brabham had to ease the concerns of her classmates, who were sure she had been in a car wreck.
"I did not tell them I was playing cards," Brabham, 72, of Woodbine, told her fellow players at yet another pinochle game at the Western Howard County Senior Center in Cooksville.
For Brabham and the dozen or so other senior citizens who gather at the center, in a converted ranch-style house, playing pinochle is sort of an addiction. On Mondays and Fridays, the players meet at 10 a.m., divide into groups of six and don't stop dealing until about 3 p.m., breaking only for lunch.
Playing not only passes the time, the players said, but also provides an opportunity to socialize the way they did while growing up in an era before television replaced evenings spent on a neighbor's front porch.
"We played cards as social functions," said Ida Haynes, 65, of Ellicott City. "People were a lot more social then. You got out and met your neighbors."
Although the players travel to the center from different parts of the county, they've managed to capture the easygoing togetherness of neighbors who sit down at a card table in the living room next door. Over the rhythmic slapping of cards onto the wood veneer table comes the bantering of friends who have known each other long enough to tease good-naturedly.
"We're like a family," said Isabelle Spioch, 72, of Ellicott City. "We get along really well together--unless somebody takes our ace."
"Sometimes we disown those family members," added Dan Zukowski, 72, of Marriottsville.
Zukowski, who also plays with Kiwanis buddies in Ellicott City on Wednesdays, is literally the driving force for the group. Each Monday and Friday, he meets several players in Ellicott City and then chauffeurs them 10 miles to the senior center.
And if the center is closed, Zukowski can be counted on to play host to several players at his home, where he serves Swanson's frozen chicken nugget meals, complete with french fries, corn and a brownie, that he buys on sale at three for $5. "It's delicious," he said as the others nodded agreement.
At the center, Zukowski and his group sat at a card table near sliding glass doors that opened onto rolling farm fields. Murmurs from another group of players in an adjacent room occasionally broke through the banter.
As the cards were dealt four at a time, the players arranged their hands. Other than the deck and a score pad, nothing sat on the table but packs of mint candies and cans of Coke. The challenge of pinochle, the players said, lies in remembering which cards have been played as they're quickly flipped onto the table.
When it was her turn to play, Brabham slapped a card down with a sharp flick of her wrist, signaling her victory in the hand.
"I knew it was mine, so I just let them know I had that trick," she said.
As the game wore on, Haynes and her team members lamented their lack of luck, hoping for a turnaround after the lunch break.
"We try all kinds of tricks to change our luck. We get up and walk around the table or deal the cards out one at a time," she said. Do they work? "No," she sighed.
The group mostly adheres to the official rules of the game but has added a few, such as subtracting 20 points from a player who forgets which suit is being played and tosses down the wrong card. "We always say that's 'a senior moment,' " said Brabham, chuckling.
The competition is friendly, and the players stay away from talk about religion and politics, focusing instead on everyday happenings. "Jack had a dream last night that he went back to work," Zukowski informed the group. "He almost had a heart attack." Jack Green, 70, of Ellicott City, who worked in accounting for a printing company, nodded solemnly.
No dirty jokes are allowed. Picking on each other's playing ability, however, is acceptable.
"I learned how to count playing cards," Spioch said as she and the others talked of hours spent playing pinochle, pitch, hearts and spades as children.
"You didn't learn too good," Green retorted.
The players agreed there's not much that could keep them from their weekly games, except vacations and family obligations. And so they meet at the center every week, sometimes three times if they decide to play after attending a monthly breakfast.
Most insisted they don't tire of the game, even after sitting for five hours on the lightly padded chairs.
"No way," Zukowski said. "We might get sleepy, though."