We're pleased to welcome back Marvin J. Mavin after a long absence from our weekly columns. Today, Marvin gets quite a surprise on a visit to a small Prairie town.
The best duck hunting in the world. That's what they told him. Never mind that he wasn't a duck hunter.
They called it 'outreach'--- a way of building a better future for the game of checkers. Sure, it was the national sport, but the National Checker League was not an organization that rests on its laurels; continual development, a constant search for new talent, and a great approach to public relations were as ingrained as Black moving first.
Marvin J. Mavin, Captain of the World Series of Checkers winning Detroit Doublejumpers, was on an off-season publicity tour of the North Central states. The Grackle Duck Hunters, of Grackle, North Dakota, population 300 or so, had invited Marvin to visit, and against all odds, the National Checker League had scheduled an overnight visit by their superstar player.
The Duck Hunters were amateurs; they played in the East Central Dakota Counties League, and it was purely club-level play. But they loved their checkers and they would often drive to Minneapolis to see a major league match.
The NCL had chartered a small plane to fly Marvin from Fargo's Hector Field to the little municipal airfield just outside Grackle. The plane was a Piper Aztec, which the pilot referred to as the "luxury model."
Marvin was met at the airfield by an SUV driven by the Captain of the Duck Hunters, Steve Stonkus, accompanied by his son, Al Stonkus, and one of the other players, Wayne Bulow, who was introduced simply as "Flash" because of his fast over-the-board play.
After introductions, Marvin mentioned, "I've got a room at the Fowl Lodge. I booked it on-line. Seemed like a nice sort of place."
"The Fowl Lodge, seriously?" Steve asked. There were a few glances exchanged and a stifled laugh. "Well ... I suppose. We'll take you there, then, so you can, uh, rest up. The exhibition starts tomorrow morning at ten sharp. We didn't plan anything for tonight because we knew you'd be beat and anyhow it's kinda late."
It was eight in the evening on a Thursday in July, meaning that in this latitude, there were still a couple of hours of daylight left.
"Someplace we can go for a beer, maybe?" Marvin asked.
"It's Thursday," Al said, without explaining further.
"Yeah ... " Marvin replied.
"Right," Wayne chimed in. "Let's get on to the Fowl Lodge, then, if that's really where you're staying."
Marvin put his one travel bag in the rear of the SUV and took a seat in the back. It was only a fifteen minute drive, during which little was said.
The SUV pulled off the road in front of a camper trailer.
"There she is," Steve said. "The Fowl Lodge. The door is always unlocked. We'll pick you up at seven-thirty tomorrow morning. So we have plenty of time for breakfast."
Marvin said, "Nine-thirty will be fine. The website said they have food in the fridge for guests to fix meals."
"If that's what you want," Steve replied. "Good night, then."
Marvin got his bag and the SUV pulled away, without waiting to see if in fact the door was unlocked. Marvin couldn't see much of the trailer in the dark, but it looked kind of, well, old. And not a little run down.
"Fowl Lodge?" he said aloud.
The door was indeed unlocked, or more like hanging on its hinges, wide open. Marvin made out a hand-lettered sign taped to the door. "Fowl Lodge," he read. "Sure enough."
He stepped inside and felt around for a light switch. Dim incandescent lights came on, and for a moment Marvin wished he had stayed in the dark. Marvin supposed he ought to be grateful that the electricity was turned on.
The trailer looked like it hadn't been cleaned or tidied up in quite some while. There was caked mud on the floor, the bedding was in disarray, and he thought he heard mice scurry off into darker corners. He tried to close the front door but it fell off its hinges and banged on the ground. There was an interior screen door that he was able to close, not knowing if it would keep critters out or just keep the ones in that were already there.
He checked the fridge in the little kitchenette. When he opened the door a strong odor came out. There was some moldy cheddar cheese and gray looking sausages. He closed the fridge quickly. "No beer," he sighed.
A check of the cupboards yielded a couple of cans of chicken noodle soup, and Marvin managed to find a pot and can opener. He heated one up on the hot plate. "Dinner of champions!" he exclaimed. There was nothing to drink but water, and Marvin found that if he let the cold water run long enough, the rust would clear out.
He tried the hot water tap, and as he anticipated, it ran cold.
"No shower," he mumbled. "And as for sleeping ..." There was just the one bed so little choice, but he certainly wasn't going to change into his PJs.
His sleep was interrupted several times by the sound of little scurrying feet, and once he thought he felt something crawl across his face.
He managed to eat a second can of soup for breakfast. He thought about washing the pot but decided to just leave it with the rest of the dirty dishes in the sink.
The sun was up and the skies were blue and completely clear. It was a beautiful Friday morning on the prairie, but somehow Marvin fell short of appreciating it. At precisely nine-thirty, the SUV, now occupied only by Steve, pulled up.
Marvin ambled over to the passenger side and got in.
"Mornin', Marv!" Steve said with something of a sly look. "Sleep well? Did the Fowl Lodge meet your expectations?"
"Uh, well ..."
"Glad to hear it!" Steve paused, staring at the trailer. "Hey, what did you do to the door? The owners aren't going to be very happy."
Marvin didn't try to explain.
Again, the drive was silent, but it was only five or ten minutes. "The exhibition is at the Co-op," Steve said. "They got a big room on the second floor where our team practices and plays home matches."
"How did you do this year?" Marvin asked.
"Pretty good, pretty good," Steve said. "We finished second in our league. That team from New Leopard is pretty tough and we lost to them in the playoffs."
"Do they have a Fowl Lodge, too?"
"Never mind," Marvin said.
The Co-op turned out to be a sprawling, two story building, with gas pumps, truck and auto repair bays, farm supplies, and a lot else. There was quite a bit of traffic in and out, mostly pick-up trucks which arrived empty and went out laden with grain, fencing, building materials, and other necessities of rural life.
Marvin went up the old wooden stairs inside the building, following Steve. He entered the upper hall to see everything already set up: tables, boards and pieces in a large square. "We set up 32 boards," Steve said, "and we sold out on the first day of signups. A lot of our folks want a chance to play Marvin J. Mavin!"
But Marvin had noticed a table with coffee and donuts, and his first priority was to fill a cup and a plate.
Players were filing in, some dressed in overalls, a few with cowboy hats, a few others in corduroy shirts. It was just before ten o'clock. Marvin hastily finished his coffee as he was waved to the front of the room to be introduced by Steve.
"This here's Marvin J. Mavin!" he said. "But I reckon you all know that. Marvin stayed at the Fowl Lodge last night."
There were some laughs from the assembled players, but Steve went on, "Now he's ready to play and maybe even share a couple stories from the big leagues."
"Hi everyone," Marvin said. "Quite some place, that Fowl Lodge. Never stayed anywhere quite like it."
There were more laughs.
"Good luck to all!" he said, with a wave, and then went over to the first board to start the exhibition.
The players were actually pretty good, a few of them very good, and although Marvin wrapped up most of the games in relatively short order, a couple of them went on for a while.
In fact, it was nearly two o'clock before Marvin won his 31st game, leaving him one short of a perfect sweep. Fortunately, sandwiches had been brought in at lunchtime, and the players and Marvin ate as they played.
The last game, played by Al Stonkus, was tough, and Marvin was wondering if he could pull out a win. In fact, Al might himself have some winning chances. It was Al's move.
"You guys aren't supposed to be this good," Marvin muttered.
Al looked offended. "What's that supposed to mean?" he said.
"I mean, I should beat all of you."
Marvin had been getting more and more annoyed with how long it was taking to win his games. These were just country boys! What was the problem?
"Oh, I see. You figure us farm boys aren't up to big city standards, that it?"
Steve, who was standing by watching the game, said, "Easy, Al." But Al was not to be stopped.
"You're too good for us, we know that," Al said. "Sorry we don't meet your big league standards. Well, here, see what you do with this." Al made his move, banging the piece forcefully on the board.
Marvin did a double-take. This was really a problem. What was he to do?
Marvin thought for quite a while and clearly Al was growing impatient. But at long last Marvin saw the way. It would get him a draw, no more than that, but he'd be saved the ignominy of losing to this ...
... to this good player. Marvin had to admit it, and his whole demeanor changed as he made his move.
Black is in a tough spot. The man on 28 is in the dog hole. The man on 20 can't get beyond 24. The king on 26 is cut off from the man on 1. What is Black to do?
Marvin J. Mavin came up with a possible drawing move. Can you? Are you up to the challenge presented by Al Stonkus of Grackle, North Dakota? As Marvin realized, perhaps a bit too late, talent can be and is found even in unassuming small towns.
Can you "duck" the loss or will you "fowl" out? When you're finished, click on Read More to see the solution and the conclusion of our story.
Play went on as follows.
20-24 18-22 26-23 22-18 23x14 17x10---A 1-5 10-6 5-9 6-1 9-14 1-5 14-18 5-9 18-23---B 9-14 24-27 14-17 27-31 17-22 23-26 to a draw.
A---Is it still looking bad for Black?
B---The point of it all. Note that 18-22 loses: 18-22 9-14 22-26 14-18 26-30---C 18-22 White Wins.
C---26-31 32-27 White Wins.
A couple of moves later a draw was agreed. Marvin, impressed, realized that his earlier arrogance was neither justified nor proper.
"Well done, Mr. Stonkus," Marvin said, offering to shake hands. Al hesitated a little, but then shook. "You're good," Marvin continued. "My apologies for having an attitude a little earlier. But hey, you really should try out for Fargo, and I'll put in a word for you if you wish."
The Fargo Ferries played AA checkers. That was several steps up from County League play, and it was well into the professional ranks.
"Seriously?" Al said. "Fargo? I never thought ... "
"Think it," Marvin said. "Expect a call from the Ferries' management."
Steve had been standing nearby, watching the finish of Al's match. "Hey, sorry about that Fowl Lodge," Steve said to Marvin. "Everybody here knows it's a scam, and we're not real proud of it, but you seemed so sure about staying there."
"Forget it," Marvin said. "But listen, it's three o'clock and my plane doesn't pick me up until five. How about we all go for a beer before we leave?"
"It's Friday," Steve said.
"Right," Al said. "Friday, you know."
Marvin just had to ask. "Last night, you said, 'it's Thursday.' Now, 'it's Friday.' I don't get it. Why can't we go for a beer?"
Al and Steve laughed together. "Oh, right, well you're not from around here so you wouldn't know," Steve said. "See, the only place to go for a beer is Dani's. And she's only open on Wednesdays and Saturdays."
"So you only go for beer twice a week."
"Well, yeah, people are kinda busy with farm work and all. But look, there's quite a few folk as want your autograph, and that'll take up the rest of your time, so no problem, right?"
"Sure," Marvin said, hoping there at least would be beer on the flight later on from Fargo, North Dakota to Pierre, South Dakota. "No problem."