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If you’ve learned nothing else to this point in the Tales of ATC, you will have learned that controllers are competetive. Beyond the outlets of intramural sports and sports outings, there were the slack times on break or during very low traffic periods such as the last hour or two on swings or most of the mid shift. I’ll confine my remarks to the three facilities I have direct knowledge of, and only for the period of time I was there. Other facilities probably had different parameters that applied.

The one universal rule that applied to all of the facilities I was in up until about 1990 was that no card games were permitted on the premises. The only reasoning I was ever able to discern for this was the proscription in all government rules against gambling on the premises. Of course that makes sense, except that the playing of a card game is not gambling unless gambling is involved. In other words, there are lots of card games which can be played just for the sake of passing time (and the World Title). Management naturally made the leap of logic that if the inmates were playing cards there must be gambling involved, those immature reprobates.

I don’t know why or how the sea change (and I don’t know if it happened anywhere but at ZAU), but there must have been an active discussion in the chief’s office about it at some point—maybe it was negotiated with NATCA—but at some point I noticed guys in the café with cards playing hearts. What a difference! Getting relieved from position for a break and being able to spend the next half hour or so dodging the Queen sure made the day go by faster.

I also learned that I wasn’t near as good a card player as I once thought. I was okay, and I have a good memory, but there were guys who could replay an entire hand when it was over, card by card—I couldn’t. Still, a decent amount of card sense was enough to make the games enjoyable and the time go by. Eventually, though, we tired of hearts. Interestingly, I had played hearts since I was a kid, and even if we hadn’t played in a year, was still excited at the prospect of a game. When you compress perhaps two years of casual hearts with the family into several sessions on a couple of shifts, however, the shine does wear off rather quickly.

So, someone brought in a ratty cribbage board and we graduated to cribbage. After a few days it became apparent that we needed some more cribbage boards, so I procured some poplar and knocked off three simple boards, complete with storage for pegs in the bottom. I’d made some of these before, so there wasn’t a huge expenditure in time. We just left them on the tables in the café when we were done and then picked up a game the next break, the next shift, or the next week. Eventually, one of them disappeared, then another. We never did figure out where they went (we always blamed Airways Facilities, the technicians in the basement—probably the equivalent of snipes in the Navy). The third finally disappeared, too, but by then we were onto another game.

Someone started a pinochle game, which I had never played, but I learned and we played it for weeks, before tiring of it, too. Euchre was next and several weeks went by that it was the game of choice in the café. Eventually we tired if it, too, and then someone started on spades. Spades is a little like hearts, a little like bridge, and a little like poker. It was as near the perfect air traffiic controller’s game as I can imagine. We played it a lot, and I didn’t realize it at the time, but we played it at an insanely intense level. I wasn’t aware how intense until I played a game with family once. It wasn’t even the same game.

After I retired, I hardly ever picked up a deck of cards. There just wasn’t the same kick as when playing with a bunch of Type A competetive controllers. Oh, and so far as the perceived link between cards and gambling? In the several years that I remember playing cards—every day, six or seven sessions a day—not once was there a hint, suggestion, or oblique attempt at gambling. Maybe we were reasonably mature adults, after all.

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Last updated: 24 April 2009