Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine “History” July 2009.
Poker Buddies For Life
By Louisa Hufstader
A Napa woman has written, and privately printed, a slim volume of social history that opens a window on life in Napa more than 60 years ago. Cecelia Elkington-Setty’s “The Story of the Paesano Poker Club of Napa, California” is a 30-page tribute to a group of Italian-American men who have met for a weekly card game since the early 1940s.
“There wasn’t much to do back then,” says 82-year-old Attilio “Rudy” Bergantini, the youngest of the charter members of the Paesano Poker Club (he was named the club’s “fish reporter and weekend advisor” in the summer of 1942). “There wasn’t television … We got started in cards and we all got addicted to it, and we’re still at it.”
Although some of the original players have passed away, Bergantini and a handful of other members still meet every Thursday for a low-stakes poker game. Along with Bergantini, the club’s surviving members include his 92-year-old uncle Attilio “Tillie” Musante; president and charter member Silvio “Sil” Garaventa, 90; charter member Ranoldo “Babe” Grimoldi, 84; Frank Cances, 79 and 92-year-old Milan “Mo” Ocskay, the sole non-Italian at the table, and a relative newcomer who joined in 1980.
They cherish their weekly game more for the conversation and fellowship than for the play: “We’re not really that competitive,” Bergantini admits. “The cards are just there to keep our hands busy.”
Even in the early days, says Grimoldi, it wasn’t a money game. “It never has been,” he says. “That’s why it’s lasted so long.” The real attraction, Bergantini says, is “the company and the reminiscing, now… fortunately, we’re all together so long, we go back and just about remember all our good times.”
Setty describes some of those good times in her booklet, which she wrote with Bergantini’s help. She paints a nostalgic picture of Alta Heights’ “Little Italy” neighborhood where the friends grew up, the first generation born to Italian-speaking parents who grew their own fruit and vegetables, raised their own poultry and stored barrels of wine in their cellars.
“In the late afternoon up and down their streets, the kids would hear ‘chop-chop-chop’ of dinner being prepared by their mothers, knowing minestrone soup would again start their meal,” she writes. “The parents and many grandparents, some not speaking English, kept alive the Old World traditions and customs as these young men grew up.”
Their shared experiences as Italian Napans are not the only ties that have bound the men in the Paesano Poker Club so closely together for seven decades; they also attended local schools and went on to work at what was the Basalt Rock Company until it was purchased by Kaiser in 1955.
Lorraine Kongsgaard, whose parents owned Basalt, has such warm memories of the men in the Paesano Poker Club that she attended a party in their honor, held earlier this year at the Native Sons Hall in Napa.
Kongsgaard recalls Basalt fondly, not only as a plant, but as a tight-knit community: “You knew everybody and you knew their families,” she says. She attended school with the workers’ children, and her family was often invited to weddings and christenings by Basalt employees.
“It was a big part of my life,” she says. “This little plant in Napa—people don’t realize what went through it.”
“The Story of the Paesano Poker Club of Napa, California” includes historical photographs from the heyday of Basalt and Kaiser, as well as family snapshots, candid photos from past poker games and even class photographs from the 1930s. The booklet may be hard to find—Setty created her spiral-bound tribute out of sheer admiration, with no plan to distribute it—but it deserves its place on Napa’s historical bookshelf.