The Jolly Boys

The Jolly Boys
The Jolly Boys

by Larry Birleffi

Introduction by Billy Walker:

Larry Birleffi was the long-time Sports Writer for the Wyoming Tribune.  He was a very popular fellow throughout the state.  Larry Birleffi, a television and radio broadcaster, was known for more than 50 years as the “Voice of the Wyoming Cowboys,” In 2008 he was 90 and Gone West, the same year as my mother. 

Birleffi was the announcer for Wyoming football, basketball and other sports for 37 years and wrote a sports column for the (Cheyenne) Wyoming Tribune Eagle. He was manager and part  owner of KFBC Radio in Cheyenne and did assignments for ABC Wide World of Sports. 

Larry was one of the “Jolly Boys.”  He occasionally wrote his column mentioning the escapades of his “brethren!”  My father, Pic Walker, was one, as was my buddy, Joe Davis’ Dad, Red.

“Jokers were always Wild for ‘Jolly Boys’ wrote Birleffi.”  He misspelled my Dad’s name the 67 years I knew him.  Lotsa folks did.  My father’s nick-name was “Pic” but Larry always spelled it “Pick.”

The Birleffi column I’m plagiarizing, is now decades old. It began: “Pick”Walker flew airplanes out of Sky Harbor.  Gus Fleischli was building a budding truck terminal.  Gus’ brother, Bill, was an oil and gas distributor.  Pete Appel was a town dentist.  Red Davis was roofing and fixing air-conditioners.  Bill Wilson was a right hand man over at Powers Builders.

Norm Cable was in the outdoor sign business.  Keith Sevison worked as an engineer for the Highway Department.  Dale Oaks was in construction.  Buddy Faught was our ex-marine ace, a pilot hero, who never showed it.

(Actually, Dale Oakes was a former Marine Corsair pilot like Buddy.  He shot down a Jap Zero while Buddy was losing a leg when the USS Franklin was sunk during WWII.  My father, Pic Walker, taught both Faught and Oaks to fly.  After WWII Dale Oakes flew P-51 “Mustangs” with the Wyoming Air National Guard. 



After my folks built the “ Saratoga Inn” and the Cushing Ranch sold, my Dad  &  his brother bought the Shay Ranch just south of town and the Cedar Creek Ranch west of town.   Pop bought Mom a nice home in town and the cabinets made for the Cushing Ranch fit! School was a short walk across a small pasture from home. Mom and my sisters were rare visitors at the ranch.   However, I would soon have some duties there albeit pining away not to be at the airport. 

THOSE MAGNIFICENT MUSTANGS! I remember an incident when I was eleven or twelve that further inspired me towards aviation.   I remember it visually and in techni-color accompanied with sound.   My gosh,  it was wonderful! I was on an old John Deer tractor “dragging the fields.”  Dragging the fields involved driving the tractor pulling a large metal apparatus weighted down so that small railroad spikes would scuff the turf and scatter the dried cow/horse manure.   It was slow and boring except for one very memorable time.

Back and forth, SLOWLY, back and forth.   Suddenly, my reverie was loudly and wonderfully awakened by three North American P-51 “Mustangs” in close formation not fifty feet above my head.   I will hear the “music” of those three Packard Merlin engines until I have Gone West.   It was magical!  It was magnificently beautiful!

The three Mustangs roared over my head pulling up.   By now the tractor was stopped and I was standing on the seat, waving, screaming, yelling and begging for more.   Not to be disappointed, they came back again and, perhaps a tad lower!   Then a third pass and I was in an ecstasy like nothing I’d come close to before.   In a word, it was WONDERFUL!   It became one of my most cherished moments as a youngster. After the third pass, they gave a wing-waggle and headed east over 10,810′ Kennaday Peak, a bald-topped mountain part of the Medicine Bow Range east of Saratoga.   It took me a while to get back into focus of what, in reality, was a “crappy” job! 

DALE OAKS and C.K. “BUDDY” FAUGHT:   A few hours went by. I was helping my father grease the tractor and fill the gas tank with diesel when an unfamiliar car drove into the ranch yard.  A very familiar individual stepped out to be greeted rudely by my father! Apparently, Dale Oaks was flying lead in that trio of Mustangs that, not long before, buzzed the ranch.   My father really read Dale Oaks the riot-act complaining about his scaring the livestock.  Nooooo!  I thought PLEASE NO!  I certainly didn’t want Pop to discourage something so wonderful!  I bit my lip.  I knew better than to vocalize my thoughts. Dale just looked at my ol’ man.  Silence… Then he pulled out a bottle of Seagrams Seven and handed it to Pop.   Pop looked at the bottle, looked at Dale, then looked at me.   “Hold down the fort son, Dale and I are goin’ fishin’!”  Off to East Lake they went.  Yup!  I remember everything that day.   One of my most indelible childhood memories! A flying pal, Danny Don, has a magnificent Ryan PT-22 and often joins our Stearman formation.  He shared a link to his brother’s cinematography that reminded me of my own emotions seeing P-51s.  Mine pales by what is depicted here:

My father had taught Dale Oaks and Buddy  Faught to fly at Plains Airways during WWII.  They both became Marine “Corsair” pilots.   Dale shot down a Jap Zero the day the carrier USS  Franklin was hit by Kamakazies.  That same day, C.K. “Buddy” Faught lost a leg when the pilot’s ready room #51 was torn apart by a direct hit on the Franklin.  As I recall Buddy was one of just two survivors of RR 51! 

After the war, Dale Oaks flew with the Wyoming Air National Guard.   To my chagrin, he never again buzzed the ranch.  Pappy Boyington autographs Buddy’s wooden leg after wars-end…

Birleffi went on, “I was scrambling between the newspaper and radio emporiums, waiting to be discovered by either Sarnoff, William Randolph Hearst, or both.

Divergent interests, indeed.  What did we all have in common that brought us faithfully together, every Wednesday night for nearly a full decade?

HOW SUCH an amalgamation of characters first convened, I can’t remember.  But certainly the years prove that old friendships should be prized.

We were known as the “JOLLY BOYS.” We stuck together thru sickness and in health, through hard times and good, and through ten years of the 1950’s, through the agony of two pairs, and the ecstasy of a royal flush in the weekly nocturnal sessions of straight stud and draw poker.

Jokers were always wild.  It was the game at its best, even surviving the tides of change, marked by some turbulent years that were to change our life-style with such games as Spit in the Ocean, One-eyed Jacks, Flicka, Thirteen-33, and Low Nebraska.

We played tensely and for big stakes, between Sevison’s latest jokes and trying to solve the ills of the world.

The betting limit was two-bits, two raises and you could play a round light if you ran out of beans.  If anybody lost more than six bucks, he had a bad night.

WE HAD OTHER guests drop by from time to time.  Few ever stuck.  It would be easier to make the starting lineup of the Los Angeles Lakers.  Not that we minded, but the guy didn’t have a chance.  We knew each other at the round table like a book.

When Bill Wilson raised, we knew it was time to fold.  When Pick Walker lit a cigarette,  he had at least three of a kind.  When Red Davis asked, “Whose Bet is it:” you got the message.  He had the joker.  Gus always drew to inside straights.  Wilder the game, the better.  Oakes was Cool-hand Luke.  He should have worn a visor.  If Appel cleared his throat, you knew he had at least a flush.  Faught had no idea when to hold them, or when to fold them, and cared even less.

AND SO IT WENT, season after season.  We took turns hosting the weekly wake.  We eventually all wound up with our own octagonal tables with the green felt and fancy chips.  Pipes were big then, although a stogie was a natural part of the accepted panopaly.  At the end of the first hour, the room looked like downtown L.A. with smog at the dangerous level.  Although it took two days to air out the place, the wives came to accept it.  Well, almost… They got their reward.  Cable raked a quarter from every pot.  It added up.  And every mid summer, all the couples enjoyed a weekend floating the Platte at Saratoga.  The Jolly Boys’ ante money picked up the tab.

When several of the principles left Cheyenne, the Jolly Boys thinned out and hung up their chips.  Cable, our secretary wound up with $66.56 in the kitty.  He opened an account and there the princely sum sat for 30 years!

The local bank, apparently never gave up hope.

Only recently, Cheyenne’s Jolly Boys met in Sun City to play their first poker game since that last one in 1959…” This is where the column stops.  It says it is continued on page 22.  Page 22 likely helped start an outdoor grill or was used to wrap a Platte River Rainbow, but in my stack of “savables” it ain’t!

Right now I wish I had pictures of the rest of those “Jolly Boys.”  I can see them plain as day in my mind’s eye.  But you, Mr or Mrs reader, won’t have that advantage.  You see nearly all of the Jolly Boys are still playing poker every Wednesday night, in Heaven…  They are waiting for Gus, but after 25 missions in the B-17 during WWII he isn’t in a rush to be on that westerly flight we all must take.