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Swingtown 

When I taught my young sons how to play backgammon last year, I added some nontraditional nomenclature to the mix. The two pieces that have the farthest distance to travel around the board are called Homer and Jethro. These bumpkin monikers were just a silly attempt to offer a bit of narrative to the game, to put it in terms 7-year-olds could easily grasp. The dreaded two-one roll we call Swingtown. The origin of this term has a deep back story.

As a teenager, my best friend Pete taught me how to play backgammon. Pete is of Armenian descent, and he had learned the game from his parents, who versed him in the Turkish-Persian names given for each roll of the dice. I've long since forgotten every name but one: iki bir. It literally means one-two but has the added distinction of denoting the single most reliably bad roll you can get. Somehow the iki part seemed perfectly onomatopoetic, and it stuck for a while. But eventually, thanks to our friend Silby, Swingtown took over and became permanent.

The name came from a song by the Steve Miller Band. Like several others from Miller's mid-'70s heyday, it was a monster hit. Jaunty, ridiculously catchy and quite cloying, it depicted a mythical place where listeners could lay down the burdens of the workweek and find a chance to dance and make romance. In retrospect, though we never asked, Silby must have chosen the name because he thought the song, and its simplistic advocacy of the power of dancing and romancing, was a total crock.

He was a year behind Pete and me, but we had become friends while the three of us sat on the bench during varsity soccer practice, where we bonded over our mutual antipathy for the coach and our less-than-sunny attitudes toward school in general.

Silby's parents were kind, tolerant and far more lenient than mine or Pete's. As a result, his house became the go-to site for many a weekend backgammon session. These nights always included listening to Dead tapes and drinking and smoking relatively unhindered.

Silby was extremely bright, deeply cynical and chronically troubled. Despite his articulateness and super-high IQ, he never went to college, struggled to keep a job and contended with epic drug problems. Eventually he moved to the Midwest to clean up. He ended up settling out there, got married, had two daughters and continued to struggle with depression and drugs.

Inevitably, we lost touch. It wasn't until last year that social media enabled me to contact his sister to find out what had become of him. We spoke on the phone, because she didn't want to tell me via email that he had died of an overdose a few years previous. She wasn't sure, but she suspected the OD was no accident. The pain he had struggled to keep at bay for so long finally became too much.

People like to think that the dead live on in our hearts and our thoughts, and they do. My boys will never know exactly what Swingtown means—it sounds right, and they say it just like Silby, with a drawn-out emphasis on the first syllable, like an emcee. I think of him whenever two-one comes up. I remember his sardonic sense of humor, his deadpan delivery, and I ponder the faulty chemistry—just a bad roll of the dice, really—that keeps some of us from seeing the beauty of the world around us.

  • When I taught my young sons how to play backgammon last year, I added some nontraditional nomenclature to the mix.

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