On the morning we spoke a while back, Mel Ashley, 83, had just returned from a 1,600-mile haul to Oregon to play cribbage tournaments back-to-back-to-back.
He got in at 5am. After playing 11 days straight.
The Marina resident says he was exhausted, but the crackle in his laugh told me he wasn’t napping anytime soon. After we talked, he buzzed an old cribbage pal and talked for another hour.
This is what he does – when he’s not swimming at the city pool, or hanging with his sweetheart, or watching sports, or studying stamps. He’s canvassing Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, California and Monterey County and beyond.
He loves cribbage for what he calls its “mano a mano” competition, and the complexities that unfold from that simplicity.
“This particular card game never gets boring,” he says. “There are over a million combinations you can make with the cards. You are constantly having to make decisions – and, just like in real life, you don’t always make the right one.”
More generally, this is what he has done over his years: Play out a hand that’s proven fascinating and full of combinations, albeit with less of a clear goal than finishing in the money, as he did in half his Oregon tournaments, and does with the regularity befitting a master player.
“I never had a plan, like many do, where they know what they wanted to do that made them happy,” he says. “I had to keep exploring and finding it.”
After serving in the Marine Corps in Korea and Japan, Ashley explored his way through San Francisco State’s business school, growing alienated by the politics. He found what made him happy at Fred Astaire Dance Studios. One day his teacher invited him to a 10-week instructor training.
He acknowledged his left feet. She replied, “I didn’t say you had to become a teacher. Look at all the free lessons you get.”
He ultimately became a ballroom dance instructor, and more courageous around women.
“Dancing helped me grow tremendously,” he says. “I was still bashful, but I knew if I had to stand that close to a female, I’d have to learn how to talk to her.”
The real thing he learned wasn’t seduction, but the pleasure of teaching. He obtained a degree in education and then a master’s in administration at San Jose State. But being a principal at Santa Rita Elementary in North Salinas and a superintendent at tiny San Ardo in South County swept him away from education and back toward the politics he despised.
“I really enjoyed working with the kids,” he says. “But the adults are for the birds. I should’ve stayed in the classroom.”
He left the career and asked his then-wife, a nurse, what she’d like to do as they reinvented themselves. She knew: turn their dream Salinas house into… a nursing home. They did, she ran it, and he fell into a new find: high-caliber stamp collecting.
Now, having to give up basketball in his 60s, golf in his 70s and even ballroom dancing in his early 80s, the one-time bowling alley pin boy is devouring another pastime like a pro, having spent seven years directing the Monterey County Cribbage Club (aka The Monterey Marauders) and remaining an enthusiastic member, running two special double-length tournaments annually.
He has piled up as much as $25,000 in a year from the tournaments, though that doesn’t cover expenses. Still, you get the sense the guy who’s traveled everywhere from Russia to Jerusalem – and taught in Germany for a year – is in it as much for the open-ended experiences as the cash.
A fellow cribbage club member, retired teacher Christy Lens of Carmel, picks up on that.
“He loves going to new places,” she says. “He loves the backroads. He’s adventuresome, always up for something new.”
Within those twists she echoes what has informed Ashley’s approach, both in life and on the cribbage board.
“When we make a wrong turn, he finds something good about it,” she says, “Some people get really irritated. That’s not Mel.”
It’s as if he’s reminding us we can’t always know how the hand will end, but we can know there will be both great and iffy turns to come, and – if we welcome them both – we can better enjoy the game.