“Well, ya got trouble, my friend, right here,
I say, trouble right here in River City.
Why sure I’m a billiard player,
Certainly mighty proud I say
I’m always mighty proud to say it.
I consider that the hours I spend
With a cue in my hand are golden.
Help you cultivate horse sense
And a cool head and a keen eye….
…And all week long your River City
Youth’ll be frittern away,
I say your young men’ll be frittern!
Frittern away their noontime, suppertime, choretime too!
Get the ball in the pocket,
Never mind gittin’ Dandelions pulled.”
“Ya Got Trouble” – The Music Man
Do you know how to play pool?
If so, you remember who first taught you to play?
Who first put that lovely wooden cue in your hand and showed you how to line up that chalk-scuffed white cue ball with the best-looking shot?
I don’t remember who taught me, and yet someone somewhere must’ve taken the time. Back in the day, pool halls were dangerous places for a teenaged girl, filled with rough, unscrupulous men, loose women, cigarette-smoking, swearing, and all-in-all a heap of bad influences, so I’m not sure who gave me the pointers, but whoever it was who was disregarding the danger zone, I’m glad for.
I lived with my dad for a year when I was 15, after my folks split, and of course, found the sights, smells, and sounds of the pool hall the most satisfying. And the characters too, of course (must’ve been what drew me to wanting to be a writer). Dad was working, so I was left to my own devices, and it was the eighties. What can I say? We had a slippery kind of freedom back then. I loved the cigarette smoke that stunk up the entire room and that snuck deceitfully into the fibers of our clothes. I loved that it made a cool filmy grey haze under the florescent light, and that it shifted and hovered and moved over the green felt like a ghost.
And I loved the sounds – the cracks as the cue balls would strike their marks, the clunks as the balls would fall into the pockets, and the cussings – the fecks, dammits, the Jesus H. Christs, and worse. I’d sure have spent more time in that glorious place if my little teenaged pocket change would have allowed.
As an adult, I still love the game: the math behind it – not that I’m any good at math – and knowing that that fickle mistress Luck will poke her nose into it every so often, screwing everything up – or cinching the deal, depending on her mood. Because sometimes, even if you have all the angles down right, and the speed of the hit just perfect, she will mess the whole shot up for you and you’ll end up with either the cue ball or your opponent’s ball in the pocket. (Frickin’ frackin’ Jesus Murphy! Shhh, don’t let the kids hear you cussin’!) Unfortunately, I don’t play much anymore – our own slate table that we got for a real deal got dismantled to make room for pink plastic doll houses and bins of Hot Wheels cars; and, I suppose, it’s not seemly for a happily married woman of my age to be hanging out in pool halls challenging patrons to pool games?
When they were young, my son and daughter had the good fortune to have my stepdad and mom watch them while hubby and I worked, so Papa taught them both to play (incidentally, and ironically, he played Harold Hill in a local production of the Music Man – for those of you familiar with the musical); over the Christmas holiday, I was able to fritter away some of the afternoons playing pool with them in the RV park’s clubhouse billiards room. By the way, did you know that playing pool with a 12 year-old boy is a bit like knitting with a kitten around – there’s a lot of dancing around with the needles (i.e., the cue) and much excited chasing of little coloured balls?
Anyway, one of the days when my boy & I were fritterin’ – because it was one of those strangely rare lazy days – a senior gentleman pushed open the heavy metal door to the pool room, practically falling into the room. His dramatic entrance made me think initially that he was drunk, but after talking to him further, we found out that this wasn’t the case (even though it turned out that he was from PEI , and I’ve known enough islanders to know they like their “beverages”, no matter the time of day). He’d just been caught off balance.
He propped himself up on a leather stool and watched us play our game while he chatted about his life, his kids, and his retirement years. Steve had on a navy blue ball cap that had gold letters – Korean War Vet – and pins. Turns out, as a young lad, he left the red sands of the island to come make his way in the US of A. While filling out his citizenship application, he checked the box about the draft, and a year and a half later, found himself in Korea fighting a war that wasn’t necessarily his. He made it out after two years and saw seven buddies die during the war. Numbers matter. In billiards, and in war. He made it out without a scratch on him, he said.
He was lucky, he said.
He gave us some pointers while he sat there, apologized because he thought he was boring my lad, told Q to be patient while taking his shot, and then, after declining our offer of a game, meandered away. I am certain now, that if there is anyone who knows about patience and luck, it’s a veteran.
You know, in retrospect, if you could have put that time, conversation, and pool lesson into a box, wrapped it in red & green paper, and put a small bow on it, it would’ve been a priceless gift for my son – if he could have known how to appreciate it. But maybe we don’t know these things until we’re older. So, to Mr.Steve L, originally from Georgetown, PEI, thank you for your gift – your. time, your stories, and your pool tips. Safe travels to you.
The next day, the kids, my husband and I walked into the pool room again, rather hoping to find Steve, and instead found a group of men playing on two of the three tables – characters of another kind.
It was the RV Park’s one o’clock pool tournament.
Table one, a young man in his twenties taking on a very inebriated man in his thirties. Truth be told, the scruffy drunk fella cleaned the table up twice, so it was more like the inebriated man taking on the twenty-something. Drunk guy was weaving and slurring, but seemed to be a remarkable player despite this. Made me wonder if he’d be better or worse when he was sober.
Table two was two men again, one in his seventies or eighties, and the other in his late thirties, with a limp, a fedora, and a big Superman “S” tattoo on his calf. Superman was fast on the quips and comebacks (“Yeah, I’m good, but I’d rather be lucky. You get more money when you’re lucky.”) and if I had a better memory, I would’ve written them down for you, but you already know about the faulty wiring in my memory.
We tried our best to lay low and not disrupt the “tournament” (while I simultaneously tried to eavesdrop on the middle table’s conversation) and we racked the balls up on the remaining table. Q and I teamed up against Dad ‘n Sister and played a quick game – until dad ‘n sister got bored and left me with Big Britches (“Take the 2 ball shot, mom.” “No, you want to hit it at this angle.” “Too hard mom.” “Not hard enough, mom.”).
Drunk guy had gone out for a smoke in the meantime (yeah, no, I don’t love that smell anymore. Gag gag gag blech), and the senior had taken off for a nap, leaving the kid with the wise-ass. Seems the comedian had an artificial leg and he said something about the twenty-something’s plastic hand (this maybe explained the drunk fella’s success on Table One) and I wondered perhaps if these men weren’t vets of another generation, another war – Afghanistan or Iraq? At any rate, I’ll never know – our game ended and we took off for other pursuits – but I do wonder if some people aren’t just born luckier than others. If you can call losing an arm, a leg, seven buddies, luck. We have a friend that’ll win lottos, and fifty-fifty draws, and Keno games, over and over and over again. He’s got horseshoes hangin’ somewhere, but he was just in a car accident – flipped a hot rod – that we all thought was going to leave him paralyzed. Nope.
He was lucky.
Suffice it to say, I’m glad my kids know how to play pool. I’m not yet sure if they’re lucky or not. They’re definitely fortunate. But being able to play pool means they’ll develop “a cool head and a keen eye,” and will definitely meet some interesting people around the table – if they listen and ask questions. Who cares who’s fritterin’?
And being able to play pool also means learning that if you plot your angle and speed just right, life does sometimes work out according to plan.
It also means learning that sometimes the best, most calculated plans don’t matter, you’ve just gotta be lucky.
So, rack ’em up?
The dandelions can wait.