‘. . . the hours that I spend with a cue in my hand are golden . . .’


I learned to shoot pool as a kid in the attic of our house. (When we talked about it in more formal terms, it was the “third floor”. But among ourselves it was the attic.)

The attic/third floor matches the entire perimeter of the house, with a pretty low ceiling, about 7 feet or so in height. That was fine for us, since brother Bill was the tallest of the seven of us (five kids plus mom and dad) at about 5’10”.

It was a great place to play when we were young, and continued so as we reached our teens because Dad bought a used pool table and had it hauled up there in its separate components, where it was reassembled. The three slates that composed the playing surface below the felt were extremely heavy, as were the huge double leg supports that held up the slates and pockets. It took a crew of three or four men to tug it up the narrow stairway to the attic, and there’s a right-angle turn halfway up as well. I learned several new words from the crew as they strained up the stairs with it.

It was a full-sized, ancient table.

The green felt was in good shape, but the webbed pockets were torn in several spots, so on occasion a successful shot ended with the ball dropping through onto the wood floor, with a satisfying “bang” to put an exclamation point to the shot. The cushions had lost some of their resiliency, but the caroms by the pool balls off them were true. The balls themselves had no chips or cracks, so a good shot was rewarded by a true roll as well. The cue tips were fairly sound, and we kept an adequate supply of cue chalk on hand, so the games were reasonably authentic.

Except for the level of the table. For some reason, either a warped floor or a worn leg or something, the surface sloped slightly to the southwest corner. We in the family soon learned that idiosyncrasy, and the better players among us automatically made allowance for it.

Our friends who played the game were at a decided disadvantage, even after they learned about the slant, because they didn’t play on the table as often and consistently as we did. But since we didn’t play for money (never actually thought of that), bragging rights were the only benefit.

Because we had a pool table at home, I missed out on the forbidden excitement as a kid of the Kendall pool hall, where L.B. and Sandy provided recreation for many townsfolk on the south side of the square. Some of my friends occasionally talked nonchalantly about whiling away some time in the pool hall. I never entered its door, a missed opportunity I have regretted from time to time since my high school years. I assumed that the guys who shot pool there were way out of my league, and that I would have been laughed out of the place if I ever attempted to play there anyway, which could very well have been true.

We kids got so we could play on even terms with dad, so the attic pool table provided lots of family entertainment, similar to that afforded by the ping pong table in the basement, where the ceiling was even lower. Over time, the ceiling in the attic near the pool table developed powder blue pockmarks the size of cue tips, as we picked up the nasty habit of jabbing our cues into the plaster ceiling when we missed an easy shot.

When mom and dad sold the house in the early 1970s, dad gave the pool table to, oddly enough, the Baptist Church, where it resided in the church basement for several years. When Kathy and I bought the house in 1980 and moved in, I came to regret my youthful cue-jabbing practice when we had to redo the third-floor ceiling.

In later life I was glad I had learned to shoot pool as a kid. Dad had also taught us to play golf when we were young, and it was reassuring to be able to play a decent game of pool or golf when the social situation called for it, especially when I found myself in a recreation parlor or on a golf course with acquaintances new and old after I grew up. I’ve never ripped a felt with a cue, and I even believe that playing pool as a kid helped me better to understand plane geometry when I got to that math course in high school.

I’ve played for money only about half a dozen times, always for small stakes and usually with unhappy results. The most memorable of those occasions took place in the late 1970s in Harlan. I was on the state central committee of my political party back then, and was overnight in Harlan prior to our district convention there the next day. A couple of staffers and I wandered to the downtown pool hall after dinner to pass some time. We had shot a few games when a boy about 13 years old, who had been sitting over in the corner, asked if we would let him play. We said “of course,” and I stepped up to humor him, figuring I could teach him how to hold the cue, where to strike the cue ball, etc.

“How much are we playing for?” he asked.

“I don’t think we’re going to play for money,” I said. “That wouldn’t be fair to you.”

“It’s OK, I’ve played a little bit,” he responded.

I decided he needed to learn that playing games for money was unwise, so I said, “How about a dollar a game?” I figured that would scare him away.

But no. He turned around and called, “Bring it.” A younger boy, probably his brother, walked up carrying the young shark’s pool cue case. He opened it, expertly screwed the two sections together, and said, “You break.” With that I got the first shot, but not the last. He proceeded to make his first five shots in our game of eight-ball, and after I missed on my succeeding shot, he sank the remaining two of his balls and then the eight-ball, and held out his hand for the dollar. It was clear he had watched our group play, and knew he had a patsy no matter which of us agreed to play him.

As they say, no good deed goes unpunished.

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Jefferson, IA 50129

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