Lessons on the field of green felt
The men of my family spoke the language of cars and pool. Ask them about a complex emotional or spiritual matter and they would freeze up, stare at you with cautious eyes and wait for your “trap” to fall. Now talk to them about the .60 over bored pistons and double wound cam that I wanted to install in my 1964 Corvair Spyder? Well we could discuss that all night.
We spoke two common tongues, my family and I, that of engines and of pool. Some of my best memories are of my father, guiding me on a lazy Sunday afternoon, thru some complex part of an engine rebuild. We all raced back then a trio of restored Corvairs. Each one sight to behold, from my father’s tricked out turbo to my own, heavily modified “touring” car, speed and power were the goals and we would talk at great length about the complexities of power vs. speed. Was it better to burn rubber at the light, vs. the value of pulling up from behind, to loose your competitor in the curves as they underestimate the skill of the man behind the wheel? If it had an accelerator pedal, we made love to the idea of what it could become.
Pool? We played pool for hours. It was the only thing we all could do with out wanting to kill or get so drunk that we did not have to deal with the other. Soon as my brother nd I were old enough to hold sticks, we were ushered into that dim, smoky world at every chance. My grandfather learned while working in a CCC camp during the depression, he taught my father and he taught my brother and I.
The green of a pool table, its smoky half light in the back of some unknown bar, will always stand out when I think if them. These men were my heroes, my mentors, my definition of what it meant to be a “man”. My granddad would saunter across the table from me, stetting his Olympia tall boy down just long enough to line up a shot. Fingers, stained yellow for years of nicotine would splay across the green of the table as he guided the queue between two broken and malformed knuckles, the result of keeping the engines of industry running.
Like his father, my father taught me. “Just 25 cents a lesson, son” he would joke as he schooled my arrogant young ass at the find art of pool. My gramps would say, “Show me a man who is good at pool, and I’ll show you a boy with a wasted childhood”. Needless to say, both my father and grandfather were astounding at playing the game. The kind of grace you would expect from a top surgeon or concert cellist, they would display on the felt. Fingers, nimble and splayed, eyes fixed on the ball, hands smooth and effortless in their execution.
This was where they taught me grace, just because you can hit that cue ball hard it does not mean you must. Rather, as I leaned over the table, tongue clasped in my teeth and I concentrated on the invisible lines of geometry that imagined across the table, each one predicting a different arc of my shot, was when they did it. My father did it first, placing a hand on my cocked elbow and holding it firm,
“Just cuz you can it that ball hard, don’t. Use some finesse. If you can’t sink it this round, ease it up nice and close so you can do it later… and confound your opponent.”
From them I learned the art of the “kiss”, to not strike too hard or rely in too many complex angles or bank shots. But rather to ease the ball, dare I say seduce it into falling into place, just millimeters from the edge of the pocket. There it would sit, waiting for me, and turning my opponent’s next shot into a profanity filled mish mash of bumpers and too much “English”
I’ve not played with my father in years, nor my brother, not since that dark day when the fates took him from this world. No, today those who love me put up with me as I saunter around the table, pint in hand, and do not roll their eyes at me when I push my glasses down my nose and prostrate myself upon the table. Hands splayed wide like my grandfathers, save this time the fingers are stained blue from rope dyes, but the knuckles are no less deformed, as I take aim and quip to my opponent, “show me a man who is good at pool…