Roads diverging at the pool hall

TV Hagenah

Today’s column is a true one (or at least as true as anything dealing with memory can be). When I am asked to speak at graduations or affairs honoring fathers, I often pull this story out and share it with my audience.

In fact, it happened in late July more years ago than I would care to admit. A few words first about my father – He was a quiet man, a civil servant, and as with many quiet men, he usually preferred to make his point rather than telling it.
As I neared graduation from high school, I started playing pool for money at my hometown’s only pool hall and was doing quite well (this was before people had pool tables in their homes. At least in the rural areas one had to go to a pool hall to play a game. Pool was definitely not considered a game for gentlemen).

I actually was skinning a number of suckers with my stick and those little colored balls. I was making enough money that I was seriously contemplating not going to college as my parents wanted and just staying in Hadley’s Pool Hall and hustling pool. One day, while my family sat around the breakfast nook of our home, my father brought up the fact that I must be pretty good at pool if I were considering not going to college.

I, not so humbly, said I was pretty darn good.
In response, he said he would consider it an honor if I would teach him the game when I had some free time. I tried to think of some way to get out of this because the last thing in the world I wanted was this old guy embarrassing me by miscuing, scratching and probably breaking cues because of his stupidity regarding the game.

Then he said the magic words. “I’d be willing to pay you or something because I know you’d be making money if you were playing normally.”

I said it wouldn’t be fair if I let him pay me. It went back and forth like this (I must admit rather halfheartedly on my part). Then one of us suggested we bet on a game of straight pool to 250 at $2 a ball so as I beat him, he could be learning and I could be making money.

For those unfamiliar with straight pool, it is also called “call shot. It is very basic. You call every shot you are planning to make. Each ball counts 1. When you get down to a single ball on the table, the 14 other ones are racked again and you continue to shoot until you miss or reach (in this case) an agreed-on score of 250 balls sunk.

We went down to the pool hall to play and because of his ignorance of the game, I broke. That was the last time my cue touched the cue ball for 15 minutes. It was clear very quickly that I was being hustled. Those balls were dancing around the table like Fred Astair on speed. My father wasn’t playing one or two shots ahead as I did when I was shooting. He was seven, eight or nine shots ahead each time he lined up a shot.

He was incredible. He ran two racks before I even got a shot. The old timers sitting along the wall of the pool hall were dying laughing as my jaw fell further and further open.
I knew for a fact that he had not played the game in over a decade that’s not something you can keep secret in a small town, but here he was running 25, 30 balls at a time. When he played seriously, he must have been fantastic. When he sank the 250th ball, I pulled the cash out of my pocket and paid him right around $400.

As he drove home and I sat beside him in his Plymouth, he asked, “So what are you doing this fall?”

I didn’t pause a second, “I thought I’d go to college at Southern. Ya think that’s a good idea?”

“Yep, it just might be.”

We never talked about it again, and I never played pool for money again.