Yep, that’s Dad.
Going to take a break from player reviews today for some more Friday goofiness. With Father’s Day this weekend, I thought I’d provide my father George a gift by sharing his writing with those of you who are interested. Though he was about as self-deprecating as a person as there could be, Dad was never shy about boasting about his writing. And neither am I.
I know a lot of you come here for the analysis or the music/Simpsons references or the creative swearing (and we’re proud of that), but some do come for the style and writing we use (which we still find strange but to each his or her own). My father George was the back-page columnist for Billiards Digest for over 30 years, and even though I’m obviously a little biased I think I can still safely say he was one of the best sportswriters I have ever read. You don’t have to know anything about pool or billiards to enjoy it, which I think is about the highest compliment you can pay. My brother (writer for CubsDen on ChicagoNow.com if you didn’t know) and I constantly reach for this standard, knowing full well we’ll never come into the same zip code as Dad.
The Digest has catalogued the last few years of his columns as well as his best work from his entire career, and you can get to that right here. However, there is one column that’s always been one of my favorites that isn’t on there, so I’m going to share it with you below.
Billiards With Peas
My mother was to cooking what Roseanne Barr was to the national anthem. Either my grandmother didn’t teach her (my mother, not Roseanne) properly, or she was just plain inept, but virtually every offering emanating from her sensuous kitchen tasted like bedroom slippers. She was a small woman who didn’t need to eat much, which was just as well. The proof of the pudding (one of the relative few dishes she couldn’t ruin), was that the other two recipients of her culinary acumen, my father and I, both looked like survivors of Auschwitz. Complimenting her cooking prowess, my mother understood nothing of the cue games (except, of course, that anyone even remotely associated with them was a bum). Once I discovered pool at age 15, there was hardly anything else I wanted to talk about, nor hardly anything about which she cared less.
My father, on the other hand, had spend a respectable portion of his youth in poolrooms, and was even a decent recreational player. So, to a limited degree, he was a much better audience for my pool maunderings. But, as a well-educated man (he held a Masters from Northwestern in Journalism), he was far more eager to talk about school, and the college that lay ahead for me. Largely because of his eagerness, I was not eager in the least to discuss that. And so my father indulged in his infuriating habit of raving about the accomplishments of the sons of strangers. He knew none of the sons; much worse, he barely knew, and sometimes even disliked, their fathers. Yet on and on he babbled, about valedictorians and salutatorians and pre-laws and pre-meds. The dinner at parents’ table could be, and frequently was, about as much fun as the aforementioned Auschwitz.
I was almost certainly not the first pool freak to begin forming the loop bridge around my silverware (or pens, brooms, baseball bats, umbrellas, etc., for that matter). It drove both my parents to distraction, which only reinforced the quirk; later I would graduate to more sophisticated tactics such as polishing the brass joint of my Rambow cue (using nothing less than the un-aromatic Brasso, of course) and my true piece de resistance, spit-shining my cue case. But for now it was just spoon, knife, and fork enclosed in a most correct orthodox tripod bridge.
One night my mother served calves’ liver or lamb chops (in her hands, the two were indistinguishable). The tasteless entree was nicely accessorized with equally flavorless mashed potatoes and green peas. My father began to prattle on about the son of a man we might as well call “Schmendrick” — as my father hardly knew him, why should we know him any better? — and my bridge began to form.
I really don’t know where this next inspiration came from. My friends and I must’ve played pool 10 times for every time we played billiards; none of us was blazing away at much better than a 0.2, not that we had any knowledge of that noble statistic then. On the rare occasion we did score, we would share the triumph, singing out, “BILL-yurd!” in the manner of Mr. Ed calling out to his beloved pal Wilbur. And as Laury Fels relentlessly pressured me to guess where Junior Schmendrick was going to college, I sorted out three peas — one cue-pea and two object-peas — for billiards.
“I don’t know him,” I groaned one last time, staring at my plate. “I can’t imagine caring less about where he goes to school. “
“I know you don’t, but guess anyway.”
I turned my attention to aiming my shot. “I don’t know, Slippery Rock State?”
My father rarely got worked up; when countered, his reaction was far more often of the deadpan, Jack Benny variety. He shot me one of those, and intoned softly, as though in prayer, “Princeton.”
“Well good for him,” I generously allowed. “But can he do this?” And, taking care to not mis-fork, I stroked my cue pea cleanly off both object-peas. “BILL-yurd!”
My father turned his Jack Benny impression toward my mother. Meanwhile, my two object-peas had bounced off the plate’s inner rim, and returned very close to one another.
“Position!” I bellowed. “The dreaded pea-nurse! There’s no tellin’ how many I’ll run from here!” I also began to giggle, which didn’t help matters.
“Schmendrick gets Princeton,” my father pointed out to his non-cook of a wife, “I get this. Billiards with peas.”
“BILL-yurd! That’s three! HEEEEHEEEHEEEE!”
“Who, Laury? Who’s Bill Yurd? Who’s a nurse? Is Bill Yurd a nurse?” said she.
“No,” I clarified, as the giggles grew higher in pitch, “just the opposite. A nurse is a bill-yurd… and a very refined one, into the bargain. BILL-yurd! Four! WHOO!”
“Don’t play with your food,” my mother said, not seeming to understand that it wasn’t much good for anything else. “Who’s a nurse, Laury?”
At this point, I believe that my father understood that he was, to borrow again from pool, in a trap. To one side was the woman he’d chosen to share his life, who served him glorified beef jerky nightly; I do not doubt that he loved her, but I would suggest that feat alone merited Nobel Peace Prize consideration. To the other side was his only son, summa cum laude when it came to under-accomplishment, dawdling somewhere slightly above middle of his high school class, forever unable to compete with the godlike scions of his peers. When it came to pure IQ–a psychological albatross if there ever was one–I just might have had them all dead to rights; I think my father and it galled him all his days. But all those accomplished sons had their priorities, and I had mine.
It was not until my early 30s that I finally told my father to shut his yap once and for all about the sons of strangers. While the details of that occasion are not important, I clearly remember that his reaction was not contentious in the least, but rather one that seemed much more like, “What took you so long?” And I flashed back to that night when he attempted to lavish praise on some fearless young man bound for Princeton–as the mooncalf that had sprung from his very own seed sat inches away, whooping like a loon, scoring billiards with peas.
-George Fels, August 2005 in Biliards Digest.
Yep, that’s how I got this way.