Early in the Seventies an old pool hustler we call "Blue Shirt" was watching as Weenie Beannie balanced a silver dollar on edge between two pieces of pool chalk at the head of a nine foot table here in Lynchburg, Virginia. Beannie was trying to sucker a "road agent" from Chicago into a wager, since they hadn't been able to get together all night. The bet was that Beannie would shoot the silver dollar seven feet down the tale and seven feet back up the table making it pass between the two pieces of chalk in ten shots. "Blue Shirt" watched Beannie "dog-it" a couple times then he turned and walked wearily toward the front of the building dragging his cue case behind him. As he followed his stomach out the front door I heard him mutter.."dis game gets tougher all the time."
What "Blue Shirt" meant was..it gets harder and harder to make a game these days. But what he said is true...our game is tough! It's the most challenging individual sport devised by man. I once asked an old friend and pool warrior of many years if he could think of any other individual sport where one can put up his reputation, his championship, or his money and lose without getting a chance to compete. He thought for a while but didn't come up with an answer until weeks later. "Marbles" was his answer.
Right, a guy can run out on you playing marbles but there is a lot of difference in the skill and complexity of the two games, also, there is no offense or defense in the game. Marbles, however, reminded me of my youth and the first time I was scolded for gambling. Between the ages of nine and thirteen I lived in a little whistle stop village in Virginia between Lynchburg and Roanoke called Lowry. It had a population about that of Hooterville, with a combination drug store-post office, country store that pumped gas, one room school house, sawmill, and train station...that was it. We raised pigs, chickens, ducks, milked cows and raised a large garden. If we ate it we raised it, otherwise, the only things we had to buy were staples like sugar, flour, kerosene, matches, and those types of things. My family, like nearly all the other families in the village charged everything and paid up the end of each month.
For recreation we made go-carts, pushed homemade coat hanger drive wheelies or car tires, dammed up the creek in the cow pasture to swim in, made kites and set them on fire by sending torches up the line when the wind was strong enough, blew potted meat cans in the air with firecrackers and, of course we would sleigh ride when snow was on the ground. I did something there that I would bet no one has done before or since. Using two old seventy-eight phonograph records, a pencil, and some fishing line, I made a huge Yo-yo and yo-yoed off the high railroad bridge there. I remember tying a stick on the other end of the string to hold to because I was afraid it would jerk my finger off. I had to pull it pretty hard at the bottom but those old thick heavy discs would wind back up.
My hustle was marbles. We played on the school ground before school opened, during lunch recess, and after school closed. On Saturdays we drew big circles near the gravity fed gas pumps in front of Coffey's store, stopping only when we were called to do our chores. I had about three favorite "toys" and one, of course, was a "steely". Some guys wouldn't let you break with a "steely" or change "toys" in the middle of the game. Hunching across the line was also a no-no.
At one time I had a gallon bucket and a sand bucket full of marbles. Each summer I went to visit my aunt and grandmother in Lynchburg. This particular summer I took my marbles with me and found a guy right across the street whom I challenged to play marbles "for keeps". In less than a week he had all the marbles. Before my vacation was over my aunt and grandmother missed the two buckets of marbles and the truth came out. I got my first lecture on gambling. I remember that depressed sinking feeling in my stomach, not because of the lecture, but from losing all my marbles. I wonder where they thought all those marbles came from in the first place?
It was in the small village in the country store that I first laid eyes on the "green felt". The store was run by "Old Man Coffey", or so we called him. You know how it was when you were ten or twelve, anybody over forty was ready for the grave. Mr. Coffey was a slim built gentleman who wasn't any older than my dad. He wore wire rimmed glasses and talked out of the side of his mouth because he always had a "chew" in the other side. He had a young wife and a good looking daughter named Delabell. I had a childhood crush on Delabell, but she was way ahead of me in school, three years to be exact.
There was only one teacher for all 7 grades in that one room school house. When I entered there, I was the only third grad student so they promoted me that same day to the fourth grade. Delabell was in the sixth.
The store was a busy place in the daytime because most of the people that lived in Lowry had to walk to the store, post office, etc. But at night it was a gathering place for a few old timers who liked to talk about the weather, farming, and a few weird things that happened there during the five years we lived there. Much of which I didn't understand at the time. Since I was the oldest boy in the family my Dad took me with him to the store. I was usually treated to a bag of red skins or a Grapette or Truade drink by Dad or Mr. Coffey. Whatever happened to those drinks anyway?
There was a pool table right in the middle of that shore. It was positioned between four square wooden beams that held up the floor above, where the Coffeys lived. Four brass cuspidors were positioned at the base of each beam, and at a safe distance from the breaking end of the table was a wood stove that glowed red hot at times in the winter. I wasn't allowed to pick up a cue but every now and then he let me roll the balls around, bounce them off the rail, or into a pocket with my hand. If a car drove up I was to scurry away from the table beside my dad. Gosh that table looked big...I have often wondered if it could have been a 5 x 10.
Every now and then a doctor, the guy off the Coca Cola truck or even a stranger would play Mr. Coffey a game of pool. Sometimes they would go for one of his "situations" (as he called them) on the pool table.
The first proposition I can remember him doing made everyone in the store laugh except me and the guy he did it to. I thought he was cheating. It was the one where, he froze two balls on the middle of the foot rail and balanced a third ball on top of the against the two balls. Then he said that he could shoot the cue ball down the table and hit the top ball before touching the other two. So he shot the cue ball slowly towards the ball on top, bumps the table with his hip, making the two balls spread apart and the middle ball fall down to meet the cue ball. This was in 1935.
Since that time I have leaned to respect those old propositions, what they taught me, and what they mean to pool. If you bet a guy he can't make a shot on the pool table and he shoots the cue ball out the window around the building, and it comes in the back door and makes the shot... you pay off! Unless, of course, you had the foresight to stipulate that the cue ball could not leave the table or go outside the building.
I once saw a guy bet Beannie he could make a spot shot from behind the line without touching a rail with the cue ball. What he did was shoot the shot real easy, then run down and pick up the cue ball before it hit the rail. Beannie paid off saying, "You need my money worse than I do," or something to that effect. Another time a guy we called "Crazy Cassey" bet a friend of mine he could make the cue ball go from the center of the table into the side pocket without hitting it with his cue stick or touching it with any part of his anatomy. Naturally I thought he was going to blow it in. So we ruled out blowing on the ball. When the bet went down he put both hands flat on the table, extended his fingers toward the cue ball and by putting extreme pressure on the felt and pushing hard with his fingertips he rolled the loose cloth up behind the cue ball, forcing it into the side pocket. So, you think you might have foreseen the gaff there... how about this one, a guy wanted to bet me that he could shoot the cue ball out of the corner pocket without hitting a rail or using masse, but I had seen that one.
The phony propositions go on and on but there are some propositions that are on the square. Mr. Coffey had one that has stuck in my memory all these years. Under the cash register he kept a long nail with a large head on it. He would stand it on end between three frozen balls at the foot spot, and challenge that no one in the store could knock the nail down with the cue ball behind the head string. A guy off the soft drink truck would come in regularly once a week and take a shot at this proposition. I finally got to pulling for the soft drink boy. This was a legitimate proposition so it didn't make me feel bad when he pulled it. Later in life when I took physics it hit me as to how and why at worked.
I made a pilgrimage back to Lowry in 1985, knowing beforehand that Mr. Coffey had passed away. As I approached the old railroad bridge, our house still stood in good condition on the left. Crossing the bridge I could see down the hill to Coffey's Store, but was saddened when I looked to the right to see the train station demolished and only one set of tracks instead of the long double set that used to glisten in the sunset. Mrs. Coffey, Delabell and her husband, still run the store. The pool table had been sold to a Doctor who just happened to pass through, and it was an old 4-1/2 x 9 Brunswick.
Late in the thirties my parents, three brothers and three sisters migrated from Lowry, Virginia to a farm exactly two miles East of Bedford on what was then Rt. 297 and called the Lynchburg-Salem Turnpike. This road was four-lane in the fifties and changed to Rt. 460 East & West. Although there were two pool rooms in Bedford I wasn't to lay eyes on the "green felt" again until the early forties.
I went through the fifth, sixth and seventh grades in Bedford at Liberty Academy. Then I finally entered the city High School in nineteen thirty-nine and met a unique group of people who changed my whole life. Although I was a country boy they accepted me into their little "clique" and started inviting me to their parties and dances. I later surmised that the real reason they accepted me was to fill a gap, since there were more girls than there were boys in this tight knit group. Anyway, my taste in music took an abrupt change from the "Wabash Cannon Ball", "Casey Jones", and the "Wreck of Old Ninety-Seven" to "Chattanooga Choo Choo", "Tuxedo Junction" and "Pennsylvania Six Five Thousand". All of these families had collection of swing & jazz records. The girls taught me to dance, (a little) and the buys tutored me on big band swing and jazz.
The most memorable times of my life were spent in Bedford. Bo Scot's father was the Executive Director of the Elks National Home there in Bedford, where they lived in the Penthouse apartment with a balcony overlooking the golf course. Each Christmas they threw a formal dance there. It was a great place for a dance because of the balcony and the music was all Miller, Dorsey, Shaw, Goodman & Kenton, no rickey-tick. I remember Bobby giving me one of his tuxes because I did not have one.
Another fond memory was of the progressive parties several of those families arranged for us teenagers. The whole crew (about 12 couples) would meet for refreshments and light appetizers at the first residence, then go to another for a salad then move on to another for the entree and end it with dessert and dancing at the last.
The winters were cold in those days and there was a small city-owned pond near the Elks Home and they let us ice skate there. We would build fires on the edge of the lake at night and roast marshmallows while we skated. The city fire department would even flood it with water when the ice got rough so it would refreeze and be smooth the next day.
Then there was Bedford lake which in those days belonged to Bedford County. It was ten miles from Bedford and built by the CCC. The Civilian Conservation Corps was also responsible for the parkway through this area. On weekends in the summer we would all get together in several cars, drive to the lake, and dig that solar massage. "City Bill" Marshall and I rode our bicycles out there and back on a couple of occasions.
There is a large mansion high on a hill to the left as you go up Rt. 43 to the Peaks. In those days it belonged to Rusty Nichol's family. No one had lived there for years and it was known to us as the "Old Haunted House". The guys liked to take a car load of girls up there just to frighten them. One night we went up there in two cars, got out and were tiptoeing around the yard, when we heard a noise. The girls screamed and we all jumped back in the cars and tried to scratch off. Smitty Smith, whose car I was in, backed into a bank and filled the exhaust with clay which choked it out. I thought those three girls were going to die right there.
When he finally cut the headlights on there were three stray dogs sniffing around the rear and the other car was long gone. Years later in Lynchburg I put the same principle to work when some guys kept following us around town. We stopped in a grocery store, bought two large potatoes, caught them off guard, and shoved the spuds on their exhaust pipe. We took off, they could not.
The only overnight trips the boys and girls could talk their parents into was something our parents bragged about doing in their youth, an overnight trip to Sharp Top to see the sun rise. But only if we made reservations at the large old house at the bottom of the Peaks. We were to stay there at night and get up early and go on to the Top. There were always some who went on to camp at the top and the rest stayed up all night. an incident took place on the porch of that house that I have laughed about until this day. One of our couples were out on the porch alone in the old wooden swing. We went around one side of the house while Hugh Mackey slipped up behind them from the other side with an old manual eggbeater and yelled "rattlesnake!". They both fell out of the swing. Those were great days and beautiful people, but I am wandering...this is about pool and I am getting there.
I was hooked on swing. Many an afternoon after school I would stay over just to play records at George Parker's house, the Gills girl's basement, or elsewhere. We would also play tag football on Peaks Street at Avenel right beside Parker's home. There was very little traffic in those days. Just to give you an idea, Bob Scott was the only student who drove a car to school the four years we were there. No matter what we did after school I had a two mile hike home, sometimes in pitch dark or in the rain.
One afternoon Charlie Rucker suggested that we go to the Gills girls' house and play pool. We decided to take a short cut through the neighborhood yards playing follow the leader over hedges, fences, porch banisters, etc. "Chuck" was leading the way and when we went over the last fence which was one of those high metal fences, I snagged a ninety degree tear in my pants on descent. It was torn about two inches in both directions right in the seat. He insisted that I go on with him anyway. Luckily no one was home but he knew the family well enough that we went on in anyway.
I had been in the basement before to dance and play records buy never noticed the pool table. Maybe because it was covered up and I had no interest in pool at that time. chuck had played pool before but this was my first time to pick up a cue stick. After beating him three or four games of what I later learned was Rotation or 61, I noticed he was getting hot at me and finally he threw the cue on the table and said, "let's go", which just wasn't like Chuck. He was one of my best friends and he was obviously mad. I was puzzled and later realized, after learning something about the game why he was mad. I had slopped in all the fingers (high numbered balls) shooting hard, because I knew nothing about the game, and probable sewing him up whenever I missed. I never played another game of pool on that table or anywhere else until I was released from service.
I was so fascinated with city life and the people who had befriended me that I started jerking sodas in the local soda shop just to stay in the city. I later took a night job in Carter's Funeral Home, one block from the High School, so I did not have that two mile walk home any more.
The funeral home was a rendezvous in those days even before my time there. Glenn Tharp had worked there and was replaced by Claude Reynolds when Glenn went into the service, then Claude went in the George Parker replaced him. I followed George and was later joined by Calloway Brown.
The night attendants' quarters were in the back of the building and Mr. Maupin did not care if we had visitors as long as they behaved themselves, which meant "be quiet and do not sit on the beds." Conway Candler made his appearance there a couple of times. Paul Hartung gave me his record collection when he went into the service and Dick Synan lifted a partial drum set there when he went in, so I had a ball drumming to those old records. "Traffic Jam", by Shaw; "Gin for Christmas", by Catlett; "Anvil Chorus", by Miller; "Roll En:, by Goodman; "Two O'clock Jump", by James, they were my favorites.
One rainy night three of us were on the way back to the funeral home from out nightly sojourn to Jimmy the Greek's, for a hot dog and a glass of buttermilk, when we heard the motors and saw the light of a large plane flying low over the city. Dick Synan, in jest, put his hands to his mouth and yelled "Watch out you damn fool, there are some high mountains out there,' as if the pilot could hear. We all laughed but were concerned. When we got back to the funeral home it wasn't long until a call came in that there was a fire on the South side of Sharp Top. sure enough, it was a twin engine B-25 with a five man crew. All were killed instantly. They were on a night flight from Columbia, SC and were apparently lost. Dick Synan and Eastwood Anderson were absent from school the next day because they were in the search party. The crash site and some parts of the plane are still up there, but it is hard to find and difficult to get to. To give you an idea, the bodies had to be brought out of there on donkeys.
On another trip from our nightly snack we were joined by a classmate who did not associate with our little group. On the way back as we approached the bridge over the railroad he picked up one of those old heavy No Parking signs and dropped it over the side of the bridge into the ditch beside the tracks. The next day Harry Carter came into my bedroom and said "Wonder what all those railroad detectives are doing in town? We finally told Harry, because he was one of us.
From that last year at Bedford High and the funeral home I went into the service for two years. It is still a mystery to me why I never encountered a pool table the whole time I was in the service. The Air Corps' rec-rooms on the bases where I was stationed had no pool tables in them, buy I did find a drum set in the rec-room's closet of the squadron next to ours.
When I came out of the service my father said to me "Your brother has taken up a bad habit while you were away. See if you can stop in the Pool Room and bring him home". This was my brother John and upon inquiring I found that he had become the best player in Bedford..whatever that meant. I had never been in a pool room but I started sneaking in when no one was looking to find out what was going on. The best player in Bedford meant that he was making more money in one day than I had made in the funeral home in a week.
This was when I started playing pool. I was going on twenty-one years of age and just banging the balls around trying to cut in hard shots. Position was not in my vocabulary. I thought that a good player was one who could make tough shots. However, if you watch the pros on TV you will see that they play good position and rarely have to make a hard shot.
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