The Universal Notebook: Sign of a misspent youth

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“A proficiency at billiards is a sign of a misspent youth” is an old saw often incorrectly attributed to both Mark Twain and English philosopher Herbert Spencer.

Spencer did say it, but he maintained that he was simply repeating a comment he heard at the Athenaeum Club in London by Charles Roupell, a referee of the High Court of Justice.

Be that as it may, it is a truth universally acknowledged (apologies, Miss Austen) that a person in possession of good billiards skills must have spent a lot of time in a pool hall. I confess that I did spend a significant amount of time in pool halls as a young man, but I never acquired the proficiency that would betray a misspent youth.

In other words, I’m not good enough to be bad.

When we moved to Brunswick four months ago, the basement playroom was crying out for a pool table. In fact, the circuit breaker for that half of the basement is labeled “Pool Room.” So we recently purchased a beat-up old Olhausen slate-bed 8-footer. Carolyn and I have been playing eight ball ever since, and it has brought back some fond memories.

My grandfather had a massive 1930s pool table in his unfinished basement on Ludlow Street in Portland and I understand it is still there to this day. As kids in the 1950s, we used to play on it, though not always billiards. Mostly it was used to store Little League uniforms over the winter.

In 1961, the year we moved to Westbrook, Paul Newman starred in “The Hustler,” playing Fast Eddie Felson to Jackie Gleason’s Minnesota Fats. After “The Hustler” played at the Star Theater, every kid in town wanted to become a pool shark. Four years later, when “The Cincinnati Kid” came to the Star, inspired by Steve McQueen’s coolness, we all decided to become card sharks instead.

Many of my Westbrook buddies had pool tables in their basements, but they were the cheap, plywood-bed jobs that tended to warp, turning the green felt surfaces into rolling golf courses. The Christensen basement became a major hangout in junior high and high school, both because their house was in sight of the high school, and because they had three popular sons – Rick, Pete and Dana.

If we weren’t playing at the Christensen house, we were at Barry’s Billiards down under the Bridge Street bridge. In the 1960s, everything began and ended at Barry’s. We went there after school and before basketball games, dances and dates. Some guys got good. Most of us just sat against the wall, smoking, joking and jawing. It’s a shame more towns don’t have pool halls where teenagers can hang out and grow up.

Barry’s was owned by Barry Herbert, but it was his younger brother, Kerry, who was the hustler. Kerry Herbert used to own Spot Shot Billiards in Portland and was elected to the New England Pool and Billiards Hall of Fame in 2010, along with another louche local legend, Roy Crabtree.

We young bucks tended to blast every shot, but guys like Kerry Herbert and Crabtree played with finesse. Possessed of a soft, sweet touch, they’d methodically work their way around the table with a tap-click-plop, tap-click-plop, pocketing each ball in turn and playing position on the next.

Having taken up the game after a hiatus of close to 50 years, I find I have no touch whatsoever. Long straight shots are impossible. Kiss shots occasionally drop. Any bank shot is a huck. And combination shots are a thing of the past.

“The game of billiards,” Mark Twain actually did say, “has destroyed my sweet disposition.”

I don’t mind losing. In fact, it is probably one of my failings in life that I have really never minded losing, because I have always known that winning was no big deal. But I sure hate missing easy shots. It is my resolution for 2015, therefore, to acquire just enough proficiency at pool so that I make the routine shots routinely.

In order to find time to do so, I have further resolved to no longer reply to online comments from the usual anonymous suspects. I figure that should sweeten my own disposition and make for a very Happy New Year for all.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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