Tips & shafts
By George Fels
Consulting Editor George Fels has been writing for Billiards Digest since 1980, and his "Tips & Shafts" column is usually our readers' first stop when they crack open the magazine. For better or worse, pool has been his only mistress for 40-plus years.
Best of Fels
WE ALL know, by now, just how insidious a pool jones can really be. Simply put, when ya gotta have it, ya just gotta have it. But what happens when you’re cut off from it?
When I was in the Army, I actually went AWOL once just to shoot pool. I had lasted five weeks without touching a cue, I was gone for only 90 minutes, the post I deserted was an extremely lowly one (Barracks Orderly. Latrine duty is messier and smells far worse, but at least it gives you something to do; I’m one of those guys who has to have something to do), and I had to go no farther than the free-standing poolroom on the post (Ft. Leonard Wood, MO). Got away with it, too. I’ve always been about four-fifths nuts. But the 20% that yet remains unto me is, in my view anyway, still worth knowing.
The other time my pool jones kicked into overdrive was in March of 1974. The date wouldn’t matter much, except that America was in the distressing throes of the worst gasoline shortage on record. I was in Winter Park, Colo., to help produce a snowmobile commercial I had written. Our lodge was considered to have one of the finest beginners’ ski courses in the country; in fact, they were so proud of that that they didn’t offer much else, not even TV. At night, everyone was expected to sit around the fireplace, or bar, and drink and swap skiing stories until they were totally blitzed and ready for bed by default. The place did have a steambath, and since I’m not much of a drinker and don’t ski at all, I sat in that steambath for two solid nights in a rich mixture of boredom and dehydration.
On the second night, Colorado got many, many inches of snow. During the night, a skunk crawled under the lodge seeking warmth from the unexpected storm, and died when none was found. Before passing, the poor creature announced, in its customary way, that it was just seriously pissed about the whole damn thing. My eyes watered all night as I slept.
The next day, our shoot was postponed (you can’t snowmobile on fresh powder). The whole crew took skiing lessons in the morning and skied all afternoon, and I’ll admit I enjoyed it a lot more than I ever thought I would. But I had been reliably told there was a three-table poolhall in nearby Idaho Falls, at the base of the mountain, and even wobbling down that hill at what I fantasized was warp speed, all I could see were balls and pockets. My pool jones was sounding off raucously again. That night, I asked for the company car, explaining, “I can’t do another night of steambath and skunk. I’ll crack. I’ve gotta hit some balls.”
“You’re an idiot,” my boss noted. “That road is really treacherous right now. Plus, there’s not enough gas left to go down the mountain and come back up. What’re you gonna do if you can’t find a gas station down there that actually has any gas?”
“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” was the best I could do. My boss, a good Christian, reprised the idiocy concept and gave me the keys.
The trip down that mountain could not have been a finer case history in making oneself miserable. The road was indeed slippery, and unlit too; only a puny guide rail stood between my car and an undesirable express route to Idaho Falls. The gas-gauge needle hovered above “E” as daintily as a mother’s lips over her newborn. I rode the brake all the way down — almost no accelerator — and my technique for dealing with all that stress was to concoct wondrously putrid scenarios of doom should I actually run out of gas. What if there were roving escaped convicts? (I casually considered that there were no prisons within 100 miles. Then I comforted myself further that even if a chain gang were wandering around in the cold, their balls-and-chains combined with all that snow would likely hinder their mobility, so I could probably outrun them.) What if a bear awoke from hibernation grumpy and hungry and found me? (It was too early in the year for bears, and they always awake in the daytime anyhow. Still, as the Navy SEALs say, “Proper Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance.”)
I made the gas station only because it was on a downhill slope away from the mountain; I barely had fumes left, and yes, they did have gas. I wanted to cry almost as badly as I wanted to pee, but settled for the latter. And the poolroom was right where I was told it would be. One of its three tables was still lit, but those players were disassembling their cues.
“When do you close, sir?” I asked the counterman, stifling a sob.
“About to close right now.”
“Oh, nononono,” I murmured intelligently (I think I limited myself to four no’s; it might have been five. Possibly six). I recounted everything I just told you, including the skunk but leaving out the convicts and bears. “You’ve got to let me hit a few balls. A few racks. Twenty minutes. Half an hour.”
“Quit begging, son,” he said, and I felt about cue-ball tall. “You’re too old for that. Go ahead and play. I’ll close when you quit.”
I didn’t want to take advantage, so I played less than an hour. My best was a run of 25, which drew a grudging “Not bad” from the counter guy. But the generosity or tightness of the pockets, the slowness or swiftness of the cloth, the quality of my play (such as it was), none of any of that mattered. My gas tank was full, my bladder was empty; I was now immune to hardened criminals, bloodthirsty animals or any other predators, because best of all, I got my pool jones fixed. I tell you, central Colorado is fantastic in early March.