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
(from October 1989)
"Have you got a poolroom in this town?" I asked.
"I really don't know," he said. "I'm not a pool player."
"Do you have the Yellow Pages handy?"
"Certainly, sir. Would I look under 'P'?"
"No, 'B" for 'Billiards,'" I said. "It usually comes right after 'Bicycles.'
Dead at 46. Jack Gunne, the pool buddy it had taken me 14 years to find, after 22 years of a glowing friendship that sprawled well beyond pool after the first half hour or so.
I met him in a room full of those wretched old Harold Worst tables, 4-feet by 8-feet, with the wrong color cloth yet (gold). Once we settled on a fair handicap, I started out playing him something like 50 to 35 plus 2 to 1 on the money. In 19 months playing that way - and he told the story on himself, good-naturedly and often - he won exactly zero sessions; in most of the sessions he lost, he won zero games. It wasn't due to his lack of ability but rather to the most horrific pool luck I ever saw. Jack could break the stack into 13 separate counties, and the 14th ball would find a way to limp over and sit on his cue ball's chest. He somehow managed to hang balls up in pockets as permissive as an octogenarian strumpet. His cue ball sought out holes like a starving cat after mice.
Virtually all his misfortunes could be traced to his over-hitting the ball; when I tried to point that out to"The Gunner," as we aptly called him, he cut me off after the fourth word or so. This showed the same classic hardheadedness that led him to lunch on popcorn shrimp shortly after heart attack #1. None of his losing to me made the slightest difference, though; as best friends, we never paid off. The figure just went up and up; when business relocated him on the East Coast, he spent some time around Pete Margo's former place in Staten Island, and Steve Mizerak's room in Metuchen, N.J., and returned to Chicago to bring the figure down and down. Besides, when he lost, he always made it a point to call his misfortunes jovially to the attention of everyone in the room, the same way he'd wave worthless $50 racing tickets at friends whom he'd taken to the track for an afternoon of alleged $2 fun.
I was 29 when I met The Gunner, having lived a life of acquaintances, no siblings and no real friends. When I was a kid, the only option for loners was to go to the schoolyard and see what other loners might be there for an hour or two of temporary bonding. I can still feel that awful anxiety of approaching the corner of that school, the playground rounding into view, hoping the football or softball game wouldn't already have chosen sides, or much worse, that the playground wouldn't be plain empty. Jack Gunne at last filled up my schoolyards, even as we filled up the pockets. I had been alone in the male cosmos too long; I never expected my love for pool to take on any dimension other than for the game itself.
He was out seven nights a week, for pool and especially pinochle; he often swore the great Roger Miller song "Dang Me" was written for him. If Jack Gunne weighed 180, 160 of this was life itself; his wake was the first time most of us had ever seen him at any form of rest.
Then came the downside: seven years of ghastly business reversals, more money lost in one year than a lot of men make in 20, unreturned phone calls, friends of longer standing than I crossing over the street to avoid saying "Hi" to him, a three-year audit by the IRS. His love for pool was the fist thing to go; in the end, what I wound up doing was to allow him to withdraw from me just as he did from everybody else except his family. I'll never do that again, if I ever get the chance not to. Which I won't. I'm now 51.
And that's how I found myself in his wife's quiet little Indiana hometown, across the desk from the cemetery's Public Relations Director - surely a title fit to take its place alongside Jumbo Shrimp and Military Intelligence - asking for the Yellow Pages.
"Why would you want that now?" he said.
"I'm an hour early, sir," I answered, biting off the words as a semi-successful defense against choking on them. "We all work these things out in our own way. Please."
"I'm afraid not," he said, gently, a few seconds later. "Just 'Billiard Equipment and Supplies."
It was that kind of day.
So I filled the time another way, and returned to Jack's open casket in the chapel. I slipped in what I had the family's permission to: two cubes of chalk, so new they were still shiny on the surface, the jaunty red wrapper of National Tournament Chalk a stark contrast to my gray friend in his beige suit. And, since my life turned out to be based on words, I included a note.
"So long, buddy.
Thanks for the game.
Tale care of these two cubes.
I'll come around when it's my shot,
And we can play forever.