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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.

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Best of Fels
June: Motor Pool
June 2019

By George Fels
[Reprinted from October 1995]

While it’s hard to turn up even the most patriotic, jingoistic, hard-hatted militarist who has a kind word to say about Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo., I rather liked the place, possibly because I was a truly horrific soldier and my attitude was one more symptom of how poorly adjusted I really was. But hell, the post had a first-rate gym, five inexpensive movie theaters, a steak house that gave no one botulism as far as I know, and, of course, a free-standing poolroom. What possible reason could anyone have to seek a weekend pass?

The poolroom was run by an expressionless but pleasant little civilian named Harold, and fully 20 years after I left the Army, I heard he was still running the same room and had barely even aged. Harold presided from about 1:00 in the afternoon (oh, all right, 1300 hours) until 9:00 or so at night; most of the companies on post had lights-out of 9:30 or earlier. On Saturday night, he got to stay open a bit later, and naturally it was only on the weekends that he did any real business.

I was at Ft. Leonard Wood for basic training and on our first night, when we had finally been processed and collected and shown how to make a bed and asked if there were any questions before we were allowed at long last to hit those beds, my inquiry about a post poolroom came trippingly off my tongue.

“Whaddyou care about a poolroom, dud?” the sergeant snarled. “You’ll be a grandfather ‘fore you get any free time!”

“Sarge,” I croaked, stifling a sob, “I gotta know.”

“In that case,” said the noncommissioned officer, with true Christian magnanimity, “Yes, there is.”

So, I made it my business to seek out that poolroom well before I had anybody’s permission. For the third time during our eight-week cycle, I had drawn the mind-numbing duty of barracks orderly; it got you out of the day’s training and called upon you to greet officers entering the barracks for inspection and otherwise protect those barracks from those that might rob and pillage. The catch was, when you were in a basic-training company, you were surrounded by other basic-training companies, all of whom were gone during the same parts of the day, so there wasn’t anybody around for miles who was even a mild threat to rob and/or pillage, whatever that is. The barracks orderly assignment simply left you alone in a deserted barracks, your principal responsibility being to keep madness at bay.

Apparently, I failed in that responsibility, at least temporarily, because I cut out in the mid-afternoon, caught a post cab and asked for the poolroom. What a sense of release I felt walking into that place, greeted by two morgue-like rows of unused tables, the first real look at civilian life I had had in five weeks. There was not a soul in the universe who knew or cared where I was, no one to call me gratuitous names or give me mindless orders. Just me and pool and billiards (and, of course, Harold). Figuring I had about 90 minutes, counting travel, before my platoon mates came trudging back, I split my practice time between the two games, as though to gorge myself on recreation and store all that fun inside me as reserve energy for the cold, hard world of soldiering. I hadn’t hit a ball in over a month and played like it; the cue felt totally unfamiliar. I barely recognized the colors of the various balls. But I was an outlaw, and a successful one, having escaped time and confines and authority and, for a while, myself. Seldom if ever in the six years or so I had been playing the cue games had I enjoyed them more.

After I miraculously graduated basic training, I was assigned to a motor pool, where I quickly advised my next unfortunate sergeant that I was utterly helpless in things mechanical, and that it was in his best interest to keep me just as far as humanly possible from any and all vehicles. He immediately told me to take the whole day, every day, off, but stay out of trouble. And so, I had all my afternoons free for Harold’s. For company, I had, of course, Harold, and then mostly cooks, who were easy to spot, both for their Pillsbury doughboy physiques and their one-day-on-one-day-off routines, officers’ personal drivers with an hour or two to kill and, occasionally, another pure goof-off or two such as I. (It was from the latter group, needless to say, that the best pool players came.)

Thus, I had, in effect, put the entire rest of the world on hold decades before the same concept ever occurred to Ma Bell. The service had already shut my left brain down; all you had to do was zip your mouth and do exactly what you were told, and your right brain was free to drift off to wherever it pleased. I had temporarily shucked every last shred of identity for a few hours a day, all the while thinking, “Now this is Motor Pool the way it should be.” My time left in the Army dwindled to months and then weeks and then days. I had absolutely no idea of what I would do next with my life when that batch of time began, nor when it ended. I was at utter peace, the lazy afternoon games of that post poolroom the only connection with a previous life that I sought to maintain at all.

I’ve gone on to embrace the world on more realistic terms, but the pool is still firmly in place, only slightly less hypnotic than ever. Today, my existence blessedly complicated by career and family and love, I think back now and then to the time when the only aspect of my life that differentiated one day from the next was the quality of that afternoon’s pool. Sometimes I miss those days, sometimes not. I’ve changed. The Army has changed. The world has changed. But somehow I doubt Harold’s changed much.