The greatest game ever was never on TV. You see, when I was 13, ESPN wasn’t broadcasting from my basement on Thanksgiving afternoon 1982. After digesting a full belly of turkey and stuffing, I was about to finish off the one opponent I never thought I would beat in ping pong – my dad.
Dad never let me win.
I think there were times he let me get close to victory, but in the end his winning streak may have been in the thousands. Most of the time, we were partners in sports. He was the QB; I was the receiver. He was the pitcher; I was the hitter. He taught me how to ski, and side-by-side we dominated the slopes all winter long. Dad never did care much for board games. He was the guy shouting out answers in Trivial Pursuit whether or not it was his turn. His eyes always wandered to his current book, taking his attention off the game, then he would shout out an answer when a question sparked his interest… “HOOVER DAM!”
“Dad! It’s not your turn!”
However, neither his distracted nature, nor his normal role as my teammate, applied to ping pong. He thrived on destroying me in every possible, conceivable way. He would blow my doors off. He would tease me with allowing me a bit of a lead and then storm back to win. He would torture me with high lobs, daring me to smash the ball with all my might, which led to many foolish misfires. We would battle for hours and hours, but the result was always the same: Dad would win.
I’m not exactly sure why ping pong was the one sport that my dad held his ground like Custer. He didn’t seem to care about our little matchups in basketball or darts. He virtually gave up in backgammon, chess and checkers. There was no real passion to humiliate me in any other activity. He was 10 times the golfer and skater as I was, but rubbing it in never came into the equation. But, for whatever reason, ping pong was different.
Perhaps I should’ve taken it as a compliment. I mean, he was treating me like a grown up. Well, if being treated like a grown up meant being shelled every single night with a small white, yellow, orange or basketball logoed round piece of celluloid. (I thought a ping pong ball was plastic – it’s not. Its a composition of nitrocellulose and camphor, otherwise known as celluloid. Maybe that’s why those stupid balls get dented so easily.)
Our matches at the ping pong table started when I was 10. For three long years, I had been getting my lunch served to me with smashes, backspins and cut shots. Our unfinished basement was tiny; I’m not even sure how we got that ping pong table down there. There was just enough space between a stucco wall with a drafty window and a couple of hollow metal pipes that helped hold the house up. Dad always played from the short side where he had about five inches of room before he was hitting a wall, while I played on the more luxurious side with about two feet of open space before I was backing into the oil drum. This was some hardscrabble pong, not like those trendy yuppie joints promoted by Susan Sarandon and her a**hole Hollywood posers.
First to 21, win by two, best two-out-of -three, switch serve every five points, rally scoring – so whether you were serving or not, you could win a point.
With these basic rules, we would pound away until sweat dripped off our soaked t-shirts. The colder it got outside the hotter it got in the basement. There was zero ventilation. The oil furnace churned away and always seemed like it was a loose cigarette away from total explosion. We would crack a fog filled window every once in a while to let in some cool air, but I think, overall, we liked the idea that we were sweating away like we were in a Chinese laundromat.
On the morning of Thanksgiving 1982, my folks had dropped me off at the annual Thanksgiving football game. In Massachusetts, you played your biggest rival on Thanksgiving. I never knew there was any way to play your biggest rival except on Thanksgiving. But, of course, we come from a land of candlepin bowling, which is like fancy ski ball. The pins are skinny, the balls fit in your hand and have no holes. You have three shots to knock down the pins and if you break 100, you are a friggin’ god. Things in my neck of the marsh were just different, but we liked it like that.
My hometown of Ipswich had a wide mixture of football teams, both mediocre and not so horrible. Usually, we would get stomped by Hamilton-Wenham. You see they were a regional school because it was two towns, Hamilton and Wenham. They thought they were so hot being a two-town school and all. They had their football players dress up in uniforms that made them look like they were the Dallas Cowboys. They even did that annoying offensive line thing, where they stood up then bent back down before the snap for no good reason. They had a bigger school, a bigger band, better looking girls and year after year, they had a better team.
I loved football, and at 13, I dreamt of putting on my black and orange Ipswich Tigers gear and running roughshod over those prima donna bastards. But that day, I was just a spectator. My parents dropped me off. They couldn’t stand high school football and didn’t really love socializing with the locals. We lived at the end of a dead-end street with our backyard buffered by a beautiful marsh inlet outlined by the Atlantic Ocean for a reason – and it wasn’t to find out how everybody was doing. We were aquatic suburban hermits.
The football game brought everyone together and most people watched it with one eye. The moms and dads of the players hung on every down. Most of the townies circled the field, boasting of the times they once played in this game. Little kids littered the field beyond the gridiron, tossing around chewed up Nerf balls. I was with the Middle School Squad, who tried to find solace in any cute girl that would chat with us for a second or two. We won or lost that day – probably lost – it didn’t really matter. It was an excuse to get out of the house and avoid any kitchen chores. Then again, my mom didn’t really care if we helped prepare the food as long as we were willing to eat it. There was no doubt we won Thanksgiving every year.
My dad always timed the pick up at the football game at noon so he and I would enjoy another father-son tradition, the listening to Alice’s Restaurant by Arlo Guthrie. If you don’t know the song, then do yourself a favor; give yourself 20 uninterrupted minutes and savor one of the greatest anti-Vietnam war protest songs of all time. It tells the tale of a young man who littered on Thanksgiving and had to sit on the Group W bench with Father Rapers when drafted during War Time. Trust me – its funny.
Dad was a wartime tweener. He didn’t try to escape from his military service duties. In fact, just the opposite. He joined ROTC while he was a college student at Northeastern in Boston. He found time to train to be an officer while he played Division I baseball and hockey. He served our country as a lieutenant in the Army. He got into the service just as Korea was ending and before Vietnam got going. His timing was absurd. He commanded over 200 men, but he always spent more time bragging to me how he ran a bookstore and played a ton of golf. He was stationed outside of New York City and for six months dated actress Suzanne Pleshette. She was an up-and-coming star. This was years and years before she co-starred with Bob Newhart on Newhart. She died recently and I think my dad was sad about that, despite his unending love for my mom over the past 50 years.
Dad is a terrific piano player, but he only learned one song every 15 years. I heard California Girls by The Beach Boys, You Make Me Feel Like Dancing by Leo Sayer and Alice’s Restaurant by Arlo Guthrie 10,000 times as a kid, a teenager, a young adult, a 30-something and now as a middle-aged man. His enthusiasm in playing those songs, none of which was made to really be heard via piano, always put a smile on my face and satisfied the comfort quotient of my heart. There’s something peaceful in joyful repetition.
When we got home it was a feast like no other. We didn’t have to dress up. We didn’t need proper table manners. There were no formalities or niceties other than telling mom what a great cook she was. We sometimes had a grandparent or stray relative. But, mostly, it was my mom, dad and precocious Irish twin brother, Brady. No topics at the dinner table were barred or unwelcomed. We heard about how awful Reagan was. We heard about how terrible Nixon was. We heard about how horrific the Red Sox were gonna be. We said grace then cursed like sailors talking about everything under the sun. Whether it was politics, sports, sex, movies, books, religion or any other taboo topic, there was no greater table to hash it out than an Irish Catholic household on Thanksgiving.
We swabbed up our buttered plates with soft rolls and breads until there wasn’t any evidence of our feast. With a final smack of our lips and a nod towards our cook, we cleared our plates and headed downstairs for the annual beatdown.
My brother was into Dungeons and Dragons or some other sort of fantasy crap. His obsessive hobbies would make dating difficult, but the mind for those games made him a quick Wall Street millionaire in his 20s and a radiologist in his 30s. He and my dad shared a love of darts. If you break your leg in northern Massachusetts some time and someone has to take an X-Ray, ask Dr. McKee to tell you about that story. My tall tale ends at the ping pong table.
I just assumed I would take my whooping and then watch the Cowboys on TV, but something was different that afternoon. I was making shots I hadn’t made before. I was getting aces and finishing overhead smashes. I was moving my dad side-to-side at will and getting a lucky break every now and then with the ball trickling over the net or ticking off an edge.
I won the first game easily. The second game was a different story. My dad had had enough of my dogged determination and squashed me like a bug. I took a deep breath before that final game, peered across the table and saw something in my father’s eyes. I didn’t see love and compassion. I saw steely-eyed determination and strength. I had tapped into the inner core of a competitor. I wasn’t his son; I was his opponent. For the first time, I was his equal.
I don’t remember the exact details. I’m sure the game was close, but I closed him out with a few points to spare. We were drenched and exhausted. Several of the rallies went long with both of us making miraculous plays. In the end, I was simply better than him that afternoon.
When the final point fell in my direction, my dad slammed his paddle down, pressing both of his hands flat on the table. His head was down and I thought he was angry, but as he lifted his bushy, white-man Afro, I saw a beaming smile. The transformation had been completed, from boy to man in a 45-minute ping pong match. He came around the table and shook my hand.
“Good game,” he said.
Not, good game, son. Not, you got me that time. Not, pretty good for a kid.
Nope, he simply said “Good game,” as he somewhat formally pressed his hand into mine.
“Yea, good game,” I replied, resisting every urge to give him a big ol’ bear hug.
We walked upstairs to drift off to sleep while watching football. Just before we left the basement, poised on the precipice of manhood, he gripped my shoulder and said, “You want to play tomorrow.”
“Sure Dad… I’d love to.”
Happy Thanksgiving from D-Mac and everyone at Mile High Sports!