Bluefield Daily Telegraph
If the first semester of my college experience 46 years ago had been all about shooting straight and being a decent pool player, I probably wouldn’t have flunked out after the minimum three semesters. I was tough on shooting .22 target rifles at Reserve Officer Training Corps class in the range beneath the bowl end of old Mountaineer Field, and I found that I was a better pool player than many of my West Virginia University contemporaries.
The pool hall in Claysville, Pa., was about the only place high school aged boys in my hometown had to hang out. Fortunately for me, I never had any money to waste on gambling, so I never got into any 9-ball games for cash. However, I usually had a dollar or two of walking around money in my pocket, and D.L. Williams charged for a table by the half-hour. Eight-ball or straight pool took longer and required essentially the same skill set as 9-ball, so it was more fun for me to play straight pool.
I absolutely quit playing pool after the Dec. 16, 1966, wreck that gave me my third concussion, broke my left hand, my left cheek bone and split my right kneecap in half. Pool didn’t cause the wreck, but after I broke my left hand, I couldn’t fit my left index finger over the pool cue. Before my wreck, if you had 10 Claysville boys in a room, I would probably rank about 7th best in the group. After the wreck ... Well, I didn’t shoot pool any more. There wasn’t any point in it.
The WVU Mountainlair Student Union opened during my freshman year, and in the winter-spring term of 1968, the Lair hosted an open straight pool tournament, I suppose to promote use of the pool tables in the basement recreational hall area. Since I didn’t have a clue about how to be a college student, I decided to work on putting English on the cue ball by using an open-handed bridge that I formed with my broken left hand.
By that time I had figured out that I wasn’t going to be a traditional student. Oh yeah, I wore one of those silly beanies that freshmen students wore back then and carried a stupid-looking umbrella to the pre-football game pep rallies, but I knew I wasn’t going to be a captain of industry in corporate America. I could shoot a .22 rifle, but I didn’t necessarily want to shoot a rifle at anyone. Dad taught me just to shoot what I could eat.
So, during the period of time in my second semester freshman depression when I knew my grades were spiraling out of control, I signed up for the two-week-long Mountainlair Open Straight Pool Tournament as a form of distraction. When I showed up for the first day of preliminary rounds, I was impressed that several of the kids had nice two-piece pool sticks that they carried around in cases. Again, good fortune smiled on me, because it was pretty obvious that most of these guys hadn’t studied English at Dave’s Pool Room in Claysville. As a result, I went through the first few rounds without any problems.
Somewhere along in there, I really started thinking about how overmatched I was in college. My high school teachers tried to prepare me for college, but I was always easily distracted by work, sports, cars or girls — although as a bona fide wallflower, I only worshiped girls from afar. I would have melted if a girl actually spoke to me in high school. White-tailed deer are shy. I was catatonic around girls back then.
During that one fortnight of the Mountainlair pool tournament, I was actually succeeding at something in college other than shooting a .22 rifle. From a scholarly perspective, I didn’t have anything to brag about, but during that brief period of my life, I was actually a competitive pool player. I could leave the cue ball in position for the next shot, put my opponents in a difficult situation for their shots and make a few impressive shots. I got beat in the finals by a kid from Clarksburg who could have beat anyone in Claysville. He was actually a very good player.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I would have won that tournament. Perhaps I would have held on to that moment as the defining moment of my life and relived it with my family and friends as though there wasn’t nothing better in the world. But that’s not what happened, of course. Those kinds of things don’t typically work out well in the end for me. I think that’s partially why I try so hard to do the best I can do in everything. Victory isn’t necessarily a product of success. Sometimes joy comes from unexpected triumphs that aren’t etched into a trophy.
Bill Archer is senior editor at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.