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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Today In My Buddy's Basement ...

A good friend of mine ... Dean ... bought his parents' home when they retired and moved to Arizona. I figured he'd make some major changes to the extremely dated split-level structure, but all he did was purchase a few "necessities" ... big flat-screen TV, a snack frig, and a king-size bed ... and just went on living his 21st century life in a 1970s home.

Recently, Dean called in a favor ... he had helped me move a few months ago and now he needed assistance tearing down some old wood paneling in the basement "rec room." So on a bleak and drizzly Saturday morning, I arrived to help demo the room in question so another buddy could put up drywall later in the week.

"Hey," Dean asked as we yawned over cups of dark and bitter and excellent coffee. "Before we start tearing the place to hell, would you mind helping me move some things to the garage? I'm gonna donate them or have a garage sale or something." So we toted a few seriously heavy and over-packed cardboard boxes up the zigzagging stairs to the large garage/workshop area ... Dean's dad was a nut for building really intricate scale replica vintage cars and trucks so the garage area had excellent lighting and some nice workbenches. There was lots of junk already stacked in various locations ... no actual room for any vehicles ... but what caught my attention was the old ping-pong table tucked away in the corner, unlatched in the middle and stored in a sloppy A-shaped configuration.

"Dude, you're not selling the PPT are you?" My voice sounded a bit shrill, almost panicked.

Dean just smiled a Cheshire cat grin. "Buddy ... would I do that to you?! It's staying put because I know how much you enjoy losing to me and our friends!!"
See ... I do love ping-pong. Or table tennis ... whichever term you prefer. I was never very good at playing and my family never had a table while I was growing up, but someone in the neighborhood always did. One kid ... Derek ... had a really sweet regulation table that his family kept on their huge covered, cement-slab back porch. I clearly remember how crisp the white lines and net were against the powder blue surface and the sleek oak game cabinet they had with paddles, extra balls, and some special cleaner for the table. Everyone in Derek's family even had leather tennis gloves they used for ping-pong.

In our neighborhood from about early April to early November, if the heat got bad or it was raining or the wind was too brisk for frisbee or football, every kid in the neighborhood was at Derek's house playing ping-pong and pleading with his mom to make more lemonade or hot cocoa ... depending on the season.

Derek's dad would sometimes organize these elaborate tournaments with brackets for us kids, our older siblings, and even some of the parents. The contests would go well into the evening and Derek's backyard would be aglow with the hanging yellow fluorescent lights from the porch area occasionally punctuated by blue sparks from the bug zappers at each end. A few of the kids would open lawn chairs and watch the action, giggling at the bawdy ping-pong "smack talk." The more active ones of us played hide 'n' seek in and around a thick stand of pines and an old tool shed. And the really daring ones of us played with an old set or "Jarts" ... lawn darts that years ago had sharp metal tips and a reputation for causing serious and not-so-serious injuries. Basically, colorful metal spears being thrown around in the dark is what we were doing.

Anyway, table tennis originated in England in the 1800s as an after-dinner "game" among high society. At the time, books were stood in the center of a long table to act as the "net" and players used additional books as "rackets" to bounce a golf ball back and forth, observing the same one-bounce scoring techniques used today. The game evolved with the ball becoming a shaped piece of cork and paddles made from items like cigar box lids and parchment stretched across a simple wooden frame. Soon people started calling the game wiff-waff because of the sound created during play. Ping-pong was another term used frequently to denote table tennis and it ended up catching on.

Over several decades, innovations were made to the game such as celluloid balls to offer air resistance challenges and more modern paddles with the common rubber/sponge layering to allow players to put more spin on the ball and increase the speed of play. Regulation table standards were initiated, suggesting a 9 foot X 5 foot table treated with a low-friction paint or coating (preferably green or blue) bisected by a 6 inch net. Clubs and associations for ping-pong enthusiasts began springing up and tournaments were being organized. The International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) was founded in 1926 with the first official world championship games held in London the same year. Ping-pong has been an Olympic sport since 1988, with aggressive representation from Europe, U.S., and several Asian nations. Today, the ITTF is parent to 210 member associations across the globe. Sporting good manufacturers offer top-of-the line table tennis gear, utilizing high-profile athletes for high-figure endorsements.

I can sympathize with those first table tennis or wiff-waff players. When I was in college, some of my dorm mates found a piece of plywood which we transformed into a makeshift ping-pong table. Being an art major, I was in charge of painting the guide lines and touching them up from time to time. We used two cushy lounge chairs facing each other as the supports and wood clamps and extra-long shoelaces as a net. Someone who dropped a class and had "parents-don't-know-money" from returning a pricey textbook sprang for paddles and balls. I think that crappy "table" was more fun than any regulation surface.

After college, I also frequented a local hometown bar that sat up two ping-pong tables in an outdoor area during the summer months. I know my skills were poor so I never played, but it was incredibly entertaining to watch grown men ... usually inebriated grown men ... play ping-pong like it was the U.S. Open or the Super Bowl!!

Back in the present, Dean and I eventually got to the task of ripping up his basement walls. Several times I became fatigued and wondered if my debt had been payed. Sensing this, Dean kept promising that when we were done he'd order a pizza ... sausage and mushroom ... and set up the ping-pong table.

POINT OF RANT: My friends know me too well!

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