The evils of a pool hall so humorously portrayed in “The Music Man” were no doubt a fanciful reflection of Meredith Willson’s boyhood in Mason City. My mother’s view of pool halls followed suit, but certainly not as a joke. “You must never go in that place!” she commanded.
In those years of the late 1940s, pool halls were as common in Iowa as cornfields. Every town of any size had a pool hall, including those in Exira and Stuart operated by two of our relatives — something Mom never mentioned.
In Guthrie Center, Hansen’s Billiard Parlor stood defiantly in the middle of the business district between the innocence of Hugh Price’s grocery store and Frances Millhollin’s dry goods business. From across the street at the “Ideal Barber Shop,” I enjoyed a clear view and an abundant interest in spying on the scene of depravity while Bill Sanger cut my hair.
The pool hall did cast a sense of mystery with its curtain-covered front windows and the peeling paint of a haunted house. But I witnessed otherwise respectable men, including my uncle Glen, come and go. Why, I wondered, would nice men cross the threshold of what Mom called “a den of indolence?”
The passage of time only increased my curiosity about the pool hall. When my older brother, Gary, boasted of venturing into the forbidden territory, I asked, “What’s in there?”
“That’s for me to know and you to find out,” he taunted.
And I did want to find out. I seldom defied my mother’s rules. But as I moved on to high school and sprouted a whisker or two, I determined to enter the pool hall and uncover its secrets.
When the fateful day of my debut arrived, I paused at the entrance of Hansen’s Billiard Parlor, looked both directions for potential witnesses to my misdeed, and pulled open the sagging door. I felt somewhat guilty, very manly, and totally independent.
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My wide eyes saw low lamps above green-covered tables glowing through thick smoke like the moon on a cloudy night. Hard balls of various colors clacked against each other as men pushed them about the tables with long sticks, sometimes laughing and sometimes speaking in terms my mother would never use. Spectators sat on benches along the walls, commenting and chuckling at the proceedings. Curly Benton, a neighbor of ours, stood behind the sales counter waiting until someone finished a game, pounded his long stick on the wooden floor, and shouted, “Rack ‘em, Curly.”
A life-changing experience struck me. The filial relationship with my mother withered. I wanted to identify with the men holding long sticks they called “cues.”
My visits to the pool hall became more frequent and led to an urge to participate in the fun. The 8-Ball tables in the back provided the best opportunity. They were smaller than the snooker tables in the front, the game less complex, and most importantly, cheaper. Losing an 8-Ball game cost a nickel, while losing at a snooker table meant a nickel per person, ranging from a dime on up.
Paying at the cheaper tables still hurt in a day when five cents bought a Whiz candy bar or a bottle of Dad’s Old Fashioned Root Beer. But such was the cost of learning and advancing from the ranks of the lesser skilled players, known as “pigeons,” to the highly skilled “sharks.”
Near the entrance stood a solitary, huge snooker table reserved for sharks. I could only dream of a distant day when I might reach that awesome level.
No doubt Mom knew the cause of my smoky clothes, but said nothing. Apparently she decided I was old enough to make decisions on my own — good or bad. I earned money delivering newspapers. If I wasted it foolishly, I’d be the one who suffered the consequences.
My trips to the pool hall started with taking a seat on a bench and looking for a “pigeon” to play 8-Ball. If I found an opponent, a game would soon be underway.
On a hot summer day I waited and waited. No pigeon appeared. I stood to leave when Nyal Pierce, one of the usual players at the big table, called to me, “Hey, kid. Ya wanna join us?”
“You mean me?” I responded in wonderment.
“Yeah, sure. Grab a cue and join us.”
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Thrilled with the invitation, I gave little thought to how seven participants would add up to the loser paying 35 cents. And I only had two dimes in my pocket. When I finally realized my predicament, I still thought the odds were good. I only needed to beat one of the other six to avoid shaming embarrassment.
I wasn’t doing well. But when my last turn came, I only needed to sink a an easy shot, at the far end of the table. Bending across the big snooker table and aiming my cue, I saw a lot of green between the white cue ball and the black seven perched near the opposite corner pocket.
Pool players are not supposed to miss such a shot, but I did. With Nyal Pierce next up, I felt doomed. I had no Plan B. If I couldn’t pay, I might never be invited to the shark table again.
Nyal chalked his cue with the authority of a shark, bent over the table, and seemingly winked at Guy Beck. And then the unbelievable happened. Nyal scratched the cue ball into a side pocket, lost seven points, and ended the game.
I had escaped the humiliation of being both short-funded and blackballed!
A long time passed before I returned to the big table, and an even longer time before I finally caught on that Nyal intentionally miscued to let a star-struck kid off the hook.
I’m sure my mother didn’t approve of my time in the pool hall, and some of her wisdom did have an impact in that setting, like “don’t get too big for your breeches” and “look before you leap.” But Mom’s disdain for the pool hall wasn’t entirely on the mark. Life’s lessons come from many places and many people, including Hansen’s Billiard Parlor and Nyal Pierce.
Note: When Guthrie Center’s pool hall closed in 1970, I bought one of the snooker tables. It stood proudly in our family room for decades before I gifted it to the local recreation center.
• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean.