Tipping the scales past three hundred pounds, with much of it settling in an unsightly mass around my midsection, I was far from the picture of athletic prowess. With a dome that was kept gleaming by a razor’s removal of any stubble once a week, and my skin unnaturally pale from nearly a year without the sun’s warm kiss, I resembled a bloated and deranged Casper the Friendly Ghost more than anything else. My appearance made all challengers think they could defeat me with ease. They were mistaken.
The county jail that was my defacto home for over three years had what they termed MP. Multi Purpose room. It was approximately twenty feet by forty feet, although that may be a bit generous. Its multiple purposes included library, law library, TV room, recreation area, holding pen for prisoners directly before or after a court appearance, chapel, school classroom, attorney visiting room, clergy visiting room, and temporary holding area for particularly violent or troublesome inmates. Each cell block of the jail was afforded one hour per day in MP as our sole recreation.
In the center of the room, looking entirely out of place because of the sense of normalcy and joy that it engendered in everyone who saw it, was the device which would be responsible for my only exercise for the better part of a year. The green top was marred by scratches and scars, and parts of it were cobbled together with strips of cloth torn from a bedsheet, but amidst the harsh stresses of imprisonment it was a glorious vision of escapism and fun. The ping pong table became an oasis of sorts, and one hour with it was never enough.
Of course I had played ping pong on numerous occasions prior to my incarceration, and I thought that I was pretty good. Better than average. When I first stepped to the table, paddle in hand, I was a cocky loudmouth bragging about my abilities. I had both overestimated my talents and underestimated my opponent, Pates.
Grizzled, gray-haired, mid-40’s, he seemed ancient to my naive 22-year old eyes. Pates trounced me handily, without mercy, and called the next victim to the table. I felt demoralized, emasculated, but my own private pity party only lasted as long as two pong matches before it was my turn again. I craved vindication. It turned out that Pates had in fact been taking it easy on me after all. The second match I didn’t score a single point. He skunked me.
Pates and I battled every day with few exceptions, and while I did get better, he still defeated me without much difficulty. It was a steep learning curve, but I was learning, improving. After several months of me challenging the King of the Table, and getting multiple victories under my belt, I was finally worthy for him and our matches became epic in scope. It wasn’t enough just to win anymore, but we were working out trick shots and putting spins on the ball to make it drop or swerve in mid-air both to impress and confound one another. As a byproduct of our competitive encounters, or perhaps as a natural extension of such, Pates and I became good friends.
New King in Town
Once Pates left the county jail (he was convicted of a crime that I believe he was genuinely innocent of and sentenced to around 85 years in prison) I was crowned the reigning King of Ping Pong. My new title made me a target for all inmates who thought they were pretty good. I repelled each opponent, some more easily than others, and my crown was never in jeopardy. Due to a lack of worthy challengers, I eventually adopted a semi-retired status and was only coaxed into defending my title and proving my prodigious pong skills every once in a great while.
Blast From the Past
It was a decade removed from my time spent in county, and my period as pong royalty was but a distant memory, when my name was called out by a stranger as I walked on the yard. I turned to face him, and he acted as if he knew me. Turns out he did know me—as King of the Table.
He described my appearance at the time (in the intervening years, I had lost over one hundred pounds, grown my hair a little longish, and actually spent some days in the sun) and spoke of my amazing ping pong abilities. He talked about different guys who we’d been locked up with and some of the officers who had been in the county jail. He even knew some details of my case because mine was a particularly brutal crime that the smallish county was unaccustomed to and this made me somewhat notorious. Despite all of this information, which served as proof that this stranger had, in fact, served time in county jail with me, I had no idea who he was. It was a surreal sensation, but when I sent a query into the database of my brain, the search engine came back with “No results found.” Due to the sheer volume of his fairly intimate knowledge, I had to conclude that my memories of him had merely been lost to time. I’d known hundreds of men while in county, some maybe only for a day or two, and surely I couldn’t be expected to remember every one.
My new/old friend told me that he only played ping pong against me twice, and both times I defeated him easily. He said he wasn’t very good, but enjoyed watching me battle others because the matches were always so thrilling. He also informed me that my name and tales of my astounding talents were spoken of long after I’d left, and always told with the requisite awe.
Gone, but not forgotten.
King Pong—long may I reign.