THE KING OF PING
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The ping-pong ball nestled in the hollow of my left hand, the secret weapon in the battle between youthful exuberance and mature guile.
“Zero – zero,” I said, gently tossing the white, rounded, missile into the air. “Service.” Using my wrist, I flicked my paddle and exploded the ball across the table.
I don’t think mom had any idea what she was getting into when she bought dad and me a ping-pong table for Christmas four months earlier. It had been her big surprise. She figured the male bonding would be a good thing. She didn’t figure we’d be taking over her living room for a nightly war to decide who made the first evening pot of tea.
An English family, even one that had been in America for seven years, never let the teapot get cold. Tea was the elixir of life, suitable for all occasions and sipped, swallowed, and wallowed in with abandon.
My father easily whipped my service back across the green table and I scrambled to slice the ball back across the net. My shot fell short.
“Zero-one,” I said, retrieving the ball and serving again.
An only child, I had immigrated with my parents to America when I was eight years old. It was tough for them, but within my eight year old world it was just as tough. American schools were strange and frightening, especially for a blond-haired, fair-skinned kid with prissy English manners and a cute little accent who had never been in a fight in his life.
Somehow, the rough and tumble American culture of the San Fernando Valley, a suburban wasteland outside of Los Angeles, did not embrace my presence. My parents wouldn’t have dreamed of sending me to school in Levis, tee shirts, and tennis shoes – the uniform of my new, taunting peers. In keeping with English school traditions, I wore short-sleeved shirts with button down collars, tucked into dress slacks over polished leather shoes.
Third-graders were unforgiving to anybody who was different. My accent, manners, and clothes immediately made me every teacher’s pet -- and just as immediately, the target for every budding bully looking to make his elementary school reputation.
My middle school years hadn’t been much better. I’d suppressed my accent, but my clothes and manners still made me a marked man. I was an incomer, and with no brothers or sisters with whom to find solidarity, I was still taking on the world of my peers alone.
The ball from my second serve perfectly nicked the back edge at dad’s end of the table, dropping deftly to the green pile carpet. Dad grunted and tossed the ball back to me.
“One-one,” I said, this time quickly smashing the service across the net.
Dad was ready for me and bashed the return using a powerful overhand. I sliced the ball back, the English spinning it over the net and off the side of the table. Still fit at thirty-nine, dad dodged close to the living room wall and saved the shot.
The rally lasted six more quick volleys before dad slammed an overhead that drove me back to the carpeted step in front of the living room’s glass sliding door. My return went nowhere. One-two.
We had moved into our new house six months earlier. At fifteen-years-old, I was only vaguely aware of the financial burden incurred by my parents or the remarkable accomplishment this new residence represented. Conservative English values, hard work, an amazing capacity to budget their money, and a true recognition of the difference between wants and needs were ingrained in my parents.
The rigors of their childhood during World War II had left an indelible impression on them that would last the rest of their lives. Having not been subjected to these struggles, they were an abstract I could only acknowledge, but not experience. America and its blessings of prosperity and consumption were still a wonder to my parents. I was young enough, however, to have accepted our new home, both the country and the residential structure, as simply everyday life.
The house purchase had pushed my parents to their financial limit – thus the lack of any furniture in our new, huge living room. This was a silver lining if ever there was one when it came down to our ongoing father and son ping-pong tournament.
I’m not sure how we managed to convince mom to let us set up her Christmas extravagance in the most formal room of the house. I think she figured we’d take over the garage. Somehow, though, one night of permission led to another and another. Finally, it was easier to leave the table set up in the living room instead of following the routine of backing the car out of the garage, setting up the table, playing our game, and then folding up the table and pulling the car back into the garage. Also, dad and I were guys – we figured a living room was for living in.
Dad and I split the final two points of my service making it two-three in his favor. He took custody of the white sphere and spun his own service across the table at me. I cranked it back at him with a quick flip of my wrist, forcing him to backpedal to save the shot. It was a weak return, but I rushed the kill shot – too eager to even the score. Two-four to dad.
As a young man serving in the British Royal Army Artillery Corp in North Africa, Dad had been the regimental table tennis champ – The King of Ping. Using crude, sandpaper covered paddles, he’d been the terror of the tables. Obviously, he still hadn’t lost his touch.
The thing about these games was that even though I was desperate to win and the competition was intense, my father never made me feel bad about losing. Despite being a teenager with all the baggage that term engendered, I did not share the animosity with my father most parent/child relationships experienced. I knew without a doubt he loved me, and that made his gentle teasing about the loser making the tea so much easier to take than the vicious teasing of my peers.
Dad served again and suddenly I found my stroke was grooved. I smashed back three serves for kills – hard shots that nicked the back of the table on dad’s side and drove the score to five-four in my favor. Dad’s final serve caught me off guard as it barely cleared the net, bounced on my side, and spun away like it was auditioning to be a corkscrew. Five-five.
A week of playing with the thin, pebbled-rubber paddles that came with the table was more than enough. As young as I was, I was already establishing an obsessive/compulsive personality. I never did things by halves. If something interested me, I poured all my imagination and effort into whatever the activity entailed.
I quickly discovered real table tennis was not played with cheap toy paddles, but with expensive bats made of laminated woods covered with smooth, thick rubber. Christmas money from my Nanna, who still lived in England, was quickly spent on these new pieces of equipment along with new balls -- who knew there were so many different grades and types?
With the advantage of having the service back on my side, I began to push for the lead. Dad kept the rallies going, waiting for me to make mistakes, but I was playing solidly and took four of the next five points. Nine-six, my favor.
As part of our nightly ritual, dad and I would clear the dinner dishes. He would wash and I would dry, anticipation of the nightly match building quietly between us. With Mom in the family room watching the television or sewing, and not complaining too much about the constant pock-pock noise and shouts that accompanied our games, Dad and I would proceed to the living room, choose our bats like duelists choosing pistols, and begin a warm up rally to decide who served first.
Dad battled back during his next service set. He kept spinning his shots and dropping them off opposite sides of the table. All I could do was play defensively, giving him the opportunity to pick his kill shots. My advantage dwindled quickly to eleven-nine, but I was still ahead – still with a chance to win my first game ever against dad.
There were many variations to decide upon before we played. Some nights, we played using the Asian style of gripping the bats as if we were holding pens. We would sometimes play left-handed, which since dad was openly ambidextrous didn’t give me much of a chance. Other nights, we would play palming the face of the bats, twisting our hand, wrists, and arms into awkward positions to play backhand shots that left us laughing till tears ran down our cheeks.
It was the serious games, however, each of us playing our own style and concentrating on winning that were the most exciting. Being forced by the official rules to win by two points often led to extended games going ten, fifteen, or twenty points beyond the standard twenty-one. The more we played, the harder we fought the matches. Somehow, though, Dad always pulled a win out in the end, and I went off to make the tea.
At twelve-ten, I started to crack under the pressure. I drove two consecutive services into the net and the score was even. Twelve-twelve. Dad grinned. He was messing with my mind.
“Do you just want to go put the kettle on now?”
That narked me off, which is of course what dad wanted. I attacked with my next serve, but dad was set and drove it back across the net with a forehand I didn’t have a chance of stopping. Thirteen-twelve. Dad’s favor. Dad’s serve.
I took a deep breath. I wasn’t going to lose this time. Eventually, I was going to win a game. I wanted it to be tonight. I didn’t want to make the tea.
Over the months we’d been playing, I’d done more than simply wait for dad to give me a learn-by-playing lesson each evening. Buying the right equipment hadn’t made a difference because dad gained the same advantage. Our relative skill levels remained the same. The only change was, I was now being beaten while using an expensive rubber-covered bat instead of a cheap sandpaper-covered paddle. I knew I had to do something more if I ever wanted to stop making the tea.
I started where I always start – with books. Books are the backbone of my life. They are more than information, or stories collected on paper and held together by paste. They are intimate friends who have grown and changed along with me, always providing refuge, support, and solutions.
Books on table tennis, however, were not exactly roaring up the best-seller lists. The few I was able to find were written at least two decades earlier. But, despite their age, they still contained the basics of strategy and technique I needed to learn.
Armed with this new but untried knowledge, I wandered into the local Parks & Recreation facility. There, older boys held sway over warped green tables sporting jerry-rigged nets stretched across the middles. Tuesdays and Thursdays, five tables were distributed around the hardwood basketball court after school -- much to the disgust of the round ball enthusiasts.
Two afternoons a week, every week, I took my bat and subjected myself first to humiliating defeats, then to defeats, then to tough losses, and finally to consecutive wins over opponents who underestimated my developing skills. Each night however, dad successfully fought back against the increases in gamesmanship I kept bringing to the table.
He never discouraged me nor belittled me. He praised me in my defeats, acknowledging I was pushing him to his limit (even when I wasn’t), and encouraging me to keep playing. After every game, he would shake my hand and raise his cup of tea in a salute to our unity. I never realized how much more he was teaching me beyond the skill to bat a white sphere back and forth across a green particleboard surface.
Games at the Park & Rec were supposed to help me beat dad. The reality of the situation, however, was that playing with dad helped me beat the older, more experienced players at the Park & Rec. Like The King of Ping before me, I was the terror of the tables at the recreation center, but still couldn’t pull my first victory off at home.
Dad threw a twist into his next service, spinning the ball violently toward my end of the table. I read the spin and cut the ball back in the opposite direction. Dad jumped on the return, looking for a quick kill, but my defensive block transferred the ball’s power and fired it back across the net directly at the center of Dad’s body. He had no choice but to bring his bat in tight and dink the shot back at me. This time my overhand was a smooth groove driving the ball past dad’s backhand side. Tie game again.
Dad switched back to his usual hard, flat service. After months of playing against him, I could still have trouble retuning it, but tonight I was striking the ball with good placement and taking away the service advantage.
We rallied – eight, ten, twelve, and more times – back and forth, side to side, no quarter given. We were the superstars of our living room, playing an obscure championship game on which nothing and everything was riding. Eventually, with each point grudgingly fought over, I broke dad’s service. The game was all tied up again at fifteen-fifteen.
With the service back on my side of the table, I stuck with a basic spin serve, relying more on placement than power. I kept the serve close to dad’s body, not letting him get around for a power return. I didn’t go for the kill shots. Instead, I kept dad on the defensive by forcing him to back away from the table before cutting a shot off one of the sides. I took four of the five points in my service. The score sat at nineteen-sixteen in my favor – two points away from dad making the tea for the first time.
My heart was pounding. I’d been this far ahead before only to give the game away. Somehow, despite my point advantage, I was mentally losing.
Dad’s mindset, however, was back in a British Army recreation tent in Egypt battling for the honor of his regiment. His service shots came fast and furious, twisting me into physical positions from which it was impossible to make a strong return. My shots dinked or floated softly over the net to where dad was perfectly poised for rally ending slams.
Point by point, he pulled me back from the edge of victory. Seventeen-nineteen. Eighteen-nineteen. Nineteen-nineteen.
“I can taste that cup of tea,” Dad said.
“Me too,” I replied with more conviction than I felt. “And it’s always sweeter when somebody else makes it.”
Dad served the ball and we entered the fray of battle again. The atmosphere in that formal living room was rapidly becoming as fetid as any boxing gym. Pheromones of sweat and testosterone clogged the air and soaked through our clothing. Beads of perspiration spun off our foreheads splattering the walls and carpet.
The rally lasted for over twenty exchanges, both dad and I making save after save. We cheered for each other, determined to win, but somehow thrilled by the skills displayed by the other. We were mirror images – I old enough to be entering manhood, dad young enough to still possess the vestiges of a youth. Eventually, backed against the living room’s sliding glass door, I spun back a shot that just barely missed nicking the back of the table on dad’s side.
Dad retrieved the ball without a word. This was it. Twenty-nineteen in dad’s favor. One more point to win. One more point for me to lose before going off to make the tea.
Dad served. Every skill, both physical and mental, I’d spent months learning suddenly switched on like an electric current running down my arm. I slammed the service back for an immediate winner. Suddenly, the score was dead even at twenty-twenty, it was my service, and my fate for that evening – for that lifetime -- was within my control. I had to win by two points, but somehow that was unimportant, lost amidst the changing of the guard somewhere within the black hole of male relationships.
I can’t be sure, but I think dad also felt the shift in our universe, recognizing and adapting to it without skipping a heartbeat. My service spun across the table. Dad spun back a return. I hit a slam shot. Dad slammed a return. The rally went on and on and on, but the outcome was already foretold.
When I won that point and the next on a sweet service ace, the game was mine. I was jubilant. Months of making the tea every night, and suddenly dad was going to make it.
“Well done, lad,” dad said smiling and shaking my hand. “I’ll go make the tea.” This last phrase was said with a casualness I will always remember. There would be many more table tennis games, and dad would still win most of them. But a line had been crossed, and there would be other nights when he made the tea.
But this night, this time was special. I knew enough not to crow over my victory, but I didn’t understand the sense of loss tying my stomach in knots as I watched dad, a strange smile on his face, turn the gas on under the kettle.
I know now I wasn’t learning about playing table tennis, or winning, or losing, or persistence, or anything else that might be apparent on the surface.
I was learning about being a man.
Even more, I was learning about being a father.
Thanks dad for not minding making the tea.
The heart of this story was written
on a beautiful sunny afternoon
overlooking the calm waters
of Puget Sound
from the second floor balcony of the
Orcas Hotel, Orcas Island, WA,