Nobody asked me and I’m not sure what I would’ve said, but they went and put a snazzy pool table in the 3rd floor rec room in the Tin Lizzy. It’s just 15 steps from the desk where I spend so much time trying to concentrate so I can maybe earn a living.
Its pull on my attention is strong and I confess I spend at least an hour a day trying to sharpen my game.
I’m consumed by a drive to get good.
As good as I was in 1990 when I was a participant in one of the most dramatic pool games in Westmoreland County history.
The fact that I can’t name a single other game of any importance does not diminish the boast.
Paul and I were beat reporters in the Latrobe bureau office for the Tribune-Review, a scrappy paper that continues to thrive in a market that’s devastating the entire industry.
The endurance hints at wise decision makers among Trib leadership.
There was zero evidence of any such wisdom 33 years ago when someone had the bright idea of moving me in to work with Paul. Two more like-minded journalists were never paired. We were like Woodward and Bernstein except instead of grave constitutional matters we were laser focused on pretty bar maids, agreeable company and Latrobe bars casual about LCB regs involving Happy Hour drink specials.
Conveniently, our shabby little office was practically right next door to a lively neighborhood tavern.
If the doors to both the office and the bar — B.C. Kenlys —were open we could hear the office phone ring from our barstools.
So the two of us spent entire days in that bar drinking, joking … and shooting pool.
We both became very competent. In fact, it could be argued we were much better at billiards than we were at covering things like school boards, warehouse fires, etc.
So we didn’t see it coming when one of the bosses left the following message on the old answering machine.
“Mrs. Kent, an English teacher at Ligonier Valley High School ,has asked us to send a reporter up to talk to seniors about a career in journalism. So you guys decide who it’s gonna be and get back to Mrs Kent.”
Neither of us wanted anything to do with it so we needed to find a way to determine the loser.
A coin flip just wouldn’t do and pistols at 20 paces, while debonaire, would have put the bar out of business and neither of of us wanted that on our conscience.
The obvious solution was in the back of the bar under tight green felt.
But this was too big a deal to conduct at our local hangout. We needed a regulation table, professional lighting and a real swinging jukebox. We needed an old style watering hole.
We needed Bull’s Tavern. It was a great Ligonier bar run by a legendary family. I’m delighted to share honest flattery because the bar was owned by the father of our friend, Tom Turnbull, who reads blogs like this without prompting.
Thank you, Tom, for reading — and for being an historic link to one of my favorite bars.
It was such a perfect setting for a high stakes, best-of-seven, match, I remember being surprised ESPN hadn’t assigned a crew.
Upon entry, I detected mass indifference in our competition. There were maybe a dozen people in the bar.
I won game one with a nifty bank shot on the 8 ball. I didn’t gloat or preen. A few if the regulars noted my even-tempered reaction. Paul’s reaction to the loss meant he was all business.
Screw those future journalists!
Splitting the next two games put me up 2-1.
By now there were about 20 customers in the bar and whenever anyone came in laughing, the old timers laid down the law by shhhing them. We’d each earned our own little bands of partisans.
Paul had a chance to even the tally with an end-to-end roll that would have been nervy even in pressure-free situations.
“That’s a lot of green, Mr. Gardner,” I said. By now, we realized we’d become more than two guys shooting pool. We were performers. The crowd, now well over two dozen, was fully engaged. Without acknowledging it to each other, we realized we were putting on a show.
It was impressive because by then we’d both consumed about four or five tequila shooters.
Bull’s customers kept fueling us with shots, sometimes in true appreciation, sometimes in the hopes it would make us unstable and prone to miss. By then there were many wagers, including a flurry of fins that Paul would miss the 9-footer.
He made it. We were tied 2-2.
And he won game 5. For me, it was do-or-die.
In May of 2000, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers played a hockey game that was not decided until the 5th overtime, one of the longest games in history. It made headlines around the continent with writers asking readers to imagine the pressure, the exhaustion. Can anyone empathize with what these players were going through?
Paul and I could. We’d played game 6 at Bull’s back in ’90.
I have since been in the delivery room for the birth of my two daughters. Those procedures were fraught with consequence, emotions and life-and-death outcomes.
Game 6 had prepared me for the drama like nothing else ever could.
I swear, each of us had credible chances to win. But the game was destined to go on.
I finally won on a crazy bank shot that drew cheers so loud I thought the chimney on the old stone fireplace was going to topple.
Game 7 was oddly flat. I think we’d put so much into Game 6 we had nothing left. Paul won. I'd be speaking to the kids.
It was the greatest competition in which I’d ever been involved and Paul a most worthy winner.
We stuck around another hour or so to shake hands and get road sober enough for the drive back to Latrobe.
I’ll never forget emerging from Bull’s and looking across the parking lot to where a banged up tractor trailer lay on its side. Paul and I surveilled it and said something like, “There’s something you don’t see every day,” and moved on.
As was our custom, we went first to the office to check the answering machine. On a day when there should have been 3 or 4 calls, there were 12.
The first was from our editor and it was frantic.
“Paul! Chris! There’s a report of a runaway tractor-trailer overturned by Bull’s Tavern. We need you guys there right away!”
The urgency was evident the next two messages, but with each new message it began to dwindle. I remember one of the last ones was the plaintive editor crying out, “Helloooo! Helllooooo! Is there anybody there?”
The last message was full surrender.
“Uh, Paul, Chris, just forget about that thing in Ligonier. We sent the intern.”
To summarize, Paul and I spent a day in the bar battling to see who would not have to go to a local school to extol the virtues of newspaper writing, and while we were doing this we nearly got creamed by actual breaking news that neither of us recognized as having even the least news value.
So stop by the Tin Lizzy. The pool is free.
And if you’re at all interested, I’ll be happy to tell you what I told those aspiring journalists. And that's that sometimes the best stories happen away from the most commotion.