Monday, March 21, 2011

Ping to the Pong

I was a half-decent table tennis player. At least I thought I was. We had a fancy table at home that my dad built (the base was all lumber, with sturdy four-by-four legs; none of that folding metal crap for him), and that's where I learned to play. I also honed my skills on the table at the Y Camp of the Rockies, which was in rarified air 8,000 feet above sea level in Estes Park, Colorado. If anyone was going to get a nice bounce out of the ball, that was the place to do it.
But then I found myself at MIT, and I couldn't compete with the Chinese students who dominated the tables in the Student Center. For that matter, I wasn't even at the top of the depth chart on Second East. That honor belonged to John Richardson, who graduated in 1977, after having beaten most of us into submission over three years. Not only did he play barefoot, but he could put an English on the ball that was unbelievable. And he had hair like Andre Agassi.

Ping-pong was a pastime we all indulged in - frequently when we were stoned, or drunk, or trying to forget an upcoming thermo exam. We also played variations, such as Fling-Flong, which reversed all the normal rules of ping-pong by requiring players to bounce the ball once on their side of the net and once on the other side, and a game that was half ping-pong and half Chinese fire drill (no, the Chinese students who dominated the tables at Stratton did not play it), in which players would hit the ball while running around the table. But mostly, we played conventional ping-pong. Most of us used the "shake hands" grip that every kid learns starting out. Some were practiced enough to use the "pen-holder" grip that made the Chinese such ferocious competitors. And then there was Paul Alfille, who found a broken paddle with no handle on it and played every game gripping it around the outside edge with his fingertips. He got so good at it that he never played ping-pong again with a paddle that had a handle.

When I was a senior, I actually got to manage a ping-pong tournament for the Student Center Committee. I almost regretted it. At the last minute, I let in a Chinese player who hadn't signed up by the deadline; when I did, his colleagues shook their heads, "You know he's going to win the tournament..." He would have - except after demolishing three successive foes, he took a lengthy lunch and missed his quarter-final match, for which he was disqualified.
I drew my share of Stickles cartoons that featured ping-pong ("Jump the Net", for example). I also drew my share of cartoons whose humor was slightly blue. However, because I still entertained dreams of cartooning in family newspapers when I got out of school, I had to make them family-friendly...which meant I had to Bowdlerize a few of the off-color words.
This was not even the final version; I changed the word to "lucky", just in case someone knew the homonym to that word. If I ever draw the strip again, though, I'm not going to f%$#&^g sanitize it.

So who was really the best player in our dorm?

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