I learned the game politely called pocket billiards from my best friend Brad while we were both in elementary school. He had a table in the basement, and we gave those clay balls a workout. I had to keep one eye on Brad while the other was on the cue ball. He had a habit of giggling and shoving balls into the side pockets.
His family invited me down to their home at Pomme de Terre Lake, located about 50 miles north of Springfield, Missouri. I learned to cast a fishing line for the trip using a Tinkertoy practice lure, but we never got around to the real thing. We preferred water-skiing on his dad's speedboat rather than angling for a few bass, and I didn't eat fish anyway.
As this was the early 1980's, video game arcades were popping up all over the place. The lake had one such establishment: The Blue Moon Arcade. Brad and I went there between the boating and an ice cream social at a friend's house down the street. It housed mostly second-tier games like Kickman, but the main attraction was the pool room, with its red-felted deluxe table, and a local shark eager to take on all comers.
He wasn't that much older than me. But he'd been around: he carried a two-piece Busch beer pool cue and a sly grin. I carried a baby face and the naivety of a fifth-grader who didn't know a bank shot from a bank loan. Given the lameness of the video-game selection and his friendly persona, I was game.
What happened next had faded over the course of many years, but I recall the house hustler had no problem sinking shots. Your humble billiard novice, however, had trouble merely driving two balls to a cushion on the break. Brad's Mom didn't seem to mind. She sat there, entertained, probably making sure we weren't going to make side bets.
Busch Cue Man played a workable game of eight-ball. But if you have a rudimentary knowledge of eight-ball, you know the floor can drop out from under you with one errant pocket of the wrong ball at the right time. It happened. To him.
The eight ball went right in, just as he was beginning to savor another easy victory.
"You beat me," he gasped, color draining from his face as he clenched his Busch cue like a security blanket.
I should've bet something -- maybe not his cue, but something more fun like making him cast a fishing line with a cue ball lure.
The Blue Moon Arcade didn't last much longer, crashing with the end of the video game craze. My pool exploits moved to our house playroom, when we acquired a table from Grandpa Francis. Those balls took a beating. I took more losses than I can remember, and played many solo games to forget. But the legend of beating the Blue Moon Hustler is whispered among the trees of Pomme de Terre, if only in my dreams.