Monday, August 16, 2010

Did "Fast Eddie" Start This Way?

In the Robert Burns poem, “To a Mouse,” he famously states “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” That’s how it was with Carol and me and our plans to attend the grand 125th anniversary celebration of the town of Elnora. Because we were unable to be there in person, I will have to not only be content with reading the articles and viewing the pictures in the Elnora Post, but also with comments and pictures that my Elnora “Facebook Friends” posted on their electronic “walls.” Most of all, I will forever cherish my own indelible personal memories of my beloved little hometown.

When Carrol Vertrees posed the question in a recent Elnora Post article as to whether Elnora had a pool hall, I could have easily answered with a resounding, “Yes!” One of my most vivid recollections concerns that little “den of iniquity” as my mother once labeled it.

My teenage years in Elnora during the late 1950’s included a summer daily routine which almost always consisted of me taking a half mile walk from our home on the easternmost edge of town to the bustling business district where all the action was. Sheldon Eubanks' barber shop and Bob Foster’s pharmacy were both on the west side of Odon Street, just north of Main. I’d go into Sheldon’s place, read a comic book or two, and then head over to Mr. Foster’s to purchase some kind of treat before trekking back home.

I always walked home down the west side of Odon Street before turning on Main because Puckett’s Tavern and Harley Wesner’s pool hall were both on the east side of the street and my mother had specifically told me to avoid walking near those businesses. She was overly protective since I wore leg braces and walked with crutches and was concerned that “some drunk” might stumble out of the tavern and bump into me, knocking me to the ground.

However, one day, for whatever reason, I crossed over to the east side of the street after leaving Foster’s and found myself peering into the open front door of the Elnora pool hall. A man, presumably Harley Wesner, asked me if I wanted to come in and “roll the balls around” since the place was empty and he had no other customers. He said he wouldn’t charge me anything, but because I was so young (probably 13 or 14) he couldn’t let me use a pool cue because that would be against the rules.

I thought it sounded like fun, so I accepted his offer. Upon entering, I saw two or three pool tables with green felt tops, leather braided pockets, and horizontal wires extended high over the tops of each table with abacus-like beads strung on the wires for the purpose of keeping score. Mr. Wesner explained that players would slide the beads along the wires with their pool sticks whenever they “made a shot.” I stayed in the place for probably not more than 15-20 minutes and realized that playing pool without a stick wasn’t that much fun, so I thanked Mr. Wesner and left for home.

That evening, after my parents returned from work, the conversation turned to what I had done for the day. As I outlined my activities, I concluded by telling them about my little visit to the pool hall. Wow! You would have thought I had committed some kind of mortal sin. My dad flew out of the house and went directly downtown to confront Mr. Wesner and explain to him in very specific language that I was never to enter that lowly establishment again. And, I never did.

Following my graduation from Elnora High, I began my freshman year at Purdue in the fall of 1961. Much to my surprise, as I was touring the Student Union Building for the first time, I saw a “sunken” room with a staircase leading down to probably two dozen very modern pool and billiard tables with students playing at nearly every one of them. I was shocked to see the game being played in such a brightly-lit atmosphere by clean-cut young people who probably weren’t scared their parents would learn of their “immoral” activities. Heck, I even played there a few times myself during my college days.

It was also during 1961 that “The Hustler” premiered starring Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson and Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats. Fast Eddie was a drunken pool shark who finally beat Fats near the end of the movie. I saw the film at the New Moon Art Theater in Lafayette which played movies geared toward “adult” audiences. Some of the dimly-lit pool halls depicted in the film reminded me very much of Harley Wesner’s place in Elnora.

Many years later, a friend of mine at work told a group of us how Paul Newman randomly stopped at his wife’s two widowed aunts’ house in another state to ask for directions. Somehow, I doubt if he was searching for the Elnora pool hall, but THAT would have made a great story.

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