Game table helped even the playing field in family squabbles


September 12, 1992|By ROB KASPER

The school year has started. Orderliness has replaced nonchalance. It is time to get cracking. It is time to move the Ping-Pong table indoors.

The Ping-Pong table is one item that landed in our backyard during the relaxed days of summer. Unlike the other items of backyard bounty -- two skateboards, an empty spool of telephone cable and assorted pieces of scrap lumber -- the Ping-Pong table is something that actually belongs to us and is worth keeping.

It came from neighbors who were moving to New York. Their sons are young men now, two are college age and one is a junior in high school. I guess their Ping-Pong days are behind them.

In the years the family lived down the street, I have picked up a lot from them.

They have given my household cross-country skis, various bicycle parts, a ceramic castle and, most important, some clues about what to expect when kids turn into teen-agers.

At neighborhood gatherings, I would question the parents of these older kids about what the years ahead held for me. They told tales of late-night phone calls announcing that the car wasn't working. They told of negotiation sessions where they agreed that a better grade in math earned the son the right to wear an extra earring. And they told of how the tables turn, and kids start giving parents advice on how to dress. A "cool" guy, one of the kids told his dad, does not pull his sweat socks tight. He lets them sag slightly.

I was grateful for the insights. And I was pleased to get the Ping-Pong table.

I come from a tribe of Ping-Pong players. In St. Joseph, Mo., fTC where I grew up, Ping-Pong games offered relief from boredom. At some point in the middle of the summer, the Ping-Pong table would appear on the front yard of the Mahoneys, cousins who lived up the street from us. The appearance of the table was a signal to 52 kids who lived on our block to gather at the Mahoneys' and play Ping-Pong until all the balls were lost or a new neighborhood champion emerged.

Years later, when my cousins and I were in college, another Ping-Pong tournament helped keep the generations on speaking terms with each other. In the late '60s and early '70s my relatives would gather at another cousin's house, this one in Oak Park outside Chicago. In no time, my brothers, cousins and I would be pounding the dining room table as we argued with our fathers and uncles about the Vietnam War and civil rights.

We said they were rigid and old-fashioned. They said we were naive and simplistic. At times emotions ran high. And more than once, a mother would pull aside her husband, her son, or both and tell them to calm down. These maternal warnings helped cool tempers. But it was at the Ping-Pong table down in the basement that tensions between the generations really eased. A Ping-Pong tournament was part of the family gathering. Everybody from grandparents to grandchildren was expected to play.

The playing conditions were awful. The basement of this big old house was built to accommodate an oil furnace and little else. Bad hops, bad lighting and limited room to maneuver were part of the game. These less-than-perfect playing conditions provided convenient excuse for a hot-shot college kid who was beaten by a tired old uncle.

My wife was not as enthusiastic as I about the arrival of a 9-by-5-foot green table in the house. After some "negotiations," the table was moved to the back yard. Like most rowhouse back yards, ours is narrow. The Ping-Pong table overwhelmed it. To get to our back door, you had to squeeze around the table or play a few games. For me it was easier to play than to squeeze. I was happy to discover I held the family Ping-Pong title. But I was not so happy to learn that for some reason -- it couldn't possibly be genetic -- my kids are not graceful losers to their old dad.

When the rain fell I folded the table and wheeled it under the backyard porch. There it sat until last weekend, when the household got ready for the start of school. When school starts, schedules tighten, the pace quickens, and there had better not be a Ping-Pong table blocking the path to the car. And so last weekend, as book bags were loaded, shirts washed, socks matched, I wheeled the Ping-Pong table into the basement.

Eventually, it will probably be moved to the third floor of the house. There is a room up there where our kids hang out, play computer games and listen to music. I notice that as the kids get older, they are spending more time in that room and less time with me in the basement. But for now, the Ping-Pong table will stay in the basement. The move upstairs is a task for another day, another season.

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