By Bill Derby
I was watching a re-run episode of ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ last week. Ray and his dad, Frank, were locked in battle over the ping pong table in their basement. They exchanged heated barbs trying to rattle the other into unforced errors. Ray exclaimed he had let his dad win a game in earlier years. The challenge was on.
The show brought back memories of my dad and me doing the same thing. I was 12 and remember the day he brought home the ping pong table. It was a major event in our home. I had never played much before. He said he would teach me the game. He seemed to know all the rules and taught me the fundamentals.
After a couple months of hitting back and forth I acquired more ability and was able to return his simple shots. We became more competitive. Soon the big day came.
“Son, each time you can beat me, I’ll give you one dollar,” he exclaimed.
I thought to myself this was going to be an easy way to earn some real dough. I had won a few games during my training period. Little did I know he was setting me up.
“Okay, we’ll play two out of three,” he said. “We’ll volley for serve.”
Of course, he won the serve. I went into my defensive crouch waiting for his straightforward serve. Instead of his usual serve he put some kind of forward spin or “English” on the brand new ball. It spun over the net, coming in low and hot. I managed to get my paddle on the ball. It shot straight off the table at ninety degrees.
“Hey, what in the world was that?” I yelled.
“That’s my game serve,” Dad said with a smile.
He kept hitting serves with forward or backward spin. As I countered his sideways “English” he changed his spin to the opposite side. Each shot I returned flew off at ninety degrees. I couldn’t return one serve. I backed up a little. He put backspin on his next serve barely clearing the net. I charged for his slow shot but it bounced back over onto his side of the net with his reverse “English.”
“Okay, I’ll give you one to hit back,” he laughed.
He sailed an easy serve over the net. I finally returned it. “Whop”… his return overhand smash whistled by my right ear. Soon he informed me I had been “skunked.” In other words, he had won seven straight points to my zero.
Dad explained his ping pong lesson, “I just wanted to show you how the game is really played. I learned how to hit these shots growing up in Detroit and during college. I was pretty good in my day.”
I developed my game each time we played. He eased up a bit on his serves and I did manage to score a few points here and there. I tried to get him to show me his serving techniques. He said they were secret and very technical and that I would have to learn on my own.
All through high school I was never able to beat him. Our games got heated. He started using a taunting psychology every time I got close to winning a match.
“Hey weakling, get it over the net…a girl can hit it harder than you, wimpy,” he might chime. I was listening to him more than concentrating on my shots. Our competition became more and more heated over the years, but I could never beat him. I even mastered his serve.
After I got married dad gave me the ping pong table for my house. When mother and dad came to visit, we usually ended up playing “two out of three.” It was a special time for both of us– competition between father and son. I realized later in life he was teaching me lessons not only for the game but how to be competitive and how to concentrate under pressure. I still never won a buck.
After his heart by-pass surgery at Vanderbilt, he lost a little of his ping pong technique. I even managed to win a couple of games, but he was still tough. I never asked him to pay up after losing a game. He didn’t seem to remember his early wager. But what he did give me was worth a whole lot more than money.
It was quality time spent with my father enjoying one another’s company without a single care in the world, except getting the next shot over the net.