February 12, 2022by Jon Kramer

The Original Mr. Brunswick Pool Sharks and Cowboys

Copyright 2-12-2022  /   4,537 words by Jon Kramer

Nonfiction.  These events took place early 1980s.

While in college, one of my keen interests was billiards.  I have always been attracted to geometric puzzles and the game intrigued me from early on.  In high school my friends and I spent considerable time at the pool table.  On campus I resumed the commitment.  There was quiet – but fierce – competition in the campus pool hall.  It wasn’t always about the game.  Some of what was in play was sex – the opposite sex, that is.

There was a group of coeds that showed up to play 8-ball almost every day I was there.  It seemed like we had the same schedule.  They were serious and shot well, sometimes even running the table.  And they looked as fine as they played.  To me those ladies were hot in more ways than one!  Being charged with college-level testosterone, I wanted to get into that action in the worst way.  But I was intimidated.  They were better than me, and I knew it.

I became determined to improve my game.  Isn’t it pathetic some of the reasons we need to improve ourselves?   But I admit it – I was quite vain about it – I wanted to become a “pool shark”.  I wanted to kick billiard ass, so to speak, and do it in a way that impressed people – especially the ladies.  And once I commit to learning something, I go all the way with it.  Advancing my pool game became an obsession.   Only problem was, I had no clue how to go about it.  That is, until I met Slow Eddie, an ex-con who had perfected his game in the Big House.

Although I spent a lot of time smacking balls in the basement of the Student Union, it wasn’t very convenient when you lived 15 miles away.  Near my home, however, there was a local place of shady repute called the Cue Club.  It was located in – of all places –  the basement of a small, rundown strip mall that housed a liquor store, smoke shop, tattoo parlor, and a laundromat (you can’t make this stuff up!).  To enter, you had to go around back of the building to the dumpsters and descend a set of dark, greasy steps below a flickering neon sign whose light tubes were half broken.

The Cue Club had a reputation, and not a savory one.  It was in the papers periodically for brawls inside and muggings outside in the parking lot.  Enter at your own risk.  Just the thought of the place seemed like something straight out of The Godfather.  Nevertheless, when summer rolled around, I screwed up my courage and decided to take a trip into the dungeon.  It was creepy.

One evening I descended into the gloom and opened the battered steel door with great trepidation.  I honestly thought about turning around as soon as I got into the place.  It was musty, smokey, and smelled of… well, a lot of things you might associate with a biker party that had gone on way too long.  It looked like a Hells Angels den, if there is such a thing.   Thick pools of smoke hung in the air like ground fog in a swamp.  Smog-shrouded lamps hung over ancient, abused pool tables.   Tattooed, tank-top players were drinking, arguing, and pushing each other around. The air was thick with aggression and contempt.   As I waded into the swirling darkness, people turned and looked.  An obvious newcomer, I tried to act cool and confident – just the opposite of how I felt.

The most awkward thing about being new to a rat-hole pool hall like this is not knowing the local pecking order, nor the proper protocol.  Here are all these goons looking at you and the last thing you want to do is act like the doofus that you are.  But what do you do?  Do I sign up for a table, or just boldly go claim one?  Do I pay cash, or leave a credit card with the barkeep?   Order drinks at the bar, or is there a waitperson?   If you have no clue – like I presently had none of – there’s a lot of ways to go wrong.  You have no choice but to wing it.

I approached the bar, the obvious headquarters of this dive.  There were no stools – standing only.  The bartender was yucking it up with a guy who was leaning nearby, relaying a story of some kind. …so then I beat his ass and took both his money and beer… blah, blah, blahThey laughed together, obvious tight chums.

Serves him right, the bartender chuckled.

They both eyed me suspiciously as I leaned against the bar.  I stood there for an eternity acting all casual, not a care in the world, just scanning the horizon…  The bartender eventually decided I didn’t have enough sense to leave of my own accord, so he came over.

You want somethun?  he asked, accusingly.

I was thinking of a Yuengling and a table, I said as nonchalantly as I could.

You know how to play? he smirked menacingly.

A little... I clipped.  What’s with this guy?

I was trying desperately to act cool in this game of cat-and-mouse.   I had one slight advantage – for a few minutes I had the element of surprise on my side.  They had no clue who I was.   For all they knew, I was the best pool shark north of the Mason Dixon Line, dropping in to hustle them out of all they owned.   They’d either open the place up for me, or kick my ass.  At present I was hoping for the former.

The other guy came over.  He looked like he had just escaped Alcatraz.  What’s that? he asked, pointing to the case I’d brought with me.  It contained my old pool cue, which I’d named Mr. Brunswick, for the logo that it sported at its base. It was not a particularly clever name, mind you, and had no deep meaning as far as I was concerned.  I often make up names for my devices based simply on the label.

Mr. Brunswick was a second-hand antique in a battered old leather case.  I bought it spontaneously when a fellow came into the Student Union looking for some fast cash.  I need to fix my car, he implored.  It’s a good stick – been in the family for years. He sold it to me for two Jacksons.

I set Mr. Brunswick on the bar and slid it over.

Where you from? asked the bartender while Alcatraz opened the case.  He made no effort to address the suggested order I’d just placed, nor offered anything about getting a table.  I told him I was from Aspen Hill, which was only a few miles away, trying to establish my bon fides as a local.  He nodded stone-faced and stood there like a petrified monolith, not moving, and certainly not getting my beer.

Are you kidding me?!  shouted Alcatraz, suddenly excited, his face an expression of complete surprise.  He was eyeing the lower end of the stick, the part with Mother-of-pearl inlay.   He shot a look over to the bartender as he held out the cue:  Jessie  – do you know what this is?  It’s a goddamned ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Brunswick original!  An original!  He turned to me, Where’d you get this?

The thought crossed my mind to feed him a complete line of bullshit:  Oh, that’s a story – My dad was given the cue many years ago as a gift from the Sheik of Oman after saving his son’s life.  It was an act of pure heroism:  Dad was fishing on the upper Potomac River near Harper’s Ferry when a car flew out of control and crashed off the bridge into the river – right in front of him!  Dad swung into action.  He dove down into the murky depths, got to the car, and pulled the kid free.  It was a miracle he survived.  The sheik learned that dad was into pool and he gave him this stick….

But, instead, I told him how I’d really acquired it.  At that point, it occurred to me I had no clue what it was I’d bought.  To me it was just a grand old cue stick.  It certainly looked old, and I liked the Mother-of-pearl in the grip.  But beyond that, I had no idea.  I didn’t know a Brunswick from a dipstick.   But Alcatraz did.  He carefully examined the weapon top-to-bottom.  Wow – That thing’s awesome!  he quipped while returning it to the case.  But it’d be a better story if you said you won it during a 9-ball shootout…

Maybe so, but I’m not that good, I replied, laying my cards on the table.  You don’t brag about your game – or your accessories – especially when you’re a newbie.  Even if you’re good, it doesn’t bode well for first impressions.  I took a chance and did the opposite, letting it be known I was a billiards neophyte, throwing myself at the mercy of the court.

 Well, it’s a damn fine stick and anybody carrying it ought to know how to use it.  He slid it back and thrust out his hand.  Name’s Eddie, Eddie Carmichael.  They call me “Slow Eddie”.  Bastards.  It’s meant as some kinda answer to Fast Eddie Parker, I guess.  But just call me Eddie – still not sure if I like the Slow part.  We shook hands.

 Jessie, don’t just stand there, you dumb ass! – get the man a beer, will ya?  Eddie commanded.  I finally got the Yuengling.  Jessie even nodded as he handed it over, although I could tell he wasn’t ready to do more than acknowledge my presence just yet.  I paid in cash.  Cash is always legal tender among hoodlums.

Let’s shoot some pool! Eddie barked.  I’ll show you how to use that thing.  It seemed as though I had passed initiation – totally by accident, but nonetheless valid in the shady courtroom of the Cue Club.  We moved over to a corner table.

Now I’m gonna tell ya – this here’s my table, Eddie announced, in all seriousness.  MY table. Anybody shootin here when I come in has to play me right then to keep it.  If they lose, they give it up, along with two beers.  And I don’t mind sayin, they give it up every time. 

That was, I learned, no exaggeration.  As it turned out, Slow Eddie Carmichael was consistently the star player at the Cue Club.  The top kahuna.  In the underworld of pool hall hustlers, Eddie was famous.  I’d stumbled into a friendship with what was probably the best pool player in the Mid Atlantic, and maybe one of the best in the country.  For the next three hours Eddie showed me some things about his game.

You and I will play later, he instructed.  I’m not gonna embarrass you by clobbering your ass just yet.  I’ll show you some stuff.  But what you need to do right now is watch.  No questions, just watch.  Questions later.

I watched, with amazement, as Eddie shot balls around the table.  I’d seen a lot of pool in my day, but never had I witnessed anything like the smooth, righteous game of Slow Eddie Carmichael.  He was a phenomenon.

Over the next several months, me and Mr. Brunswick spent a lot of time in the Cue Club.   For some reason Eddie took a liking to me and treated me as a favored pupil.  Maybe he saw potential in me that I had not recognized in myself –  I don’t know.  But I felt strangely at home from the moment Eddie put out his hand.  Jessie eventually came around too, acting like we’d been best friends since way back when.  As a result, the Cue Club crowd took me in as part of the tribe.

Eddie called me “Kracken”, a triple-entendre mashing together my last name and the mythical sea monster, with the fact that when we first met all I did was “crack balls” and chase the results around the table, not really knowing what I was doing. Ironically, several years later, I would assume the very same title as my surfing nickname when I learned how to surf.  At first, I was dubious, but I got to like it.

I learned my game from Eddie.   It dawned on me that before Eddie, all I did was bang balls around with Mr. Brunswick.  I had little idea as to what I was doing, or how to do it.  But when I got tutored by the Slow Man, it was 8-ball and 9-ball Boot Camp.  The first thing I learned is: I didn’t know anything at all about pool.  The next thing I learned is: pool isn’t just geometry.  It’s also physics, art, and dance.  And, importantly, psychology.

Eddie helped me build my entire game from the ground up.  Week after week I refined my approach by watching and mimicking Eddie as best I could. It started with straightening out my stroke. I had no idea how bad it was.

Kracken, you hold the stick OK, but Christ Almighty your stroke is crookeder than a dog’s leg!, Eddie lamented.  He came over, took Mr. Brunwick out of my hands and lined it up on the rail, slowly moving it back and forth atop his thumb.

See this here line – where the felt bumper meets the sideboard?  I want you to practice sliding that cue back and forth straight along that line.  It proved to be a simple, but effective, technique to learning how to drive a straight cue stroke.

After I finally ditched the dog-leg, which took longer than you’d think, Eddie helped me add new strokes to my repertoire – names of which I had never known: reverse slip, backward draw, the Magnificent Masse.  I learned how to place balls and plot out future shots.   Like any game of skill, learning strategy is paramount in advancing to the next level.

Most importantly, Eddie taught me the mind game.  I’d never really thought about the mental aspect to it, but, like boxing, mindset and attitude are huge components of the game.  A sharpshooter with no focus can easily be bested by a lesser player that keeps his head in the game.

Look at those clowns,  Eddie motioned toward a group of Latinos that called themselves the Aztec Empire team.  A couple of them were obviously good, but they played very aggressively, even annoyingly.  They zoomed around the table like it was some kind of NASCAR race, slamming the cue ball every which way.   

 They do that shit to intimidate people, Eddie counseled.  But don’t pay it any mind, Kracken.  It’s just show.  I let’em strut around impressing their ladies and all.  Then I kick their ass up one wall and down the other. 

Slow Eddie was, in fact, slow.  He had earned that title.  He was annoyingly slow.  Painfully slow.  Maddeningly slow.  He approached the table ever-so-slowly, with cool calculation.  Never in a hurry.  He did no talking while working his turn, always slinking around the table like a big cat eyeing its prey.  Slow and easy.

Other guys would play three games while Eddie was still finishing one.  His opponents would invariably get pissed waiting for him to make a shot.  At first, they’d start mumbling.  Then they’d ratchet it up to voiced-out-loud complaining.  Eventually they’d start yelling at him: Will ya take a fucking shot Eddie?! We ain’t got all night!  

 In time, I realized it was all part of Eddie’s game.  Nothing pisses them off more than slow-boating, he said. Don’t be in any hurry…

Eddie’s philosophy was: take it slow – real slow.  Do what you can to get the opposition all worked up.  If they ask you a question, don’t answer.  Or, if you do, say the question is stupid and you won’t answer because only a dumb-ass would ask such a thing,  And, out of principle,  you don’t abide dumb-asses.  Do whatever it takes to get your opponent mad.  The madder the better.  Spitfire mad!  Jumping up-and-down mad! When that happens, they subconsciously shift from concentrating on the game to taking out their anger on you. They lose their focus and screw up because they let their emotions get the best of them.

The second you stop focusing on your game, the opponent has already won… Eddie had it nailed.

Over the summer, I did my best to adopt Eddie’s game as my own. I focused. I took it slow.  I didn’t talk while shooting.  I slinked around the table approaching every shot with caution and calculation.  Some of it sunk in.  Probably not as much as it should have, but I was gradually developing my own game and I had greatly improved.  I wasn’t any match for Eddie, of course, but eventually I stood up well against the Aztec Empire guys. Those clowns never thought about what was ahead.  All they did was blast the cue ball as hard as they could to impress their girlfriends.  Every single time it was KABLAM! and balls ricocheted around the table. The Kracken scored, not because I could shoot better, but because I crushed them in the mind game.

I returned to campus and the basement pool hall that fall as the newly-minted Kracken.  I now had game and was eager to show off to the gals.  To my chagrin, the fine women players from the year before did not materialize.   But with my marked improvement I actually started a bit of low-level hustling.  The Kracken wasn’t much of a pool shark, but I was doing well against the collegiate crowd.   When I was home on weekends, I hung out at the Cue Club and Eddie continued to mentor me.

The summer of 1983 George and I went to Geology Field Camp in the mountains west of Colorado Springs.  The class consisted of an eclectic assembly of students from several colleges in Maryland and Pennsylvania.  The instructor was a friendly, knowledgeable, and compassionate professor from Waynesburg College.   It was a great experience in field geology.

The “camp” itself was a cement-block bunkhouse.  It was located just south of the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, a paleontologist’s wet-dream if there ever was one.  The fine “paper shales” here preserve even the most minute details of the plants and animals that thrived in the once-was lake, 34 million years ago.   We were in paleontological-hog heaven.

George and I fell in with a group from Pittsburgh and began hanging out with a couple of the gals, Peggy and Denise.  I was drawn to Denise – she was tall, funny, shapely, and strong willed.  She spoke her mind whether you liked it or not.  I liked her, she liked me, we both liked smoking a little pot and talking fossils.

The community of Florissant is not a big town.  Actually, it’s no town at all, with the exception of a couple shops, a run-down motel, and – the epicenter of it all – the Thunderbird bar.  Once a thriving boom town down the hill from the gold mines of Cripple Creek, the local economy dried up when the ore ran out and the town went bust.   It’s now sustained by ranching and tourism.  Cowboys, especially, keep the Thunderbird in operation.  It’s still there.

One evening, after a small liquor-infused shindig at the camp bunkhouse, me and George hiked over to the Thunderbird to play a little pool.  When we got there, the table was occupied by a couple young cowboys, sufficiently sloshed as to make rude comments about the city-slickers who’d just entered.  I put fifty cents on the ledge above the coin slot, indicating we were next in line.  The tall cowboy scowled.

Don’t know what you’re doin by putting down these quarters, but this here’s our table and we ain’t in no mood to give it up… snarled Cowboy Tall.   I quietly took the coins back and they continued to play, all-the-while sharing inside jokes about stupid, long-haired, Yuppies in baseball caps

After a short while, Denise and Peggy arrived.  The cowboys took note as two attractive women came over to our table.  We were all well on our way to Intoxication Nation, but ordered up a new pitcher, just to be sure.  The pool game nearby got a little more boisterous.  After awhile, Cowboy Tall slapped his cue on the table and announced:

Hey, y’all wanna play a round of 8-ball? Let’s play couples – me and JR against you two girls…

Peggy, noticing the danger, was not inclined to be trapped by the cowboy’s idea of entertainment.  And since George was effectively paired with her, he announced neither of them were interested.  Denise, on the other hand, jumped right up and yelled, Me and Jon will play you guys!

Great, Cowboy Tall said, we’ll play for a pitcher of beer.

The game started out amicable enough, Team Cowboy doing their best to impress the gals.  By virtue of the imbalance between my skill and Denise’s lack thereof, the game was running neck and neck. In her blasted state Denise couldn’t properly hold a pool cue if her life depended on it, let alone make a shot that was anything but wild and random.  If she hit the cue at all it was astonishing.   I was forced to make up for it as best I could, although the alcohol was taking hold of my cue as well.  The old dog-leg was creeping in again.

These cowboys where what Eddie would disdainfully call “weekend amateurs”.  Damned drunken jack-offs… he’d curse whenever he encountered such ignoramuses.  Their shooting was consistently mediocre and they were reliant on Lady Luck to progress their game.  But, as we all know, she sometimes smiles on even the poorest players.  So they stayed in the game despite themselves and their state of sobriety.

It eventually came down to three balls on the table – even split.  Denise was up, but missed her shot.  Then, lucky for us, Cowboy Shorty did the same.  On my turn, I easily put away our one remaining ball.  But it was a sloppy shot that left the cue across the table from the 8 with their ball in-between. To make matters worse, the 8 was laying against the bumper.    This kind of setup is my worst nightmare.  My only hope was to bank the cue off the far end and return it to kiss the 8.  But I wasn’t very good on the long shots and the slightest deviation would ruin it.

I got $10 bucks says you won’t make that shot!, Cowboy Shorty shouted.

You’re on! Denise squealed before I could say anything.  She was spirited, that’s for sure.  Even so, I hoped she had ten bucks ‘cuz I sure didn’t.

Now that money was on the line, I needed to get serious.  I tuned out all the noise and tried to focus my blurry mind, slowly creeping around the table, lining up the shot.  I studied both the “angle of incidence” and the “angle of reflection”.  The point of impact on the bumper was critical.  I had to be careful to put only simple top-spin on the ball.  After some minutes, I got into position and drew back the cue. Then, suddenly, Cowboy Tall jumps up and yells,

Better yet – you make that shot, we’ll give you $20.  If you miss it, your gal here goes home with us!

You can guess what Denise said to that:  Game on!

I glared at her – what the hell?  She smiled.  To her it was just fun and games.  But even in my blurry state I knew this match had just turned dead serious.  The problem was I wasn’t in the best shape to be playing in the first place.  I was tired and very inebriated.  I could not concentrate.   Eddie’s words were coming to me: The second you stop focusing on your game, the opponent has already won…  Up to now, I wasn’t even thinking about the game, much less focusing.  It was just a fun skirmish, nothing serious.  Until now.

Now I was in this completely ridiculous situation.  The fact it was not of my doing, was immaterial – I was in the middle nonetheless.  This predicament had the potential to become ugly.    What if I blew it? – which was a very real possibility.  How would I handle these two clowns?  I knew damn well I could trounce these guys in one-on-one pool any day of the week.  But I wasn’t the best with bank shots and it was a long way down and long way back for this one.  Moreover, I was anything but in my game.  I was drunk and just goofing around.  Suppose the shot went awry?  What if I missed?  How was I going to tell these clowns they were NOT taking Denise home with them, especially after she was the one who agreed to it?  A fight was inevitable.  The end was coming.  The pressure was on.

That fall, I never returned to the University of Maryland, or the Student Union pool hall.  Or any pool hall, for that matter.    George and I got Cocci after Field Camp and our lives were upended.  My life was completely derailed for the next couple years with chemotherapy treatments and rehab after months in the hospital.  It took years for us to rebuild our bodies after nearly dying in Salt Lake City.  I stayed in Minnesota and finished up my degree there.

Eventually, I regained many things I lost during Cocci, but pool-sharking wasn’t one of them.  The Kracken’s game had left him.  Moreover, I didn’t want it back.  Pool no longer had such a grip on me.  Yeah, I’d learned some things about the game and, with the help of an ex-con, I’d come to learn some things about myself too.

The following year, shortly after my last chemotherapy treatment, I visited my family in Maryland for a couple weeks.  One night I stopped into the Cue Club.  Jessie greeted me like a long-lost friend:  Hey everyone, look who’s here –  it’s the Kracken!   Slow Eddie wasn’t there – he was off playing a tournament somewhere.  I set my case on the bar,  slid it over to Jessie and asked him to give it to Eddie.   Inside was a note:  Eddie – Thanks for the game.

On my drive back to Minnesota, I stopped and saw Denise in Pennsylvania.  It was bittersweet – we both knew this was the last we’d see of each other.  We had lunch and laughed about camp: all the characters and all the antics.  Too soon, the time for goodbyes came.  She walked me out and, on the steps to her house, we kissed one last time.  As we drew apart, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a piece of folded paper.

A memento for you… I said, handing it to her.  It was the twenty-dollar bill from that game at the Thunderbird.

As the sun set, I drove west through the mountains chasing it.