Ch. 1. The Pool Hall

One hot, humid day approaching the end my seventh year in school, my principal, Mr. Caldwell, suddenly appeared at the door to my classroom and called me out of class. The other students in the room had never seen me extracted from class for anything before, so of course they said, “You’re in truuuuuubullllll,” as seventh-graders are wont to do.

“Get your stuff.” he said curtly, although he did have a tiny smile on his lips. Probably not a good thing, I thought. He pushed back the shock of black hair suspended above his forehead. His hair always looked like it was reaching forward as if it were somewhat dissatisfied with its current arrangements and was seeking a new home.

“What for?” I gulped. I didn’t know how to interpret what he said. Naturally, I assumed I was in trouble since I was talking to the principal, the Keeper of the Paddle. I didn’t know how to react to being in trouble, especially when I was fairly certain I had done nothing wrong. Pretty sure, anyway.

“You’ll see. I already called your mom,” he said. He jerked his head to the side, indicating the door. This gave his pompadour permission to resume its attempt to escape.

“OooooooOOOOOHHHH,” resumed the seventh graders, fulfilling their role. I got up. I was nearly as tall as he was, which was more of a testament to his short stature than to my height. I looked at my teacher, who shrugged noncommittally. So we turned and left. As we walked down the lone hallway bisecting the elementary school he said, offhandedly, “We’re going to town.” I looked at him in query but he did not pick up on the cue.

We went outside into the humid spring afternoon air. The school was surrounded on all sides by hills covered in trees, broad leafy green leaves alternating with smothering knots of kudzu. We got into his car, a nondescript four-door sedan you might expect an elementary school principal to drive. He turned off the radio, which had started wailing some country tune as the car engine sputtered to life. When I was done buckling my seat belt, he took off down the winding road that followed the river into Hazard. Actually, the road went up at first onto the narrow unlined two-lane road that was etched into the side of the steep hills surrounding the school.

It was 1975. 

Hazard was about a half-hour trip from school. In those days Hazard was a small town of some 7,000 souls, give or take a few, depending on whether or not it was the first of the month and the government checks had come in. The Dukes had not yet made an appearance on television, so people in other parts of the country had no sense of where the town was or what was in it. (Not that the television show gave them any sense of what the town was like even when the show was on.) It was the location of the county office of education, universally known throughout all school systems as “the downtown office.” At least, that’s where I assumed we were going.

The principal didn’t offer an explanation. It never occurred to me to call home to verify that he’d spoken to my mother or that no field trip forms or paperwork had been issued. He was the principal, like the boss; and as a student I dutifully followed directions. This was the 1970’s and the kind of precautions parents and students take for granted today would have seemed insulting then.  Along the way we chatted about inconsequential things, like school and grades and such.  I finally got the nerve to ask him where we were going. All I got in return was a cryptic “You’ll see soon enough.”

Once we arrived in town we stopped in front of the only pool hall in town, at one end of Main Street. Odell’s Place, declared a slightly unleveled sign hand-painted and suspended from a rusty chain attached to a rusty pipe extruding from a rust-stained whitewashed concrete block wall. A hand-drawn sign attached with decaying tape on the window declared No chilldren alowed. Rusted metal Coke and Bud signs clung to the walls and a neon COLDBEER fixture sputtered in the darkened window. Inside, the pool hall was a dank, dark, smoke-filled room populated by men with tattoos and enormous bellies alternating places with scrawny, gangly fellows sporting beards desperately seeking the ground, wearing half-length sleeveless t-shirts that exposed their ribs. These men trudged around the pool tables, faces lined with concentration, cigarettes hanging loosely from their lips, hair slicked back, shirts clinging to them due to the humid air. In the back the ching-ching-ching of mechanical pinball machines was only interrupted by the occasional cursing of a patron who missed a shot. One or two of them grinned at us, and revealed a competition between existing and missing teeth for space. No one seemed to notice it was strange to have an underage boy in the place, despite the fact that bottled beer was being sold from a cooler on the side of the room with a lid that slid sideways, like the ice cream cooler at the peanut store near my house.

“Mr. Caldwell,” I said, finally summoning the courage to ask, “Wh-why are we here?”

“I want you to meet someone,” he replied. “Louis Newberry.” He beckoned me to follow.

What could I do? Run for help? Scream?

I followed.

We worked our way to the back of the pool hall, where we found a pair of blue jean-clad legs, connected to feet, protruding from the open face of a pinball machine. It looked as if the pinball machine was an alligator eating someone alive. Alligator jaws open upward. Crocodile jaws open downward, said a voice in my head.

“Louis,” he said, poking the fellow’s ankle. “Louis. Lou. It’s me. I brought that boy I told you about.” Ching-ding said the pinball machine as he extracted himself.

Louis Newberry was one of those fidgety fellows who looked like he was always a bit nervous about something he wouldn’t divulge even if you asked. His pockets were stuffed with things, too many things that made them bulge uncomfortably. He lifted his head from the innards of the machine and stared at me. His eye twitched as he looked me over. Too much caffeine, or other substances, probably. He had yellowish grease spots all over his shirt, and bits of wire insulation suspended in his hair. He extricated himself from the pinball machine and hopped to the floor.

“OK,” he said, nodding at Caldwell. “I’ll take it from here.”

I still didn’t know what was going on, and then Mr. Caldwell suddenly decided he had to be somewhere else.

“I’ve got to go downtown to the district office,” he said. This was about a block away from our current location. “I’ll be back in twenty minutes or so to pick you up.”

I started to ask him again what was going on, but he turned on his heel and left.

“Come on, boy,” said Newberry. “We’re going upstairs.”

I swallowed my doubts and followed him into a narrow, twisting stairwell that turned this way and that and grew narrower as we climbed, until we arrived into a loft-like area above the pool hall. What the heck is going on? I thought to myself. In a different era I would have run away and called to strangers for help. Heck, if it had gotten any weirder, I would have done it then.

“What are you waiting on?” he said. “Come on, I don’t have much time.”

Calling for help might have been an option. But not then, and not there. I followed.

At the top of the stairs I realized that the loft wasn’t a living space–it was a workshop, containing boxes of parts–pinball machine parts– and electrical equipment.

My guide extracted a cardboard box and pulled out a large black box with a needle on the front accompanied by a large knob. The case was made of bakelite, I think. Wires dangled from connections on the front.

“This here’s a multi-meter,” he said. “See, you turn this knob, and this is how you get your Ohms, and your Amps, and your Volts.”

“It measures electricity,” I said.

“Yup,” he said. “It’s a ‘lectrician’s best friend. I use one all the time. This one here’s gettin’ a little old. “ He put it in a cardboard box. “Now over here are switches, and knobs and pots,” he said, gesturing. “wires, and light bulbs and sockets, ‘gator clips and such. Help yourself. Fill up the box and come on downstairs.”

I’m getting stuff to experiment with? I thought, incredulously. Multimeters like this were expensive. “Do I get to borrow this stuff?”

He nodded.

“How long can I keep this stuff to work with it?” I asked.

“I dunno,” he replied as he returned to the pool hall. “A couple of months, maybe. Just bring it back when you’re done.”

What was I supposed to do with it? I thought, as I filled the box with resistors and wires and knife switches.

Downstairs, he was again wrestling with the guts of the pinball machine.

“Look here,” said Newberry. “Down here, this is your actuator, and this is your momentary single-pole switch on the bumper. And this here is the relay that triggers the score counter when you go through that whirlygig there.”

I didn’t understand much of what he was saying, but I could see the chains of devices linked together, all wired together like a rat’s nest of copper wiring. “How does it know you put money in?”

“There’s a trigger over here from the coin box, see,” he said, pointing. “A coin makes it through the filter, it triggers this reed switch right here, an’ that starts up the game and resets the score with this line right here.”

“What’s wrong with it? Why do you have it open?”

“One of the flappers over here warn’t triggering the bonus it was ‘spose to,” he replied. “But I fixed it.” With that he closed the lid on the pinball machine.

The closing lid revealed that Mr. Caldwell was there, waiting for me to finish asking questions. I looked at him, holding my box of electrical treasures.

“You ready?” he said. I nodded. “Thanks,” he said to Newberry, who waved as we left the pool hall.

“No problem,” said Newberry. He was already fishing around in his pockets for some sort of a tool, on to the next task.

It never occurred to me to ask him how he knew Newberry, or if he made a habit of hanging around in smoky pool halls.

In the car on the way back to school, I pondered what had happened as the steep hillsides blanketed with trees alternately shaded us and revealed the sun. Vines completely covered one side of the road and were making a break for the other side via a power cable. Finally I asked him, “Mr. Caldwell, what am I supposed to do with this stuff?”

“Figure out how it works,” he said simply. “Play with it. You’ll think of something.”

“Why did you pick me to do this? Why not some other kid?”

“Jeff, we all know you’re capable of doing more than we have time to give you,” he replied. “There’s the potential in you to do great things. I was talking to your teacher and your mom, and we just decided to give you a little nudge today. Don’t know if it’ll lead anywhere. Might not. But if we never try to challenge you– and especially if you don’t challenge yourself– you won’t ever find out what you can really do.”

He looked at me with a little lopsided grin. Kind of made him look like Elvis.

“Don’t ever settle for just doing what your teachers ask you to do. That’s just a test to see who’s paying attention.”

I thought about that for a long time, and resolved to try to do something with the opportunity that had been handed to me.

For several weeks I tried different combinations of parts, and eventually figured out the essentials of Ohm’s law connecting voltage, current, and resistance. I learned to connect an ammeter in series and a voltmeter in parallel. My classmates were impressed when I showed them how to use an Ohmmeter as a lie detector; the conductivity of human skin changes when you sweat, and the theory is you sweat when you lie. 

You would think that such an opportunity would have turned itself into a science fair project, but that never occurred to me. I was just playing catch-up with things that were already known. I was in no position to make new discoveries with the multimeter, and I knew it.

On the other hand, I did learn enough about electricity I was able to construct a quiz-box that buzzed and blinked when you connected the answer to the question. I learned enough about soldering to disassemble a broken radio and install its indicator lights in the eye sockets of a plastic skull that had an unfortunate encounter with my sister’s fist late one night. I learned to test batteries, and to see if electrical outlets were live, and a lot of other fact-based things. The real effect it had on me was when I went to college I gravitated towards things electrical in my physics courses. I learned what I could on my own, and eventually returned the kit to its owner.

There was another side effect of the visit to the pool hall. I knew people were watching me, and expected me to do more than just get good grades. Eventually, I realized that that was more important than understanding Ohm’s Law.

© Jeff Adkins 2014