Drill Instructor Tanksley strolled into the day room at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, one Saturday, arriving in time to see me execute a sweet bank shot on the company pool table, a shot that was a lot easier to accomplish than it looked. It was February, 1972, and I was in the fifth week of boot camp, having been drafted during the last year that our government conducted the draft.
He was intrigued. “California, is that you sharking on my pool table?”
We were off-duty, not in uniform, past the point where we had to fear the detail patrol, and just kicking back. Recognizing that the day room was technically my terrain, I said, “It's hard to shark when you don't have any money.”
“So you fancy yourself a pool player?”
HELL, yes. “Certainly not, Drill Sergeant. I just get lucky sometimes.”
“I play a little pool myself, so if you will reserve me a game for another hour from now, I'll swing back and give you the opportunity to whip my behind with that piece of oak you got there in your hand. Don't go away now, you hear?” He smiled congenially, a Great White simply displaying his true nature.
“Where would I go, Drill Sergeant?” Indeed.
I thought about how best to handle this golden opportunity. I felt like the wide receiver who was going to get a look-see by a talent scout, simply because the scout wanted to see the quarterback display his skills, and needed a target. I was going to get to interact with a key component in establishing a light at the end of the tunnel, simply because he had to swing back by the day room in an hour, and all I had to do was be there. The question was, how did I want to play this? Was there any point in setting aside my normal game plan, and letting Tanksley think he had put one past me? Or should I just play my game and let the chips fall where they may? Not an easy choice, because there were no guarantees.
That hour dissolved into twenty minutes, and I nearly put the cue ball through the day room window, when he popped back around the doorway leading into the day room from the barracks. Apparently, an hour's worth of rounds could be negotiated away, while an appointment on the pool table was to be embraced as an addendum to an otherwise nondescript Saturday at the office. My plans were ill-formed at best, with the caveat emptor being that, DI Tanksley was expecting a pool game along the lines of an auto race featuring him in his sports car, and me in a go-cart. I was hoping to change his opinion by presenting my go-cart in the form of a Lamborghini, but I was still leery about garnering the checkered flag, for fear of its shortsightedness. I still had seven weeks to go in this quagmire of mud and ice, and I couldn't let momentary distractions influence my path.
I had been in the process of toying with the unfortunate inhabitants of the pool room, when DI Tanksley re-entered the day room, with clear expectations of immediate action.
“O'Neill, Mr. California.” It was nice to hear his voice when the volume control wasn't jammed on full throttle.
I responded in like tone, “That would be me, Drill Sergeant.” I do not know to this day why, with forty guys from LA to choose from, I became “California,” but I embraced it, and I wasn't going to stretch it by adding anything that could be construed as lip. I was on my best behavior, with my brain waves crackling in anticipation.
“Are you a shark?” he inquired pleasantly. I couldn't help remembering those pearly teeth, grinning at me, and wondered who was kidding whom?
“Not at all, Drill Sergeant. I’m not that kind of guy.”
We had momentarily dispensed with the formality of basic training, and assumed the formality of the universal pool hall. I had summarily dispatched my latest victim, and extended the branch of sportsmanship, by racking up the balls, even though DI Tanksley was the challenger. I knew that nothing would prevent me from breaking the set, and I wanted to guarantee myself a tight rack, so I magnanimously snatched the triangle, and tumbled the fifteen, brightly colored balls onto the felt from their respective pockets.
I was reasonably certain that this table had been present on its current site, during World War Two, but that was only based on the condition of the six pockets. These were fashioned from interwoven strips of some sort of fibrous reed, long since yellowed, dried, cracked and worn to a burnished color by a steady stream of trainees, trying to get a quick glimpse of neighborhood life, before returning to their letter writing.
Arranging the cue balls in an alternating pattern of stripes and solids, I pulled the rack toward me with a smart snap, and placed the finished rack on the prescribed dot. Sauntering around to the base of the table, I rotated the chalk uniformly across the surface of the cue stick tip, without looking. Lining up the break carefully, I took my time, sighting down the stick for an instant, before straightening up and deciding quickly that an infusion of baby powder was necessary for the thumb, middle and fore fingers of my right hand. We didn't actually use the words “baby powder”; it was probably the stick grease or monkey flour, or some equally generic term. With an exterior nonchalance that contrasted greatly with my churning stomach, I made sure that none of the white substance got on my ring or pinky fingers, because you just didn't.
Returning to the base of the table, I felt the eyes of my fellow trainees on me, as I tried to play my game, timeless, focused and victorious. There are different types of victories: some occur out on the range or on the P.T. Field, and some occur in the day room with a little judicious handling of a unique opportunity. I lined up the cue again, once more taking my time and allowing the cue to glide through my fingers as smoothly as melted butter through freshly popped corn. As I drew back my left arm for the initial blast, the side door burst open with a crash, as Charlie Buckles stumbled through the door, carrying a laundry basket.
“Sorry, sorry, SORRY!” From my perspective, it was beautiful. More time to draw it out. All I had to do was sink one measly ball on the break to set my plan in motion. I had no idea whether the old geezer could shoot stick, or whether he was all shlick. I wanted to shoot first, and ask questions later.
Snick! THWACK! The signature sounds of the stick striking the cue, and the cue striking the one ball, reverberated throughout the day room. I stood back casually and watched as the fifteen balls began their individual journeys along the felt, webbing out in all directions, the balls at the top end of the table crashing into the far rail, to come slamming back toward the center of the table.
I thought again, “Just give me one,” and meandered over to the duty roster on the glass partition, to scan it for my name. I had my back to the table as the balls began to slow down. Just one. The soft click of the ball in a wicket, was as sweet as my name at mail call, and I turned back around, careful to disdain any effort to see whether I had sunk a solid or a stripe. The cue ball was not especially well placed, but the table was spread out nicely. I selected the most convenient duck, and went about the task efficiently. My game plan was to take advantage of the seldom used, but nonetheless, perfectly legal tactic of randomly shooting both solids and stripes until I missed. At that time I would choose one or the other. There is no advantage to be gained, except for that of approach. After all, I was willing to sink as many balls I could, merely to foster the notion that I was a confident guy, who was cocky enough to spot his [unknown] opponent as many as three or four balls. How smart is that?
If I were ultimately trying to win the game, it was as smart as Charlie Buckles. If I were trying to create an image, then winning occupied a slightly different position than it might normally have done. I put a total of eight straight balls in, a chore simplified greatly by the nature of the break, and by my refusal to be rushed. All that discipline that DI Tanksley had been instilling, rose to the occasion. Slow, measured movement was the name of the game, with no grandstanding, using the soft touch all the way. Some guys derive a lot of enjoyment out of the explosive shot, as a regular tool. You know what they say about guys compensating for various shortcomings by driving around in mammoth pickup trucks? Same thing. I prefer the soft touch for two reasons. The first is style. The guy with the firecracker cue is likely to be the same guy screeching “sheeeeeitttttt” when he misses, while examining the tip for chalk.
My style is quiet and efficient. To express anything at missing a shot is to create the impression that the outcome of the game is in question, and that cannot happen. My whole game is based on making the expected shot routinely, with the occasional sparkler tossed in. Consistency is the ingredient that stirs the billiards stew; never give your opponent a single extra shot. Maximize your opportunity by not wasting any of the same.
As the dust settled and DI Tanksley stepped forward to take his first shot, he acknowledged my nice run by commenting, “I was beginning to wonder if you were going to leave anything on the table. Why did you put three of mine in? Did you think I was going to need help?”
“Not at all, Drill Sergeant. At the time I sank them, they weren't yours; they weren't anybody's. Had I run the table, we wouldn't be having this conversation.”
“Well, aren't you something else? Did you expect to run the table?”
Without hesitation, I said, ”Yes, Drill Sergeant, I always expect to run the table.”
He stopped chewing his gum, long enough to hang a baleful glance in my direction.
“Don't you take the cake? Where did you learn to play?” He was still trying to figure me out.
I had been playing at my grandpa's house since the time I was ten, but I figured the substance of my learning took place at a small billiards hall in downtown La Puente. There, my brother Noel, and I would pour through the racks of cue sticks, for some semblance of straight. Ultimately, we'd settle for what we got, and then pound those tables for long hours. In 1968 it cost seventy-five cents an hour for use of a table. We could play for three solid hours for one dollar and thirteen cents apiece. I never remember having any degree of success against Noel that would lead me to expect to be able to run a table. It's just that I seem to rise to the occasion when the stakes are high. It goes back to the soft touch when I shoot. In addition to style points, I use that technique to better control where the cue ball ends up after my shot.
It's all about shape. A player who lambastes the ball, has far less idea of where that cue ball is going to end up, thereby taking pot luck on the next shot. If you exercise a little restraint, you can steer that cue ball along the far wall, so as to be able to see that duck on the far pocket. Maybe there's a clump, and you can take advantage of a caroming cue ball to break up the clump, without having to waste a shot. In that case, there is a reason to hit that cue ball with authority. Otherwise, discretion is the better part of valor, so I resist the impulse to blast away indiscriminately.
“In the neighborhood,” I responded, in answer to his question. Drill Sergeant Tanksley was not too concerned with my run. I had only two balls left on the table, as he began his turn. He made a nice shot on a ball with a lot of green in between, and quickly sank a duck, before taking stock of his last two on the table.
“Well, who'd a thunk it? A trainee who knows how to use his stick.” He eyeballed those last two, before making a nice angled cut on a ball that otherwise he would have had to bank off of the far railing in order to have a chance. His intended target settled gently into the right corner pocket, before he went to work on the last ball. This is where my earlier spree, while breaking, came into play. He was sighting his last ball, and yet, he had had to do very little to get to this spot. That may have been the point; he had had to do very little. I watched as he lined up his shot, and put it out of its misery.
As he went to work on the eight ball, DI Tanksley couldn't help needling me about my helpful assistance at the start of the game. “I do appreciate the help back there, even though I could have done just fine without it.”
“I like to be helpful, Drill Sergeant.”
“Do you now? I'm looking for a new ADI; are you interested?” He gazed expectantly at me. Momentarily, the others in the room ceased to exist.
Whoa, I hadn't seen that one coming. Assistant Drill Instructor was the trainee who acted as liaison between the forty men in the platoon and the drill Instructors. The ADI served the purpose of providing up-to-date logistical information to the trainees, so as to improve communication, and allow the army mechanism to function as a well-oiled unit. Trainees could ask the ADI the questions that had easy answers, and that would allow the DI's to concentrate on more important matters at the last second before heading out for a ten hour day in the cold, like a last minute piping hot cup of java.
The ADI had his own room! It wasn't the privacy that was the inviting point; it was the separation from the gang. It was the distinguishing between third “Herd” and individualism. It was allowing for a guy to present himself to the world as something other than one of the robotic trainees. Still I hesitated, big time. My experience with ADI's had led me to believe they weren't any different from the drill sergeants. They yelled at the same guys, with whom they had stood beside earlier, without any inkling that their actions might be perceived by the trainees as a betrayal of sorts.
I thought about the yelling thing. Some of it was merely an echo of what the drill sergeant was yelling, a guarantee that while running, everyone could hear the cadence and the marching songs. That part of the yelling was good. It was the part where the ADI's tried to get into the drill sergeant motif, instead of being content to relay information. One of the worst things was to be assigned to work detail by an ADI, because of the arbitrary nature of having to go off and buff floors, while your contemporaries were chilling on their bunks. On the other hand, what difference did it make who was the messenger, if there was bad news at hand? At least as ADI, I could ensure that my guys were not getting shafted; I could monitor the work details more carefully than the drill sergeants, to make sure that there was uniformity, and that some guys did not do more than other guys.
I saw it as an opportunity to remove at least one of the thorns, steadily pricking the tender hide of the recruits. As to why Tanksley sought me out? I think Drill Sergeant Steven C. had a hand in all this. It started with that first Physical Training Test, when I had netted the passing mark on the first try; drill sergeants needed an ADI who had no physical issues, so that leadership by example was not an issue. I have already made the observation that the drill instructors were in superb condition, and demanded the same from the trainees at the earliest possible juncture.
For me, aside from conditioning, there were all of the other tangible results: expert on the M-16, though never having fired a weapon before; batting a thousand on the ten first aid tests; all of those standardized tests, with scores readily available for the drill sergeants' perusal; and all of the tests on the Military Code of Justice and the classroom part of military theory and training. These last required ten or more four-hour sessions of grueling lecture and bookwork, and required trainees to stay awake and on their toes, to avoid perching on tips and toes.
This was right up my alley, school. I was the consummate pro in the classroom, and that was not a common development in any given group of recruits. I think it was a combination of all of these features, none especially radiant by itself, that led DI Steven C. to suggest that the difficulties they were having with the current ADI, could be solved by inserting a new ADI into place, and that I was a candidate. Having listened to his junior colleague, Tanksley had taken advantage of my presence in the day room to take his own look.
Being a product of the St. Louis neighborhoods himself, he saw the ability to shoot pool well as an asset. It wasn't just the skill itself; it was the awareness of protocol, the confidence, the stage presence, if you will, and the aura of being top dog. For a guy whose five foot ten inch frame was as unimpressive as mine, there were a lot of mitigating factors.
“Am I interested, Drill Sergeant? Highly.”
He leaned over the eight ball and sighted down the cue once again. No way in hell, or FLW, does he make this shot. It required a bank shot the length of the table; house rules dictated that when dropping the eight ball, you had to use a bank shot. Tanksley took the shot and did an impressive job, leaving the eight ball down on the long side of the table, resting up against the bank, an inch from the left front pocket. Just think of it as the proverbial sitting duck, or a slam dunk, as the case was.
“Well, the job is yours if you want it, but I need an answer before I leave.”
My turn, with two balls left, and a duck of an eight ball shot. The first was a perfunctory shot, easily handled, which left my last ball situated right down at the same left front corner pocket as the eight ball, just off the long side, four inches from the pocket. The only thing between that last ball of mine and the corner pocket, was the eight ball. The cue ball was kitty-corner, from there, all the way down to the front right pocket, though far enough off the corner, that the bank was not an issue. Lot of green in between. If I hit the cue ball into my last ball, and that last ball did anything but ricochet sharply off the long bank, connect just opposite on the short bank, and come gliding back toward me, it was going to mean contact with the eight ball, and instant death for me in the game.
It was a once in a lifetime shot at the most perfect of times. It looked like some kind of Paul Newman, Easy Money, kind of thing, but it wasn't; it was the easiest shot in the world, because it was all about geometry, and the inevitability of angles. It looked like a Rolls Royce, when it was nothing but a Rambler. It also required that I set aside my disdain for the smash mouth approach to pool, and shoot with a fair amount of authority. Once again I took my time, allowing the job offer to hang in the air, until after I had taken care of business.
I smote that cue ball with a good thwack and watched with DI Tanksley, as the play unfolded, according to plan. And as that last ball was rotating toward me on its certain path towards the pocket at my stomach, leaving nothing on the table but a serving of duck a l'orange, I looked up at DI Tanksley and said, “I accept.”