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Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2006 09:06 pm

The night the moose killed innocence

The '50's turn into the '60's - and everything was suddenly different

According to Danny “Rags” Sullivan, 1959 was dragging its summer. In fact, July 28 lasted nine days. Rags’ birthday was July 29 — he’d be 12.

The big 12!

In our small Midwestern town, age 12 marked the second plateau on one’s climb from boy to man. The first step happened around age 8, when you were stripped of the name your mother wanted to hear and instead were given a custom small-town nickname. If you were lucky, the nickname stuck forever; otherwise, it rotted away in your late teens.

On the 10th day of July 28, it became July 29, and Rags Sullivan, now legally 12, was allowed into Dangerous Bobs Pool Hall. Dangerous Bobs: No apostrophe, no women, no kids — men only! Dreams walked the floor of Dangerous Bobs.

Bobs was long and narrow, divided into three sections of acceptable mid-century middle American male sin.

Section 1 was the saloon, with a bar and no stools. Men drank beer and told lies here. In the corner, surrounded by spittoons, a table was reserved for men of “a certain age” — an age that, when viewed through 12-year-old eyes, seemed about 500.

Section 2 was a field of five pool tables. Former windows were hidden behind rusted beer signs. One sign featured a lady in a bikini! She was beautiful.

The third section was the backroom, where a nickel-dime poker game went on 365 days a year. Players might come and go, but the game was always.

Dangerous Bobs was crammed full of rules, none posted. The most important rules were delivered on your initial entry: “Don’t be hangin’ ’round up front and don’t bother the poker players. Ya wanna shoot pool, get back to Table 5 and earn your way up.”

Table 5: last table to the back. Cracked slate and torn felt fought for top space. The cues exclusive to Table 5 were rumored to have been bent into twisted design by a defrocked geometry teacher.

Rags wasn’t in a week when everyone knew: He was a pool-shootin’ natural, and one day he’d shoot the Moose!

Only skill earned one’s way up the table hierarchy. Each table up the line was better fitted than its predecessor. By Table 3, balls without chips bounced almost true.

Invites “up the line” were issued by players who’d already attained the table — until you reached Table 1, the Moose. Invitations to shoot the Moose were issued by Dangerous Bobs himself.

About the Moose: A fully stuffed moose, its hind feet anchored in the saloon, its massive head sticking into section 2, looked over Table 1, literally. The head hung a foot over the table proper. The beast’s eyes sprouted flashing 100-watt light bulbs; it had a clock bolted atop its forehead. It was even more beautiful than the lady in the swimsuit.

Rags was invited to Table 4 in mid-August, joined Table 3 at the end of August, and in September became the youngest player ever to make it to Table 2. By October, Rags owned Table 2, yet there was no invitation to the Moose. Dangerous Bobs would not chalk Rags’ name onto the Moose-approved chalkboard. No one under 20 had ever been invited to play the Moose, and, it appeared, it’d stay that way, until the 500-year-old men talked Dangerous Bobs into allowing a one-game challenge.

It would be Rags versus Cartoon Paige, straight pool, game to 50. If Rags won, he stayed; if he lost, it was back to Table 2 until he turned 20. The game was scheduled for New Year’s Eve, and that night it was standing room only.

Cartoon hadn’t lost a game in 10 years, and it looked like more of the same as he ran through two racks and scored 34 points before he missed.

Then it was Rags’ turn — and he was liquid magic, running 49 balls before the cue ball wedged into the rail, directly under the great moose chin.

Rags had no shot . . . unless! One hundred forty-one men went stone silent as Rags jumped on the stuffed mammoth, wrapped his legs around its huge neck, slid upside down beneath the giant head, lined up his shot, and caught his belt buckle on a 100-watt eyeball — and the eye exploded.

Fire! Flickering flames shot from both light-bulb eyes, the stomach rumbled, building up steam; the tortured creature shook, belched a blue vapor, ripped its anchor, raised completely off the floor, hovered a second, and then shot a blaze of blue from its rear end with such force that the moose and its passenger were propelled at 60 mph all the way into the backroom’s poker table.

Table and moose had gone to ash in seconds. Rags suffered only superficial bruises — and the loss of his nickname. The swimsuit lady had melted into a nightmare. The heat warped Table 5’s cues straight. The cindered forehead clock read 12:01 a.m. The 1950s and the dreams were officially over.

Later that day, the “men of a certain age” added an apostrophe to Dangerous Bobs. It was the 1960s, and everything would be different from here on out.

Contact Doug Bybee Sr. at dougbybee@sbcglobal.net.

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