A ping pong paddle and ball.
Photo by Lennart Schneider (unsplash.com)

Return of the Paddle Master

Author’s Note
The exact date of this piece is unknown—aka forgotten—but I would estimate 2006. I originally wrote it for myself, then repurposed it in 2009 for a college assignment. Despite the hyperbole, it’s a true story.

For most people, the game of ping pong is just a game. It’s a silly, small-scale version of pickle ball, which is itself a small-scale version of tennis. By the time you get to ping pong, a game that’s two-times removed from the source, you’re left with something arguably ridiculous: two wooden paddles, a court roughly the size of a waterbed, and a bouncy, hollow, gas-filled ball made of celluloid. Oh, and don’t forget the net: it’s only six inches tall.

Scratch a little deeper, however, and you’ll find ping pong is as complex as chess, as fierce as fencing, and every bit as competitive as its larger counterparts. Indeed, it may come as a surprise to learn that ping pong (or table tennis) has been an official Olympic sport since 1988.

Clearly, there’s more to this game than meets the eye. Ping pong, I dare say, is an experience.

Round One

The year was 1998. The place, Lake Retreat Camp and Conference Center in Ravensdale. My church youth group got together for a weekend of fun and fellowship, and all the familiar faces from Sunday school were in one place for two whole days. A particular young lady named Chantelle, for whom I secretly pined, was also present. We seemed worlds apart at church, but at camp, far removed from the formality of dress shirts, slacks, and ties, anything was possible!

Unfortunately, my awkward, anti-social behavior led me to hang around the ping pong tables for hours at a time as my fellow introverts hit the ball back and forth. Plunk. Plunk. Imagine my surprise when, out of the blue, Chantelle appeared and asked if I wanted to play a game of doubles!

My memory gets a little fuzzy at this point. Puberty struck me later in life than most, so my voice was in a constant state of flux. I quickly learned to rely on body language and hand gestures for basic non-verbal communication. But it didn’t really matter at the time, because Chantelle could have asked me to go bungie jumping without a bungie and my answer would have been a resounding yes.

Before the game began, I noted at least three distinct problems with the scenario: one, Chantelle was standing very close to me; two, I had forgotten my underarm deodorant; and three, I had no idea how to play ping pong.

The third problem seemed relatively minor compared to the second, but the second paled in comparison to the first, which was wrecking havoc on my ability to process anything coherently.

The game only lasted a few minutes. I would like to say that each moment unraveled in poetic slow-motion as I basked in Chantelle’s otherworldly radiance, but in truth, it was over before it began. Perhaps if I’d worn my deodorant, I could have moved my arms above my waist, or been able to comfort Chantelle after our embarrassing defeat. In any event, I lost in more ways than one.

When I returned home a few days later, I made a vow. Like young Bruce Wayne after the loss of his parents, hands crossed and brow furrowed, kneeling at his bed by candlelight, I committed my life to a greater cause! I swore to learn the game of ping pong forward and back, right-handed and left, in my waking and in my sleep. Never again would I be humiliated in such a manner while in the presence of a woman. I resolved to transform my weakness into my strength. I would become a master of ping pong. I would become… a paddle master!

Not long after the debacle at Lake Retreat, my father purchased a ping pong table. I took it as a sign, an answer to prayer. During his service in the Navy, my father had spent much of his free time learning to perfect his game. Now, many years later, I waited with eager anticipation to receive all the knowledge he had gained. As Obi-Wan Kenobi was to Luke Skywalker (minus the Darth Vader complications), so my father was to me.

My training began immediately. In the evenings after work and on the weekends, my father and I set up the ping pong table in the garage and played until we could play no more. It was hard, and my stubborn nature worked against me, but in time I did learn. I learned how to serve and return; I learned how to “cut spin” and give it back, to vary my power and direct my shots. My father taught me all this and more, and I gradually developed my own technique.

My style was relaxed and understated. I aimed for mastery of the game, not domination. I wanted to rule with respect and authority instead of brute strength or raw power. Above all, I learned something unexpected, something unique to the game: I learned how to have fun.

Although my initial reason for training was juvenile, what grew out of it was a sense of confidence and security. I truly enjoyed the game as a game, and I still do to this day. That silly, ridiculous game played with paddles and a ball clicked for me in a way no other game has before or since. You can take it to the Olympics if you want, but only if you want. It’s simple, it’s fun, it’s a little bit laughable. Perhaps I relate to ping pong too well. At any rate, I fulfilled my vow; I became a paddle master.

Round Two

A year later, my youth group went back to Lake Retreat. I returned a little older, a little wiser, and a little more prepared. I also brought deodorant.

Soon enough, I found myself milling around the ping pong tables. This time, I played well. I held my own. This time, Chantelle didn’t ask to play doubles; instead, she stood by and watched in silent admiration as I defeated my opponent by simply returning the ball. All too easy, I thought.

“I think I’m done,” my opponent lamented. He turned and offered his paddle to Chantelle, asking if she wanted to try. I distinctly recall that look of surprise on her face. She held up her hands defensively, shaking her head.

“No way, he’s too good!”

Chantelle’s words lingered in my mind long after the game. Eventually, I realized two things: one, I had succeeded in my childish attempts to impress a girl with ping pong skills (a marvel by any stretch of the imagination), and two, it’s awfully lonely at the top. Perhaps if my victory had been less decisive, Chantelle would have played a round or two. Who knows?

Curiously, Chantelle’s approval didn’t make or break my camp experience that year. It helped, sure, but it wasn’t as important as I had imagined. Perhaps after all that time and training, I had learned something more valuable than how to play the game of ping pong.

Today, I don’t play the game to impress the ladies. I don’t play it with hopes of becoming an Olympic contender. Instead, I play it because it’s fun. Today, like my father before me, I am a paddle master.

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