TWICE THE MAN by Peter Nolan Smith

My good friend Marge had lived a long life. The Maine native had served as the athletic director at several all-women’s colleges in New England. Her basketball teams had played big teams. She had been a great coach and refused to act her age.

The nonagenarian exercised daily and ate healthy foods. Marge abstained from alcohol, although she liked a cold beer on a hot summer day on Watchic Pond.

Back in 1927 my grandfather had built a log hunting cabin on the opposite shore from Marge’s farm. My family had been friends with Marge for over sixty years. My father had learned ping-pong from the kindly physical educator. While he had a slight edge over me in the game, my losing streak to Marge challenged the Red Sox’s inability to win a World Series.

Marge’s gravity-less drop shots, wicked spin serves, and power slams befuddled, confounded, and frustrated me for decades. Each summer I crossed the lake to tell Marge of my travels around the world and sip her homemade lemonade on her porch, after which we would play our annual game of ping-pong.

On Labor Day 1999 my niece and I canoed to Marge’s landing. Kat asked, “Think you might win this year, Uncle Bubba?”

My niece loved my nickname.

“How’d your dad do?”

“Marge annihilated him.”

“That’s good to know.” I pulled the canoe onto the grass and walked with Kat to Marge’s house. It dated back to the 1700s and the barn was even older.

Marge was happy to see us and I recounted my overland journey through Laos.

“Wish I could travel, but the body isn’t willing.” Marge rocked in her chair. She had a good view of Maine Route 117.

“You look in good shape to me.” Our conversation were a ritual leading to this moment.

“Maybe this will be the year that you beat me in ping-pong.”

“I have to get lucky once.”

“Luck has nothing to do with winning.”

“Skill and practice.” The two words were her mantra for success in sports.

“I only play you.” Once a year for forty years.

“Then get ready for your whipping.” Marge budged out of the chair with a groan. Arthritis was having its way her body.

“Aint no fun getting old and then getting older.”

“Better than the alternatives.”

“You’re right about that. Young lady, help me straighten up.

Kat offered her arm.

“Sure you’re up for this?” I was on the wrong side of forty, but felt in good shape.

“Ha.” She scoffed at my question and hobbled over to the barn, mocking me to Kat. “Like he even has a chance.”

Her two horses neighed a hello and she gave them each an apple. They were loyal fans and stomped their hooves, as Marge handed me a worn paddle. Hers was even older.

“I’ll even let you serve first.”

“Thanks.” I wasn’t about to play nice.

Marge returned my serve with a blistering forestroke. She won the three games without breaking a sweat. The horses cheered her victory and returning to the porch Marge said, “Kat, go get us a beer. Winning makes me thirsty.”

Upon my return to the camp my father asked, “Any luck this year?”

“Luck has nothing to do with it.”

“Skill and practice,” chorused my father, uncle, and brother-in-law.

Our combined losing streaks totaled almost two hundred years.

“Maybe next year.” My brother-in-law poured me a glass of wine.

“And maybe the Red Sox will win the World Series.”

“Some things never change in New England.”

The new century came in much the same as the last. I worked the fall at the diamond exchange, traveled the Orient throughout the winter, and came up to Watchic Pond in May to put in the dock at the camp. The lake was cold and the mosquitoes buzzed for blood. My uncle Russ watched our efforts, as my father drank white wine. He liked Chardonnay.

“Have you seen Marge?”

“I did last week.” Kat was getting big. Next year she would be a teenager. “She had a stroke this winter. She can speak fine, but she can’t do what she used to do.”


“She’s in no condition to play ping-pong.” My father was a few years younger than Marge. He believed in fair play.

“Okay, okay, I’ll just go over for a visit.”

“I’ll go with you, Uncle Bubba.” Kat like getting out of the house.

After adjusting the level of the dock, I dragged the canoe from under the camp. The Old Town slid into the lake like a knife. Kat and I strapped on life preservers, since the warden was ticketing people for every penalty in the book.

“Do you think you’ll ever be old as Marge?” Kat asked from the prow. She stroked the paddle with ease and we straight-lined toward Marge’s place.

“Our family got legs in our lives.” Great-grandaunt Bert lived to 103. “Nothing wrong with getting old as long as you can move.”

“Marge isn’t moving so good.” Kat sniffed back a tear.

“Marge ain’t going anywhere.”

“I hope so.” Kat had known Marge all her life. “I hope you aren’t too.”

“I’m going nowhere today.” I never felt old at Watchic Pond.

I pulled the canoe out of the lake and we walked across the tidy lawn.

Marge sat on the porch. She looked the same, but a nurse stood by her and a walker was in the corner. After an introduction to her helper, Marge smiled and said distinctly, “Hello, young man, where have you been?”

“New York, LA, Thailand, Paris, and Watchic Pond.”

“As you can see, I’ve been stuck here.”

“You look good.” It was the truth.

“But you didn’t come over here to shoot the breeze.”

“Yes, I did.”

“You’re a bad liar. You came over to see, if you can beat me in ping-pong.”

“Am I that transparent?”

“You’re easier to read than a comic book.”

“The doctor doesn’t want you exerting yourself.” Her nurse didn’t like this idea.

“What’s the worst that can happen? I die? I’m 92. If I go beating him, it’s a good day.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t play.” Kat was concerned for Marge.

“We’ll play one game to fifteen.” It was a generous concession and the nurse assisted the old Physical Ed teacher to the barn.


“No backing out now, unless you want to forfeit.”

“I’m game.” I followed her close in case she tripped, but Marge made the barn without any trouble.

The horses were happy to see their mistress. She fed them apples. I got the newer paddle. Marge stood at her end and picked up ball.

“I will serve first.”

“Some things do change.”

“But not this.”

She aced me with a top heavy serve and took an early lead 4-1. I evened the score with my service. Marge was slower, but crafty as ever. Balls curved in the air, they spun like tops, and she lobbed sliders onto the table’s edge. The horses clomped on the floor. Kat and the nurse cheered her play. I tried not to take advantage of her disability and stayed still same as her. We reached the end of the game 14-14.

My serve.

“Uncle Bubba.” Kat was pleading for me to throw the game.

“I don’t want any charity. Bring on your best, Bubba.”

I swatted my serve to her backhand. Marge flicked the ball to my right. I lofted it high into the rafters and the ball landed on the table. Marge’s paddle snapped at it and a white blur zipped my way. I slapped at it, but the ball soared off to the left.

“15-14. I win.” Marge put down her paddle a happy woman. “Some things never change. Kat, get us three beers.”

“And one for me.” Kat was twelve.

“Long as you don’t tell your mother you can have half of mine.”

Marge needed no help on the walk back to her house. We went for a swim after the beers and Marge said, “I’m going to live forever.”

Kat and I canoed back to the camp.

Halfway across the lake she stopped paddling and asked, “Uncle Bubba, you didn’t let Marge win?”

“I wish I could say that.”

“But you didn’t move.”

“And neither did Marge.”

“But she didn’t seem to have any trouble once she won.”

“You noticed that too.”

“Yes.” Kat shrugged and I said, “Winning is good medicine.”

Back at the camp my father laughed at my defeat.

“You’ll never beat her.”

“And neither will you.”

“Some things never change.”

And that’s why I love Watchic Pond, because the things that don’t change are the things that matter.

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