Now, as he sat
beside me in the plane, I had a trembling notion that my choice of partners had
been a mistake. In his natural habitat, the Broadway Table-Tennis Courts, Hugo
could camouflage himself as a person. But this was the real world, and I had
led him into it recklessly. Soon, I was relieved to see, a book of chess
problems took him in thrall.
Hugo was a chess
nut. His specialty was opening traps. He loved the Evans Gambit, and he
memorized hundreds of book lines. He delighted, too, in abstract puzzles and
brain teasers that began, "All Zulus are left-handed liars," and ended
by asking, "How fast is the stream going?" Compared to chess and brain
teasers, the problem of Life was easy for Hugo. He solved it through logical
positivism, a philosophical system which, as nearly as I ever fathomed it,
effortlessly reduces the problems of ethics or esthetics or religion or
politics or, indeed, anything to mere problems of semantics. Oh, how Hugo loved
to argue! His favorite word was "meaningless," and when he hurled it at
opponents in debate it became a dart dipped in a paralyzing poison. When Hugo
said accusingly, "That's a meaningless statement," all discussion
ceased until the "terms were defined." With Hugo it was a matter of
policy not to understand the most elementary questions. If, at the Broadway
Courts, someone asked, for example, "Who's got the better footwork, Miles
or Pagliaro?" Hugo would be apt to counter scoffingly with, "How much
does a shark's soul weigh?"
As I sat with
Hugo on that plane bound for Japan, watching him solve chess problems, it
occurred to me that, for all his logic, the solution to man's most vital
problem—table tennis—had eluded him. Though he might have dazzled the duffers
at the Catskill resorts and, on a calm crossing, taken the Queen Mary trophy,
at the Broadway Table-Tennis Courts he was not much of a threat. In his best
year he achieved 10th in the U.S. rankings—but that was a war year, and he
toppled 20 places with V-J day. Yet no one ever struggled harder than Hugo to
become a champion. He experimented with weirdly shaped rackets which he
painstakingly cut with a jigsaw, and he fashioned their handles from wet
plastic wood which he squeezed to conform to his fingers. His analytical mind
had deduced that my forehand drive was the game's best attacking weapon, so he
broke the stroke down into its component motions and spent hours swinging his
bat in front of the locker-room mirror.
To improve his
backhand he tried self-hypnosis, but he put himself into such a deep trance one
day that he lost a game 21-0. His table-tennis philosophy was as simple as
logical positivism. He believed only in attack. Hugo considered defensive
players "scurvy, cowardly thieves." "When I get my kill shot on the
table," he boasted, "nobody, nobody, nobody gets it back!" The
trouble was that Hugo, poor guy, had the "elbow." Sometimes known as
the "apple." He was a lumper, a choker. On clutch points Hugo was
merely a flurry of mismated limbs, an epileptic dervish with one enormous
At the Broadway
Courts, when Hugo played, champion and kibitzer alike crowded alongside his
table, for his matches were the best tragicomic theater on Broadway, and
tickets were free. As a Batzlinger drama progressed, Hugo's elbow got bigger
and bigger until, in the final act, he committed suicide in a mad scene at
match point. Yet his zeal for the sport was unswerving, and his life was
uncluttered and purposeful. He lived for table tennis only. Alas, poor
Batzlinger. I felt sorry for him, so I took him along to the Far East.
Hey, man, that's
a wild cat you got traveling with you! You know what he's doing, man? He's back
in the tail of this plane, swinging around a Ping-Pong bat. He's airsick, man,
or is he always like that?"
I opened my eyes
and saw standing over me a chuckling Army private. Something happened in my
stomach, but I smiled weakly and went back to claim Hugo. He had cornered the
leatherneck who poses for recruiting posters.
"You see this
fellow coming down the aisle?" he was saying. "You know who that is?
Why, that's Dick Miles, the national table-tennis champion!"
The marine's eyes
narrowed, and he fingered some battle stars on his breast. Finally he said,
"You said table tennis? That the same as Ping-Pong, son?"
There's a big difference. Ping-Pong is a copyrighted trade name of a
manufacturer, whereas table tennis is the name of the sport. The United States
Table Tennis Association was founded in—"