In the Pocket: Pool hall offers gathering space for seniors

By Catherine Godbey | Living 50 Plus

Sitting in one of the stools lining the pool hall, Mitchell Blackwood watched the balls carom off the sides of pockets as Buddy Roper and Bill Thrasher traded shots again and again.

“We do make one every now and then,” Blackwood said with a laugh. “It may take some time, a lot of time, but we do make them.”

Every morning, Tuesday to Friday, you can find Blackwood, Roper, Thrasher and a handful of other men inside the pool hall at the Decatur Morgan County Senior Center.

“The center is where our seniors truly matter. We give them a place to belong and socialize,” Amy Rakestraw, director of the senior center said.

While the table game originally brought the players together, a spirit of camaraderie and friendship keeps them returning.

In the pool clubhouse, where a billiards-themed clock, racks of pool cues and photographs of former and current players hang on the walls, the men talk about life — about the four baby owls Roper found in an oak tree while working for the City of Decatur’s street department, about Thrasher’s service as a marine in the Vietnam War, where he fought in the Tet Offensive and the Battle of Khe Sanh, and about Blackwood’s near perfect game of bowling. They talk about new grandchildren and the deaths of loved ones.

“This place gives me a reason to get out. It keeps me active and social,” the 97-year-old Blackwood said.

Thrasher, a regular at the pool hall except during turkey hunting season, echoed Blackwood.

“Coming here offers me some sort of relief. It’s an outlet. It’s somewhere I can go to mix and mingle with folks,” said the 75-year-old Thrasher, who started coming to the senior center after his wife of 49 years died. “My wife died from Parkinson’s. She fought it hard for 15 years. After she was gone, I had to find something to do with my time. I’m glad I started coming here.”

The men, who started out as strangers and now consider each other close friends, jokingly razz one another — and themselves — during the games.

“I shot a curve right there,” Blackwood said, after watching the cue ball he hit with his Alabama cue given to him by his Auburn son-in-law swerve around the intended target.

“There is a strategy to this game more than just making the ball into the hole. We just haven’t perfected that strategy yet,” Thrasher said.

Each man arrived at the senior center by a different path.

After a fellow bowler invited Blackwood, a retired machine operator at Wolverine, to the center multiple times, he finally agreed.

“I started coming and really enjoyed it,” said Blackwood, a novice pool player before his arrival at the center in 2004. “I had fun playing pool and eating the good food. At the time I was meeting up at Jack’s with a bunch of other people. My whole group from Jack’s ended up coming over here.”

Roper, the most talkative of the group — spend a few minutes with him and you will find out how he got a job because he was left-handed, how he got snowed in in Florida, about the 17-foot diameter pine tree in his yard and how a storage container he bought for $100 contained an $800 pool cue — found out about the senior center while cutting trees in an alley.

“The alley was right by this place. While we were cutting the trees, I had to go to the bathroom. I came here and asked if I could use the bathroom. Once I came inside, I knew where I was going to go when I retired,” the 75-year-old Roper said. “I’ve been coming here for 14 years.”

Roper, who played a little pool as a child at a boy’s club in Florida, spent the first few months at the senior center practicing the game.

“There was a group at the back table playing. I practiced and practiced until I got where I thought I was good enough to play with them,” Roper said.

“But you really don’t have to be good to play to play with us,” Thrasher said. “We are just here to have fun and for the company.”

Thrasher, a retired chemical operator from 3M, credited Roper, who he would see walking at Delano Park, with introducing him to the senior center.

“Buddy never meets a stranger, so he invited me to come and play. I used to play pool years ago. It’s nice to be able to do it again,” Thrasher said.

Over the past decade, the numbers in the pool hall have dwindled — evidenced by the photographs on the wall.

“If they have a flag sticker on their picture that means they have passed on. Through attrition, we have just got smaller and smaller,” Thrasher said.

The men hope to attract new players to the group.

“We used to have three tables full of players and people lined up on the sides waiting to play. I would love to have that again. We have so much fun here,” Thrasher said.

The pool group is one of 40 programs housed at the Decatur Morgan County Senior Center, an activities site for people 50 and older on Memorial Drive Southwest. More than 600 seniors participate in the programs. Other participants at the nonprofit center participate in card games, such as canasta, Rook, bridge and hand and foot, line dancing and dulcimer playing.

“The correlation between staying active and staying healthy is a no-brainer. The bottom line with mental health is if you feel like you matter to someone, if you have a purpose and if you have something to look forward to, you feel better physically and emotionally. The center helps people stay engaged and active in the community,” Rakestraw said.