By SKEETER TOWER
Special to the OBSERVER
I tried to do my homework ahead of my scheduled visit to the very private ping pong group, known as the 32 Water Street Association in Fredonia. I learned that the game of table tennis originated in England in the 1880s, was played among the upper class as an after dinner parlor game, that it was first known as wiff waff, given the sounds made by hitting champagne corks over a stack of books on a table with rackets often made of parchment over a frame. A British manufacturer trademarked the game as Ping Pong in 1901 and later rights were sold to The Parker Brothers, leaving others the more generic category of table tennis.
Members of the 32 Water Street Association present for photo are, from left: Roy Meyers, Fred “Nick” Norton, Bob Barnes, Richard Dowds, Philip Ellian, Jim Rawcliffe, Dick Anson, Jack Griswold, Keith Sheldon, Doug Manly, Mike Lawhead, Dave Bryant, John Brown, Rich Ryan and Dan Elliott.
The game has evolved in many ways: equipment, rules and popularity. There are more than 30 million competitive players in the world today. Since 1988 it has been an Olympic sport. In 1971 the term "ping pong diplomacy" grew out of an unexpected invitation from the People's Republic of China to the American ping pong team playing in Japan. When the nine players stepped into mainland China they were the first group of Americans allowed into China since the communist takeover in 1949. It resulted in the end of a 20 year US embargo on trade with China. Time Magazine headlined "The Ping Heard Round the World."
Naturally, I expected some hotshot, devoted fans of the game at 32 Water St. for this ping pong association. That may well be so, but it is the camaraderie that seems to be the main draw for the guys of the 32 Water Street Association who get together for ping pong every Thursday evening. Keith Sheldon, who worked for 45 years at the OBSERVER, retiring as managing editor, has been a member for 12 years.
"I look forward to Thursday evenings," he comments. "It is relaxing, refreshing and great exercise We do work up a sweat. It's just a good mix of people from every walk of life and, of course, it is a wonderful facility."
These are good old boys but not your stereotypical "good old boys." Here, you'll find accomplished men: a farmer, executives, entrepreneurs, an equipment operator and factory supervisor. They all gather under the sign at the door that spells out their mission: "For the encouragement of social pastimes and the preservation of games." Doug Manly, chief spokesperson and a group co-founder, attributes this mission statement to Barbara Weaver, wife of the other co- founder George Weaver. A photo tribute to George beside the door underscores the admiration felt by group members for this now deceased colleague. The words read: "Stood Tall, Played Hard, Smiled Softly, Lived Life."George was once the owner of this building. He was also the owner and president of Fredonia Seed Company, which in 1984 when he retired, was the third largest producer of packet seed for home gardeners. He, like Manly, is associated with business acumen, public service and philanthropy, both contributing to the social and cultural climate of Northern Chautauqua County. Back in 1989, Manly had just retired from Red Wing and had an office at 32 Water St. He and George shared lunch hours frequently and just by chance they discovered an old ping pong table in the building and began to play. This was the very informal start of "the association" which has evolved into some 30 associates and has met consistently for 24 years.
They even have shirts commemorating the group. Initially, George provided the space, large enough to set up three tables. The current, rather spectacular space, "39 steps up," I am cautioned, as I gain permission to interview the group, measures some 2500 square feet of wide open space and very high ceilings. It has seen improvements over the years, with the addition of heat and air conditioning.
In the early days the guys played ping pong and then all went out to share a meal in a local restaurant. Eventually they built their own kitchen and now dinner is cooked right there on the third floor. Cooking rotates among the guys. Some, like Manly, enjoy being chef and it was clear on the evening of my visit that he is no novice. Chicken breast, potatoes and broccoli was the menu along with a large assortment of appetizers, snacks and drinks. Sardines and chips, anyone? Some confess to having wives prepare the food or bringing in already prepared food in their turn; $35 is allocated weekly for groceries. The size of the group varies. If more show up, then portions are smaller. If less attend, then leftovers are sent home.
There are no rules here, Manly assured me. Well, the rules of ping pong of course, and even these are not rigid. And, oh, by the way, no women are allowed. Not so much a rule as, well, an understanding. (Once a year there is a Ladies Night for a restaurant outing). 32 Water St. is the proverbial man cave, a metaphor depicting a space where men can do as they please without upsetting any female sensibility. Paula Aymer at Tufts University has described a man cave as "the last bastion of masculinity." Here the guiding expectation is for civility and mutual respect.
This expectation among such a solid friendship circle comes as natural as the air they breathe. These are good buddies and they have been for years. Thursday nights are sacrosanct. It is for male bonding and this gathering is treasured as part of a special weekly ritual. Twelve men are up and playing at one time. Stories abound and laughter permeates the room.
Tables are set for dinner and conversation. Member Nin Privitera, sharing his personal perspective, describes Thursdays as "A great night of fellowship. I've grown to love these guys. We share a meal, stories, laughs sometimes tears."
These men, this place and these values are to be treasured. Somehow they represent what is genuine, good and authentic.
It is clear how close these men are. A brief announcement was made about the death of "Kris" who was 88, and the news was acknowledged with tender memories of the person mentioned. This was Elizabeth "Kris" Beal, wife of long-time and, now deceased, association member, Dr. Dallas Beal, former president of SUNY Fredonia. She, an accomplished person in her own right, was obviously held close in the hearts of these men. They are family at this point.
The average age of the group is about 70. Dick Anson is the oldest member. He is the former owner of Lakeside Precision, known for his hard work, Christian stewardship and modest manner. He is a decorated WWII veteran, obviously a highly respected member. Yes, he makes it up those 39 stairs because it is important. Some are not able to be as nimble around the ping pong table now. Bars have been placed across the windows so that a misstep does not send anyone hurtling out the tall windows, which almost happened one night. There have been other painful episodes. One person fell and broke both wrists. Another actually broke his back.
Yes, the game can get demanding. All games are doubles to facilitate more play time. There are no leagues. There are no standings. Singles games can be played later when others leave for the evening. This is play, not fierce competition. Most of the members play other sports such as golf or tennis. Ping pong? It seems to be just one part of the mission of the 32 Water Street Association.
Skeeter Tower is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments on this column to email@example.com