If it hadn't been for Comrade Slinky, I probably never would have become the Ping-Pong King of Lesko, Poland. Lost in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, Lesko is such a slow little town (pop. 3,700) that there are only two things for an American tourist to do after dark. One is to remain in the hotel—a slightly updated 16th-century castle—and watch your infant daughter's Slinky snake down the stone steps of the lobby. The other is to play Ping-Pong.
The Poles in Lesko had never seen a Slinky. They hadn't seen too many American tourists, either. I had stopped in Lesko after visiting my grandfather's hometown, Lidzbark, a village of 3,720, where no Lidz Statue graces the village square. Lidzbark was pretty much like Lesko, except that it didn't have a Ping-Pong table.
The manager of the hotel was so captivated by my kid's toy that he promptly dubbed it Comrade Slinky and challenged me to a game of Ping-Pong in the hotel recreation room. I had been a modestly good Ping-Pong player at the age of 12 in Penn Valley, Pa., where I learned the game in Jay Herman's basement, surrounded by boxes of his brother Richie's college term papers. But I hadn't played much since those days of smashing balls into the spiderwebs Herman was using for his sixth-grade science project. (He fed half the spiders coffee grounds, and the others ketchup.)
The manager thought he had a poor capitalist fish in his net, but I backhanded balls all over the court in another triumph of private initiative. After I dispatched the manager, I was told I had control of the table until I lost. So I ran through the night clerk, the porter, the porter's father and the porter's father's girlfriend. If nothing else, I learned to count to 21 in Polish. I was building a legend in Lesko. Soon, I figured, they would erect a monument in my honor.
January 13, 1986
Then in walked Boleslaw, named for Boleslaw the Bold, an 11th-century king excommunicated by the Bishop of Cracow. To punish his mistresses for allowing their affections to stray while he was away in battle, King Boleslaw is said to have given their babies to dogs to nurse and given the dog's puppies to the mistresses to raise. This modern-day Boleslaw was no less fearsome. He was a big, blustery guy with pale blond hair cut military-style, and eyebrows as bushy as the Bialowieza Forest. "We play for Comrade Slinky," he announced.
Boleslaw had brought along his own slightly dented ball. He attacked it like a fencer, with jabs, thrusts and ripostes. He hit loops and pop-ups to slashing effect; they seemed to come from undreamed-of angles and elevations.
It was Boleslaw's custom to down a shot of vodka after every five points. And so, with him ahead 5-0, we each hit back a zubrówka, or bison vodka, so called because it is flavored with the grass on which the last remaining European bison, the zubry, graze. (Each bottle contains a blade of this grass.) The hotel staff cheered Boles-law's long lobs that dropped fatly on the end of the table, making me return even more lobbable shots for easy setups. We downed our next shot at 9-1.
The game became wilder. I countered his loops with chops that barely skimmed the net and then veered eccentrically as they struck the table. Maybe it was the zubrówka we slurped at 12-3, but Boleslaw seemed to have lost some of his boldness. The vodka seemed to be having an effect on me as well. I was feeling like one of Jay Herman's spiders strung out on ketchup and flailing my paddle like a battle-ax.
Then Boleslaw's whirling shots began to hang tantalizingly in the air like little white balloons. I closed the gap to 13-7, then 14-11. By the time we got to zubrówka No. 7, I had cut his lead to 18-17. When I murdered a shoulder-high serve to tie the game at 20, we toasted the occasion with slugs of wyborowa, the finest of clear vodkas.
The final rally lasted forever. Somewhat anticlimactically, one of my returns vaulted the net, flopped on the dent and didn't get up. I had made coleslaw of Boleslaw.
Out of solidarity I offered him Comrade Slinky, and he graciously invited me to his birthday party the next day.
After all, it isn't every day you turn 11 years Old.