Mr. McGuire: “I just want to say one word to you -just one word.”
Ben: “Yes sir.”
Mr. McGuire: “Are you listening?”
Ben: “Yes I am.”
Mr. McGuire: “‘Plastics.'”
xxxxxxxxxxxxx– From The Graduate, 1967
The Albany Billiard Ball Company, founded in 1868 by John Wesley, the American inventor of celluloid, is possibly the earliest successful plastics firm and certainly one of the oldest plastics companies in the world. Celluloid became a substitute for ivory in the manufacturing of billiard balls, and the Hyatt “composition” ball, with a celluloid base, dominated the sport until the 1960s. The company is the only major billiard ball firm in the United States.
Mick: Bob, remember all the times, good and bad, we had around the old Albany Billiard Ball Company on Delaware Avenue? It had to be one of the best places a boy could ever dream of having in his neighborhood: a huge, manicured lawn (looking way too much like a football field), an oval driveway ringed with bushes (looking way too much like a race track), and out back, barrels filled with the most interesting stuff you could ever imagine (we were budding explorers who happened to stumble upon the site where modern plastic was born; we just didn’t know it at the time). I have no recollection of anyone ever coming out and telling us to stop playing football on the lawn, or to stop racing our bicycles in the driveway. Did they recognize our potential as future chroniclers of those times, and decide, somewhere in the top offices, to give us carte blanche?
Bob: Yes, that was the finest of lawns, cared for with a fine-toothed mower. I remember seeing that lawn from the car window one sunny day after Dad came back from the war and we were going somewhere, probably out to Thatcher Park; to me at 4 it was mesmerizingly green, smooth and vast. I can still summon up that vision and all the formless post-infancy feelings of portent that went with it…
Many the sunny day indeed we played there, me you, the Olander twins and whoever else we could gather in a bunch for a day, we’d play tackle, touch and slow-motion football, and “chicken” as we called it, plus there were celluloid scrap piles galore out back to whet our inventive appetites. There was also a very interesting chain hoist at the side loading gate, with which we would take turns slowly lifting each other up by the belt. We left Eddie dangling there for a while one afternoon.
As for being chased away, Mick, you were young then, and as the older brother I generally kept an eye out, sounded the alarm and took the heat, which is perhaps why you don’t recall the elderly groundskeeper and general factotum who used to come shuffling out the front door shaking his fist at us on a key fourth down and saying inaudible things to chase us away when we played there on summer workdays. (On weekends the lawn was ours and we sampled heaven.) Being an elderly gent however, he could never catch us, since the lawn was so big and we generally played at the furthest distance from him, on the lawn’s far corner next to Jerry Romano’s house, so we’d just race off and wait until the fistshaker went back in again, then resume our play. Never saw a single billiard ball come out of the place, though…
Mick: I can still recall the smell and sound of those long hours in the summer twilight, charging the enemy lines like we were Johnny Unitas, muscling on until either someone actually won the game or it was too dark to see the ball. In the chicken fights (perhaps universal to young boys everywhere, perhaps not) big guys would carry little guys on their shoulders, and, staggering around as a group of makeshift giants, fight the Battle of Armageddon. The last pair standing won. I was always on top, being a shrimp, but considered it one of the few perks of smallhood, since after all, I was the Gladiator, and the guy I rode in on, my trusted steed.
By the way, wasn’t it on the very same lawn that we fought our arch-enemies, the dreaded R Twins, to near death? Or, well, sort of?
Bob: You got me there, Mick, you’ll have to fill in the details of that battle. I’d won my battle with the R twins years before that, back on Mountain Street, so they weren’t a dread of mine; whatever came after in that regard was for me foregone. As to the Billiard Ball Lawn, in that part of my mind where I spend my past I still now and then lie down on that soft cool fragrant surface. As perfect as an Augusta fairway it was, no doubt a source of great pride to the community, but especially to that Michaelangelo of a groundskeeper who could never catch us, yet kept the lawn pristine on our behalf, a spotless green playground just waiting there ready for play whenever we were.
No doubt that lawn was inviting to all, but no adult would ever think of walking on it, or of spreading out a cloth for an ideal picnic, but for us kids with summer play coming out of our ears it wasn’t a matter of choice, the park up behind PS 23 was ragged and full of kids, but here was our Eden. We recognized that perfection and knew what it was: it was a cosmic directive, and we obeyed. Golden times on that green, that Elsyian Field, conspicuously consumed. Wonder if it’s a WalMart parking lot yet.
Mick: Golden times, indeed, and no Wal-Mart yet, that I know of. As for the dreaded R twins, all I remember is a battle in which I was being whipped mercilessly with the buckled strap of a leather cap; perhaps it was all a bad dream… a dream that would disappear instantly I’m sure, if I could just stretch out on that Elysian Field once more.