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Brownie Pong

One of my favorite parts of the Christmas season — and, really, any holiday season — is the Ping-Pong-playing that commences when my maternal grandparents come to visit. I’m blessed to still have my original four grandparents around, all in relatively good health. The sprightliest of them is John E. Brown, my mom’s dad, whom everyone calls “Brownie.” He is, as is often said of vivacious 86-year-old table tennis prodigies, a hoot.

am a pretty good Ping-Pong player. My brother and I had a table when we were in high school, and we played frequently. Both of us were right-handed, but we used to practice playing only with our left hands. The purpose of this was? So that we might begin a game against a lesser opponent playing with our weak hand. Then, while the score was still close, we might reveal, Inigo Montoya-style, that we were NOT, in fact, left-handed! Then we would humiliate them with our right-handed prowess. It was a brilliant ploy but we never got to use it in the real world. Anyway, the point is that I was a big dork but eventually became skillful, able to play with either my left or right hands. I’m still fairly skillful. I have a good serve, a good return, a killer backhand, and cat-like reflexes. (If I do say so myself…and unfortunately, I do.)

But I can’t beat Brownie. Who is 86 years old. We play every time he comes to town. Maybe 10 or 12 games in a row, every time we get together. I usually win the first match, and maybe the second one. Then he warms up — it takes awhile for octogenarians to get the reflexes and hand-eye coordination firing at once — and proceeds to reel off 7 or 8 wins in a row. No lie. This happens every time we play. Every. Time. I can only win, on average, one out of four games against him. He plays all the time at a retirement center near his home in the Dallas area, where his Ping-Pong nemeses are a couple of “young Korean guys.”

They’re in their 60s.

Brownie had laryngeal cancer about a decade ago, which resulted in the removal of his voice box, and which gives him one of those scratchy burp-voices. He’s learned to talk again, without having to use one of those electronic simulators that make you sound like a robot. And though he’s developed his own voice, speaking is a difficult process, so he mostly expresses himself by laughing. And because he doesn’t have a voice box, his laugh is mostly a wheezy exhalation. And because it’s kind of hard to hear, he almost always accents his wheeze-laugh with a knee-slap.

So when Brownie is beating me at Ping-Pong, he punctuates every point with a fit of wheeze-laughing and knee-slapping. He wheezes and slaps when I serve into the net. And he wheezes and slaps when I return it long. And he wheezes and slaps when I miss one of his expertly placed forehands. And he wheezes and slaps when he wins. Which is most of the time.

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When I was a kid, I always thought Brownie was the toughest guy I knew. He ran a warehouse for a local supermarket chain. At home, he always worked in the yard. He had wiry, muscular arms. He’d been a Marine MP during World War II. Back then, I thought all those things were cool. But I’m most impressed with him now. What do I want to be when I grow up? I want to be a wheeze-laughing, knee-pounding, sprightly 86-year-old table tennis prodigy. You can’t do much worse than that.

What’s your favorite Christmas tradition?

Better yet: Who’s your Brownie?

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