By Ross Markman
The slick yet unassuming hustler, the guy who hits the bank shot that couldn't possibly be banked and then gives a wry smile as if to say, I didn't know I could do that,' doesn't exist in this crowd.
Neither does the overwhelming smell of smoke or the sound of obscenities barked at a little white ball.
Beer is replaced by coffee, gambling by good-natured competition, and the hustler by retired railroad workers and war veterans.
This is the back room of the Hill County Senior Center on Second Street in Havre. For two hours every weekday morning, a half-dozen men gather to shoot pool, drink coffee and munch on stale fruit cake.
They typically play two-on-two or a game called cutthroat, in which three players compete against each other.
The game of choice is 8-ball with a twist: in order to win, a team must bank at least one ball off a rail into a pocket.
"It's a fun game, something to pass the time away in the mornings," Ken Stockdill said. "And it's camaraderie with the guys."
Stockdill, 75, began playing pool as a kid, and said he picked it up again about a decade ago at the senior center. Like the rest of the guys Thursday morning, he's an armed services veteran. Stockdill spent three years in the U.S. Navy and fought in World War II.
Joe Zygmond, known as "Ziggy" to his friends, also fought in World War II. A lifelong Havre resident who retired from Burlington Northern in 1984, Zygmond was in the U.S. Army. He's been shooting stick at the senior center since he retired.
"When you retire it helps kill part of the day, especially in the winter," he said. "It's good clean competition. And there's no gossip here."
The rest of the group laughed in unison. That's not an entirely true statement, they said.
Zygmond interrupted the laughter.
"I can't believe some of the damn shots today. I can't make 'em. They keep hooking," he said. "I gotta put some English on this one."
Zygmond missed his intended target the 6-ball by several inches.
"How'd you get it over there?" said Al Donner, a retired salesman who came to Havre via Big Sandy in 1956.
Sitting at a nearby octagonal table, Jim Stewart awaited his turn to shoot. A 67-year-old retired farmer, Stewart has been playing the game since his youth and joined the senior center crew a couple years ago.
"A lot of people talk about getting bored when they retired. I'm not bored yet," he said.
Stewart looked over at the table.
"There you go, Joe," he said. "You're smokin' now."
The guys, Donner said, arrive at 8 a.m. right when the center opens. They typically stop at Cenex on First Street for coffee at 7:30.
"We just have a good time doing this," he said. "I think it's because you just kind of get used to getting up and going to work. We just have a good fellowship."
Donner said the guys never gamble on their pool play, mainly because it would take the fun out of it. And as for their early morning ritual, he said, they're wives don't mind.
"To be honest, they probably enjoy us leaving so early in the morning," he said with a smile.
Back at the pool table, solids and stripes are scattered about after being ambushed by the thunderous force of the cue ball. Jim Kejsar had just broke. He sunk the 12.
"Christ, he's waking up now," Zygmond, his opponent, said. "He's got a laser on that stick."
Kejsar, 72, worked 26 years for Burlington Northern as an engine electrician. He also spent 6.5 years in the Air Force and National Guard.
Pool to Kejsar isn't just a diversion or a way to kill the day, it's honing a skill in a game he's loved since childhood.
"It's just practice. You always need the practice," Kejsar said, casually sinking the 10-ball.
"And besides," he added, "it's just fun."