Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

November 21, 2012

Gary's World: Thanksgiving 1983 and the ping-pong ninja

By Gary Nelson
Senior staff writer

CROSSVILLE — It’s funny how some holidays of the past stand out significantly.

The Thanksgiving of 1983 was one such event for me. Each year my father and I, his brother and my cousin would go to Mountain Home, AR, for at least a couple of weeks in the summer to visit my grandma and grandpa Nelson.

That year my dad decided he was going to go visit grandma and grandpa for Thanksgiving and I was to come along.

Honestly, I did not want to go because I wouldn’t be able to see my girlfriend, spend time with my friends and other family and there really wasn’t much to do in Mountain Home for a 19-year-old guy. I wanted to hang out at home and have some fun.

I begrudgingly agreed to go after much insistence by my father. It was a 10-hour drive from Northwest Indiana, give or take an hour, depending if you made the Lake Norfork Ferry or not. It was the only way to cross the lake from the north to get to Mountain Home back then. Now there are major highways with bridges built over the lake.

When we got to grandma and grandpa’s, I found out that we would be going to the Arrowoods’ home for Thanksgiving dinner. Grandma, who was 87, was in no condition to cook a meal that big. The Arrowoods’ were grandma’s cousins who lived about an hour away and were slightly younger, in their 70s.

It was late in the evening when we arrived and checked in at the hotel. We went to grandma and grandpa’s to say hi and have a short visit. The next morning was Thanksgiving and we would be leaving for the Arrowoods’ early.

Dinner would be served at noon — which seemed unbelievably early to me. Usually, we had Thanksgiving dinner at five or six at night.

For my young teenage self, the weekend would be full of these senior “time change” moments. On Thanksgiving Day, we got to the Arrowoods’ around 10 a.m. and sat around chit-chatting. I don’t remember her name, but Mrs. Arrowood asked dozens of questions about me, my life, what I was doing, what I liked.

“What do you do back at home?” she asked.

I mentioned that I liked to play ping-pong. At home we had a ping-pong table set up in our basement and I usually played several hours a day with my cousin and friends. I was actually quite good back then.

Mrs. Arrowood’s eyes lit up.

“We have a ping-pong table downstairs. Come on and we’ll play,” she said.

I’m certain I must have rolled my eyes because my dad gave me the “you better straighten up” look.

I half-heartedly said, “okay, sure, let’s play.”

I mean, how much of a challenge could it be to play this 70-year-old woman at ping-pong? Four of us played at the start, just warming up.

We played a game of doubles and the woman actually scored a few points on me and my partner, one of the Arrowoods’ neighbors, and they won. I chalked it up to the inexperienced neighbor.

Then we played singles, one-on-one and, to this day, I have never seen anything like it. This little, 70-year-old woman was like some kind of a ping-pong Ninja.

I first played slow and she she started slamming them on me. I kicked it up a notch — so did she.

We played for hours on end that morning and afternoon and I never could beat the woman. It was incredible.

Later that night, after what seemed like a 20-minute grace and the feast, grandma, dad and grandpa all laughed at me getting my butt beat by this tiny ping-pong master.

It turned out that the Arrowoods’ main activity was playing ping-pong. Every day.

“Not everything is like it seems,” grandma said to me.

Grandma was a woman of very few words, but when she spoke, she was usually saying something very smart, and usually correct.

Grandma loved cheesecake, reading, watching some television — usually news programs — and solving crossword puzzles. Her sight wasn’t so good the last few years of her life so she couldn’t do too much reading. She was dedicated to her family.

As a child in the 1930s during the depression, my dad got Scarlet Fever. They lived in South Chicago and dad had to be hospitalized for several weeks.

Grandma didn’t know how to drive, but everyday, after she got the other two kids off to school and grandpa off to work, she would walk several blocks, catch the bus and take it to the train stop and then ride the train across downtown Chicago and go to the hospital to visit my dad.

He had to be kept in a ward with several others who were infected with Scarlet Fever and the only way he could see grandma was though a window.

They each had a small, hand-held chalk board and chalk to write notes in order to communicate with one and other.

Grandma came to see her middle child in that hospital every day. For weeks she made the long journey regardless of the weather conditions each and every day and made it home in time to cook and take care of the rest of the family that evening.

My dad told me that my grandma was a living miracle.

When grandma was 19 years old, she was scheduled to go with her mother and family on a river cruise with Western Electric employees to go to on a picnic in Indiana.

As it turned out, grandma was ill that day and the family did not go on the cruise.

And it was a good thing, dad said, because the cruise turned out to be the capsizing of the S.S. Eastland in the Chicago River on July 24, 1915. It was known as the Eastland Disaster and 844 people were killed when the ship capsized right there while still tied to the dock on the Chicago River.

There were more than 2,000 people on board and too many people went to one side of the ship at the same time, causing it to capsize. It was to become the largest loss of life disaster from a single shipwreck on the Great Lakes, one year after the sinking of the Titanic.

Dad said if grandma had made the trip “none of us might even be here today.”

Grandma never did tell me the story. I learned it from my dad.

I actually had a good time that Thanksgiving weekend of 1983. I learned from grandma that not everything is as it seems and there is often a deeper story behind everything. I also learned a lot about myself that weekend.

I learned that just sitting with family and talking is much more fun and valuable than you can imagine. I learned to be thankful for quiet time with family because that opportunity may not always be there when you are ready for it on your schedule.

As we got ready to leave from grandma and grandpa’s, grandma gave me an extra long hug and a kiss on the cheek.

Grandma wasn’t usually much of a hugger.

“Take care of yourself, kiddo. And I want you to listen to me. I want you to quit smoking. You don’t need to do that. You’re too young and you need to have a long life,” she said.

“Okay grandma,” I said. “I will.”

Eventually, I did.

We left for the long drive home.

As it turned out, that was the last time I saw my grandma Nelson. She died from heart complications three weeks later. Grandma and grandpa were married for 62 years.

After getting back home, I started a new job and I was unable to take the time off to travel back to Arkansas for grandma’s funeral.

I’ll always think of my grandma at Thanksgiving and remember the most valuable thing I learned from her — being thankful for your family and the time you have with them.

I encourage all of you to have a Happy Thanksgiving and to spend some time with the ones you love, family or friends. Take the time out of your busy schedule to enjoy company with your loved ones.

Listen to their stories. The stories of your own family members might just amaze you.

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Gary Nelson is a Crossville Chronicle staffwriter. His column is published each Friday. He may be reached at