Around and About with Richard McCarthy: ‘You’re a strong man to do that’: Observations from this side of the shuffleboard court

By RICHARD MCCARTHY

For the Gazette

Published: 06-06-2024 3:33 PM

When I was 18 years old, I hitchhiked alone from western Massachusetts to St. Petersburg, Florida and back. Hitchhiking was fairly common among young people then, although not typically for such a long distance. I had some trials along the way, not the least of which was losing my wallet in Jacksonville on the return trip, and hitchhiking through the South with 81 cents in my pocket and no identification.

I had relatives who lived in St. Pete, and I stayed with them while I was there. At the time, St. Pete had the reputation of having a very old population, and was called by some “City of the Living Dead.”

Decades later I started going to the St. Pete area for a week or so every winter, now flying down, renting a car and a place to stay in advance, and keeping a wallet with cash and credit cards securely in my pocket. On one of the first times I went down there in this “solid citizen” fashion, I took long, slow jogs to get the lay of the land. I recall jogging by an old man sitting on a porch, and his calling out to me as I went by, “You’re a strong man to do that.”

Over the years I’ve gone there, the city’s reputation and reality has been “youthified” somewhat, and it goes by the nickname “The Sunshine City.” Presumably that attracts more visitors than “City of the Living Dead.”

During one of my early visits there, I took note of the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club, located downtown, “the oldest and largest shuffleboard club in the world,” which, at its peak, had over 100 courts and over 8,000 members. If I stopped to watch a match, it was more with the attitude of taking an anthropological expedition to ”geezerhood” than viewing a sports competition. I considered shuffleboard to be a close cousin of tiddlywinks.

This year when I went down for my annual respite, I was bicycling alone on a cloudless morning in a small “Old Florida” town outside of St. Pete. My definition of “Old Florida” includes its being largely free of strip malls, high rises, gated communities, and billboards advertising accident and injury lawyers. As an aside, I will offer that Florida must have more billboards advertising accident and injury lawyers per square foot than any other land mass on the face of the earth.

While I was biking, I saw a hut that had signage identifying it as the town’s shuffleboard club. Next to the hut were 30-or-so people playing shuffleboard on several courts.

So I stopped to watch.

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As I was looking at the shuffleboard players, it hit me that there were at least as many who looked to be younger than me as there were players who looked my age or older. At first I told myself that the age demographic for shuffleboard must have dropped some, and that may be true. But then I realized that the “young folk” looked to be in their late 50s, 60s, and early 70s.

Now that I knew it wasn’t being played by old fogies, I started seeing shuffleboard through a different lens. The old jock in me started revving up and calculating that I could buy one of those shuffleboard sticks and two sets of shuffleboard pucks. That way I could practice by myself when the courts weren’t in use. I could get real good at it, kick butt as it were, become a player on the shuffleboard hut club championship team, maybe lead that team to a “Hoosier” style upset of the vaunted St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club team, be selected as a Tampa Bay Area Shuffleboard All-Star etc., etc., etc.

Then I zeroed in on the easygoing, relaxed, downright nonchalant attitude and demeanor the contestants had about their matches. Nobody seemed very intense about outcomes. There was plenty of banter, but it was about as far away from “trash talk” as humankind can get. It all seemed so — what is the right word — leisurely.

The fire that had started in me to join in didn’t fit the vibe. After all, I didn’t want to become a “Florida Man Arrested For Starting Shuffleboard Brawl” headline. I realized my spirit hadn’t kicked back enough to shoehorn myself into being a shuffleboard player, at least the way these folks were playing the game. Maybe my not being ready for shuffleboard was a good thing, and maybe not so good. Maybe someday I’d get there, and maybe not. What I did know was that wasn’t the day.

So I got back on my bike and pedaled away, around and about, and let the sunshine do my thinking for the rest of the ride.

That bike ride took place in early February. On a cloudy, not warm day in late March, March 25th to be exact, I was back up here, bicycling in Turners Falls, and I went down on a patch of ice and broke my femur. For those of you who don’t know, the femur, which can be thought of as the thigh bone, is (as I’ve been told ad nauseam since the accident) the “largest and strongest bone in the body.” I was left unable to walk, and could easily see myself saying to shuffleboard players everywhere, “You’re strong people to do that.”

Maybe when I reach the promised land of recovery from my injury, I’ll be inspired to write a column about the accident and its aftermath. After all, I have a friend who says, “Nothing happens to you that can’t become something that happens for you.” Perhaps the title of that column will be something like “It’s hard to look cool with a walker.” For now, I’ll just offer that I’ve spent the vast majority of my life with an intact femur and the last two months with a broken femur, and I can report that, on the whole, an unbroken femur is better.

Amherst resident Richard McCarthy, a longtime columnist at the Springfield Republican, writes a monthly column for the Gazette.