Eating Authors: Larry Hodges

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Larry Hodges

Every now and then, several of the things that push my buttons come together, such as showcasing an author here on the occasion of their first novel, or highlighting another author who’s an alum of the Taos Toolbox Master Class, or pointing at a book from a small press. This week’s EATING AUTHORS guest, Larry Hodges, hits the trifecta. He climbed the mountain in New Mexico years ahead of me, and his first novel releases tomorrow from World Weaver Press.

As you’ll discover shortly from his recounting of his most memorable meal, Larry has a level of notoriety that few can claim; he is a major figure (if not the major figure) in the world of American Table Tennis. Not content to simply be a champion at the sport, he’s literally written the book (actually, several of them) on the topic. In addition he’s penned more than 1500 articles and another 1000+ blog entires, coached Olympic players, founded a national organization, and edited a nationwide magazine. And while I’ve not had the privilege of watching him in action, rumor is he has a killer serve and a wicked backhand.

He’s also got a pretty good sense of humor too.

LMS: Welcome, Larry. No time for a volley, let’s leap right in and get the story of your most memorable meal!

LH: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times – and I mean this literally. It was an age of foolishness, when I was twenty years old, that I had my best triumph and worst meal ever.

I was an up-and-coming table tennis star this summer of 1980. The year before I had moved from Maryland to Wilson, North Carolina, to train at the Butterfly Table Tennis Center. And the training had paid off. And so I awaited the Saturday of the North Carolina Open with great anticipation.

Campaign 2100: Game of Scorpions

On Thursday night I played a number of practice matches, and beat the #2 player in the state, Jim McQueen. I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep that night. That in itself wasn’t rare; when I was younger I was an insomniac, sleeping only about four hours per night, and staying up all night about once a week. But on Friday night I beat the #3 and #4 players in the state, Denny Stanley and Walter Wintermute, and that night I couldn’t sleep either.

Saturday morning arrived, and I’d been up for over 48 hours straight. I also had a fever. I was entered in four events – Open Singles, Open Doubles, Class A Singles (where the top seeds can’t play), and Under 22. I wasn’t seeded in any of these events, and yet I knew the rankings were out of date.

Early on I pulled off a great upset, beating Alan Evenson, the #1 seed in Under 22. To celebrate, I went down the street to a McDonalds and had a quarter pounder with cheese. It tasted so good at the time – juicy beef, crunchy and pungent onions, and tangy American cheese! Then I had another upset, and that meant another trip to McDonalds. Then another upset, another quarter pounder. If something works, you keep doing it, right? Did I say this was an age of foolishness?

We’ll skip ahead a few hours. I’d won Open Doubles (with Tom Poston), Class A, and Under 22, and was now in the final of Open Singles in front of a large crowd. In the process I’d pulled off nine upsets . . . meaning nine quarter pounders with cheese, all in about five hours. I now faced the #1 player in North Carolina, the smashing and bashing Fred King, who’d won the last nine North Carolina Opens, one for each of those quarter pounders I now regretted. I was bent over in agony as a rhinoceros breakdanced in my stomach.

The Spirit of Pong

The match was best of five to 21 points, with players alternating five serves each. It went to the fifth game. Fred took a 17-13 lead, and was serving, which is an advantage. Though I had to clutch my stomach in agony between points, I raced around the court and attacked nearly every ball with my forehand, won all five points on Fred’s serve to lead 18-17, and eked out the win, 21-19 in the fifth. The crowd screamed and applauded this changing of the guard – I was the champion!!! It was the most epic comeback of my life – but I was in so much pain I couldn’t stand up straight to celebrate. I almost went to the hospital.

There were several repercussions from the events of that day. First, when the tournament was processed, my ranking shot up to #2 in the state, and I would soon reach #1 (as well as #18 in the U.S. out of about 7000 ranked players).

But the more obvious repercussion is I could never again look at a hamburger without feeling nauseous – that rhinoceros is still lounging about in my stomach, and when it sees a burger, it leaps into action. I’m fine with things like spaghetti and meat balls or even an occasional steak, though I’m not big on meat. It’s only a hamburger or cheeseburger that makes my stomach want to twist and shout. And so I haven’t had a burger since the Carter presidency 35 years ago. With one exception.

Sorcerers in Space

I gradually made the switch from player to full-time table tennis coach in Maryland. (After it became an Olympic sport in 1988 the demand for coaching grew.) In 2000 I and two other coaches (Cheng Yinghua and Jack Huang) were coaching a team of about 30 kids from the Maryland Table Tennis Center at the Junior Olympics in Orlando, Florida. Our club dominated the country, and the year before we had won over half the gold medals. We were hoping to repeat, but we had strong competition from clubs in California, New Jersey, and Florida. The kids all knew about my aversion to burgers – and being kids, they made a challenge: if they won over half the gold medals again, would I eat a burger? I agreed.

Well, they won over half the gold medals (damn I’m a good coach!), and so at dinner they all gathered around and watched as I ate my first burger in twenty years. I smothered it in cheese, lettuce, tomato, and onion. It wasn’t that bad, but it did wake up the rhino and make me nauseous.

I haven’t eaten a burger since.

So here we are, another fifteen years later, and guess what? I let the story leak out, and once again the kids I coach are after me. I’ve got deals with three of them where if they reach specific goals, I eat a burger. I live in daily fear, and the kids love it. Pretty good junior incentive program!

Thanks, Larry. That’s a pretty harrowing tale, and one that may make more than a few readers here swear off McDonald’s for good. The rainforests thank you.

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

#SFWApro

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