Wednesday, April 01, 2009

potting machine

(Sometimes you get archival stories...I keep them here for when I get old and crazy: read at your own risk)

I can’t believe it’s been eleven years since I hit the road with my friend, Buzz, for our first venture to the World Snooker Championships (we went the next year but it wasn’t the same staying in a cheap motel). About a year earlier I'd purchased an older Bedford caravan that looked a lot like this one with the intent of doing some caravanning around England; very English, indeed. Needless to say, the caravanning never happened and it mostly sat around – having completed only this journey before eventually being sold.

Way back in 1998, in order to attend the Embassy World Championships, I had to complete an actual paper application form for tickets; I’d mailed mine on the first eligible day in hopes of getting seats for the finish of the semi-finals on Saturday and the Sunday/Monday finals sessions (the second day of the final is always on the May Bank Holiday Monday). My ticket packet arrived a few months later and we were set – somewhat surprisingly – for all three days of snooker.

First, the Bedford. This little, old dinghy thing had the standard sleeping set-up with a dinette table turning into one bed and a second over the cab. The kitchen area had a small refrigerator (electric when in camp, propane when on the road), a two-burner stove, a small oven, and a radiator heater; all running on propane. If I remember correctly, we loaded up on Saturday morning with some bread, instant grits, eggs, milk, sandwich fixings, bottled water, butter, bacon, and Heineken: your basic guy weekend necessities. I also brought along the portable CD-player stereo since they didn’t apparently have stereos in Bedford caravans built in the 1980s. I stopped by Buzz’s to grab him – and his bevy of classic rock CDs – before heading out to the A1 and running north to Sheffield. The Bedford four-speed manual ran like a champ that day as we listened to some Sabbath (or any Sabbath family-tree band;believe me when I say I got a Sabbath family tree lecture) and imagined just how crisp the green baize would look when we entered the great Crucible Theatre.

The camp/caravan ground I’d found (I don’t know how…the Web was still a bit immature) was up the side of a steep and muddy hill on the northwest outskirts of Sheffield with nothing else around it. It took quite a bit of navigating to find - after driving past the bog at least once - and some quality driving to get the rig in and parked between the scrappy trees and mud. South Yorkshire is still a damp, cold place in late May and this was something we hadn’t really considered prior to the trip (see below: heater). The campground was probably half full with mostly tent and sleeping bag folks that were doing who knows what out in the cold and dirt. We had a power post for the caravan and a bathhouse about twenty paces away. Overall, it met our needs well enough since we were living large in the Bedford condo. I did feel a little bad each morning as we stepped from our warm cocoon – with the scent of toast and grits spilling out the door – and headed to the shower. The well-chilled and hardy north England campers would be hunched over small brews with hunks of stale meat in their medieval claws. Okay, not that bad, but it was dang cold in the mornings and I secretly admired their manliness as I ate my eggs and grits in the warmth of the camper.

Our first foray into the Crucible for the first Saturday afternoon session was amazing. The table is set in a pit so all seats have excellent views of the action; being that a snooker table is monstrous it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. You’ve got fully stocked food-and-drink vendors that ply a vast selection of sausage and/or ham sarnies and pints of beers – manna for snooker fans. Each session, which runs eight frames, can take anywhere between 75 minutes (if Ronnie O’Sullivan is playing) to 3 hours (if Steve Davis is very slowly ambling around the table). You can come and go between frames if you need to top up on beer but the place is absolutely quiet during play with only the occasional eruption of applause at difficult pots, great safety play, completion of a frame, and century breaks. We attended seven sessions over three days and watched on Monday night as John Higgins won it all for his first World title. We also managed, prior to Saturday’s play, to get then reigning World Champion Ken Doherty’s autograph as he entered through the player’s entrance. Damn snooker groupies.

Here’s what we learned on our first night of camping in the Yorkshire hills. The drinking of a good numbers of beers, playing Crib Golf, and listening to the Jerky Boys while sitting in a caravan in the north of England can be hilarity; maybe not to everyone, but trust me, it was stupid hilarious to a couple of half-loaded snooker followers. We were perfectly happy as our little heater kept plugging away and keeping us warm from the howling English winds while we played round after round of Crib Golf. The other thing is this: even though it feels nice and toasty when bed time arrives at 1am, don’t turn off the heat because you think you’ll be “warm enough” through the night. The Bedford is just a big sheet of aluminum bent into the shape of a box and boxy aluminum isn't warm. I was sleeping above the cab and Buzz was on the dinette-configured-as-a- bed and by about 3am it was freezing cold. Of course, neither of us were initially willing to get out from under any covers to save ourselves. I eventually, against the will of my shivering bones, managed to climb down and fire up the heater. Needless to say, the heater was hard at work all through our second night of camping.

By the time everything wrapped up Monday evening, with Higgins besting Doherty 18-12 in the final, we were packed up and ready to head home to East Anglia. We gassed the Bedford up, pointed south, and managed to make it home safely as the clock neared midnight. We made the trip up again in 1999 and 2000 (only having tickets for the Saturday semi-finals in 1999) but the Bedford was long gone by then. It didn’t have anything near the same feel as 1998 because we were limited to bars and the local Happy Eater for drinks and food – if you’ve never been to a Happy Eater in England, you don’t know garbage food from nothing. Looking back on that weekend in 1998 it was probably as much fun as you can have at a sporting event. I was at the Caps playoff games last year, and it was pretty amazing, but my love of snooker combined with a smaller venue and a crappy camper easily put it up at the top.

Maybe if the Caps win the Cup at Verizon this year I'll change my mind. Even with that, I might need to rent a camper and sleep out on 7th and F St. the night before to get it over the top.

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