Smashing my childhood dream led me to climate action

Brian Ettling shooting pool at the Crater Lake National Park employee community center in the summer of 2005.

“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I set aside childish ways.” – 1 Corinthians 13:11, the Bible.

Discovering my love of pool as a child

I will never forget our family Labor Day weekend vacation to the Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri in 1981. I was 13 years old at the time and my younger sister, Mary Frances was ten years old. The weather seemed to be overcast and a bit chilly, too cold to go swimming and kind of a blah day to go exploring anywhere. My dad said to my younger sister and me, “I am going to teach you how to play pool (billiards) today.” 

I grew up with my parents having a 1909 A.E. Schmidt antique pool table in the basement. My dad loved shooting pool with his male friends in the basement when my parents would have company over at their parties. My mom and the ladies would be upstairs chatting about life and preparing food while the men enjoyed their game of pool. Up until that Labor Day vacation trip, the pool table was taboo for my younger sister and I to touch. It was “not a toy” as my dad would frequently say to us kids to anything in the house that was not a toy. 

He seemed deathly afraid that us rambunctious kids would rip the fine shopworn green felt on the table, making the table useless to play and expensive to repair. Up until that point, we dared not to receive his wrath by even touching the family pool table. 

My dad had a mercurial and unpredictable temper growing up from working 68 hours a week among two jobs and not seeming to know how to act around children. To be honest, I did not like being around him as a child. Frankly, I liked him better when he was not home and working. However, on this Sunday morning at this pool room at Lake of the Ozarks lodge, my dad was very loving, kind, and dream to be around introducing us to pool. He was very patient teaching us how to hold our pool sticks, put chalk on our pool cues, explaining the rules of the various pool games, and giving us tips on the more difficult shots. 

I recall my mom was not there. She was off doing something else with my older sister and her mom, my maternal grandmother, that morning. However, my mom was full of happiness and pride that my dad was teaching my younger sister and I pool. My parents obtained the family pool table when they moved to their first home in St. Louis in 1964. The previous owners did not know how they were going to move the table, so they offered my parents a deal to throw in the pool table with the house. Over the years, the pool table became part of the family used at every family and social gathering in the home. 

My mom had sweet memories of her dad, my maternal grandfather, shooting pool with my dad, as well as my mom and dad’s uncles. My mom loved how the men would bond shooting pool in the basement. Both my mom and dad wanted their kids to learn pool to keep this tradition going in the family. My mom wanted her kids using the pool table. 

When my parents moved to a bigger home in the suburbs of south St. Louis County in 1973, they were in total agreement that the pool table was coming with us to our new home, no matter the cost or logistics, hell or high water.

My dad contacted A.E. Schmidt Company to move disassemble the pool table move to the new home. My dad frequently told the story how the table was moved. Before moving into the new home, it rained heavy for weeks and the grass sod had not sprouted yet. When the truck moved to the side of the house to unload the table, my dad thought that moving truck would never get unstuck from the mud. He marveled at the two huge burly guys moving the slate makes the solid surface of the table down the basement steps. Between the size of the men and the heaviness of the slate, my dad could see the new basement steps buckling a bit and creaking with discomfort as they very slowly and carefully hauled the table slate down the steps. 

A.E. Schmidt appraised the pool table for my dad as being worth several thousand dollars, worth more than a new fancy car at that time. The previous owners had way undervalued the value of the table when they included it in the purchase of my parents’ previous home. It was a beautiful pool table that my parents hoped would stay in the family for generations. My dad was not going to have sloppy knuckleheaded kids mess up this family treasure. 

As my dad taught my sister and I how to play pool at that table in the Lake of the Ozarks, I was hooked for life. I loved pool. It was as if I had found the game that I had always meant to play. After we played for several hours on this table, I asked my dad if I could start playing pool on our table at home. He gave an enthusiastic yes and my mom was very pleased to hear this. 

Playing pool in the basement became the center of my life during my teenage years. I admired the look of that emerald green felt that was worn in spots and had a few nicks from my dad and his friends playing pool. I was enthralled by the sharp sound of the cracking of the balls against each other and the rumble of the balls rolling across the table like very tiny bowling balls. I relished teaching myself the trick shots and practicing for hours. My dad built a stereo when he was in high school, and I would play rock music or put on records while shooting pool. Certain songs would put me in a good rhythm to successfully make several shots in a row. 

That pool table saved my parents money because I never developed an interest in video games. They did not agonize about buying an expensive Atari or other video games for me for Christmas or birthdays. My neighborhood and school friends liked to come over to shoot pool. Thus, my parents did not worry much about where I was hanging out. On the flip side, I took mastering pool very intensely and I would frequently curse loudly in the basement when missing shots. My parents would often admonish me for my loud foul language in the basement. 

Sometimes I was bullied in school or felt awkward trying to fit in with my school peers. Thus, the basement pool table was always a comforting friend that accepted me the way I was. On ABC TV’s Wide World of Sports or the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, I would see the top pool players in the world such as Minnesota Fats or Willie Mosconi. I wanted to be them when I grew up and dreamed of being them each time I played pool. As a kid, I was 100% determined I would be the best pool player in the world. No one was going to stop me. 

Receiving my own pool stick as a gift and then destroying it

After my dad taught me to play pool on a family vacation at a hotel recreation room pool table in the Lake of the Ozarks in September 1981, the pool table became a central part of my teenage years. I was probably a B student in high school instead of an A student because of all the hours I spent playing pool. 

My mom’s brother, Uncle Art, would pass through St. Louis periodically to visit our family. He traveled on the road in his RV as a magician with his wife, my Aunt Immy. They liked playing pool, especially Aunt Immy. My dad blissfully told the story how she beat him at pool in the early 1970s. Apparently, not that many women played pool in the early 1970s so my dad proclaimed that Immy was the first woman to beat him at pool. I made it one of my life’s missions to keep practicing so I could beat my aunt and uncle at pool during one of their visits. 

In the mid 1980s, I invited Uncle Art and Aunt Immy to play me in pool on the family table during one of their visits. They were both hesitant because they often heard how much I practiced at pool. They had not played in years and were scared I would win. They half heartily played a few games with me, and I beat them. They gave up playing saying that I was ‘too good at playing them in pool.’ They then walked back upstairs to visit with my mom and grandmother. 

Uncle Art seemed to regret he was reluctant to play pool with me. One year in late December a package came from him instructing me not to open it until Christmas. He gave me my own fancy pool cue for with its own case for me to carry to pool halls. It unscrewed in the middle, just like you see professional pool players use, so it could fit in its black canvass case. It was one of the best Christmas gifts in my life and I cherished it. It had fancy artistic engravings in the wood towards the bottom or thicker end of the pool cue. Someone had crafted this pool cue with care. I treated it with respect. No one could touch my pool cue without asking me very politely. 

I graduated from high school in 1987, but I was unsure what to do with my life. I was stuck in this dream of wanting to be a professional pool player. I never entered a pool tournament and I felt like I was only a moderate player. I feared leaving home and the basement to attend college because I loved shooting pool on the family pool table so much. 

I even took a gap year before starting college trying to figure out what to do with my life. I was so uncertain. One day, I was shooting pool with my older sister’s boyfriend, Ben. He kept trouncing me at pool game after game. I became more frustrated and seething inside that I could not beat him. Years early, I watched a concert film, The Kids Are Alright by the rock band The Who where they destroyed all their musical instruments after they finished their performance. I didn’t agree with smashing their instruments, but it intrigued me. 

On the summer day in 1988 after losing in pool all day by Ben, I quietly went to another part of the basement. Without saying a word, I took my fancy pool cue and smashed it against the concrete floor. Ben was speechless and did not know what to say. I never said a word to my parents, but they were very surprised to learn that I smashed my fancy pool cue. They were a bit sad what I did with my uncle’s gift. 

However, I had to do it. Smashing that pool cue helped me move on from my dream of just hiding in my parents’ basement playing pool and fantasizing about being a professional pool player. I decided not to play pool after that. I focused on starting William Jewell College in Kansas City, Missouri in September 1988. I chose to major in Business Administration so I could try to make a living after I graduated college. I played pool a few times in college. One of the women’s dorms at my college had a pool table that I got to try once or twice. 

Looking back, if I had brought my pool cue to college, it would have been a distraction. I would have scoured the area for pool halls and places to shoot pool because I had an addiction to playing pool. Not having that pool cue in college helped me concentrate on my studies. I was not distracted at playing pool than when I was in high school. 

While attending college, I discovered I had a dream to work in the national parks. Upon my college graduation in May 1992, I took a train to Oregon to work at Crater Lake National Park for the summer. I fell in love with Crater Lake. I worked there 25 years in the summers. 

The concession dorm where I lived for my first three summers at Crater Lake had a pool table. I made some friends at the dorm, and we spent hours playing pool on that table. I really loved the hiking and the scenery at Crater Lake. Even more, the pool table at the concession dorm helped my not miss my parents’ wonderful pool table one bit. 

Crater Lake was only a summer job, so I spent my winters working in Everglades National Park, Florida for 16 years. The concessionaire at Flamingo had a recreational pub to hang out, buy alcoholic drinks and a decent pool table. However, I never went inside because I did not like the cigarette smoke, excessive drinking by some of the employees, and very loud music. I became more interested in canoeing, hiking, and birdwatching to see the color birds in the Everglades. 

Crater Lake National Park had a Community Center in the middle of the housing for the permanent ranger staff. Inside the community center was a pool table with a cobalt blue felt, the same color enchanting color as Crater Lake. During the summer of 2005, my housemates and I enjoyed shooting pool on that table. My housemate David Grimes took some of the best natural photos of me shooting pool. Playing pool became a way for me to bond with park friends. However, overriding joy was living, working, and hiking in the national parks. 

Brian Ettling shooting pool at the Crater Lake National Park employee community center in the summer of 2005.

While working in the national parks, I found my true passion to organize for climate action in 2010. Over the years I gave around 300 climate change talks in 12 U.S. states, Washington D.C, and Ottawa Canada. I wrote numerous newspaper editorial opinions and letter to the editor for climate action. I have appeared in several radio interviews, podcasts, and even was a guest on Comedy Central’s Tosh.o TV show twice as the Climate Change Comedian

I traveled to Washington D.C. 9 times to lobby with Congressional offices to pass strong climate legislation. I even persuaded a member of Congress to co-sponsor a climate bill. 

Since moving to Portland, Oregon in 2017, I made countless trips to the Oregon state Capitol in Salem to give oral testimony and lobby state legislators to pass effective climate bills. I led the efforts to get a bipartisan climate resolution passed in the Oregon Senate in 2021. It had 30 co-sponsors, in the Oregon House, including 7 Republicans, before it died in June 2021. 

I traveled across Missouri twice to give climate change presentations in 2017 and 2018. I led a tour across Oregon in October 2017 giving climate change talks in the eastern, central and southern parts of Oregon. 

I feel like it was really my true purpose in life in advocate for climate action. There was no looking back for me. 

In 2009, my parents moved to a new house in St. Louis County. They moved the pool table and refinished it with a green felt. It was pure joy to shoot pool with my dad on that table that Christmas. My niece Rachel was almost years old. My dad and I taught her to shoot pool on this table. Sadly, my dad’s struggle with cancer no longer allowed him to play pool in 2013. In 2021, my dad had to move into an assisted living facility due to declining health. 

Brian Ettling playing pool with his niece Rachel Hunt in April 2010.

My mom sold the house in 2022. It was painful for her to have to give up the 1909 A.E. Schmidt pool table that was in the family for almost 50 years. My parents and I always intended for me to inherit the pool table. 

My mom did not know how to break the news to me that she would include the pool table with the sale. However, my wife and I live in a small apartment in Portland, Oregon. I traveled a lot with my climate organizing. It was simply not possible for me to inherit and own this pool table. It was sad that our family would have to let go of this pool table. 

I told my mom to look on the bright side that our family got to borrow that pool table for almost 50 years. The table came with the first home that they owned and it left the family with the last home that they owned. The new owner of the home was a single mom with two teenage sons, who were probably going to love that pool table. Who knows, maybe one of them will practice for hours on that table to become the best pool player in the world that I was never able to be.  

I will always cherish my dad teaching me how to play pool and have wonderful memories shooting pool in my parents’ pool table growing up. I never regretted smashing my pool cue in the summer of 1988 to help me become the climate and democracy advocate that I am today. Sometimes we really do need to make a clean break from our past find our life’s true purpose.