Brass Knuckles don’t normally come to mind when thinking about the tools used by law enforcement officers. However, in 1961 my grandfather not only considered them to be acceptable, but essential tools of the trade. He was the Noel City Marshall then, and in Noel people’s values and even the world itself were much different than the world we live in today.
One hot and steamy Saturday evening in July a father took his young five year old son to a favored gathering spot in Noel, the basement pool hall on Main Street. This was a place not easily found as the only evidence of its presence from the street was a lighted sign suspended from the building’s facade that read “pool”.
Clutching his son’s hand the father led the boy slowly down the narrow passage’s concrete steps. The musty whiff of dampness and the strong odor of cigarette and cigar smoke rose up from the basement and spread onto Main Street. The father had been in the basement pool hall many times but this was the first time he brought his son.
The large open room only had room for two pool tables, two snooker tables, and a table against one wall where dominos were played. A small bar was located to the right of the entrance. Each pool and snooker table had a large single light above it, and a metal wire suspended from the ceiling wove its way through the wooden sliding beads used to keep score.
Five stools rested in front of the bar, four of which were occupied. The stool farthest from the entrance was empty. That seemed odd as the pool hall was crowded and there were men leaning against the bar. The constant murmur of conversation was occasionally interrupted by a raised voice when a difficult shot was made or a game won, and the sound of cue balls striking object balls resonated throughout the small room.
After only a few minutes my grandfather walked through the entrance and into the smoky room. He was greeted by several men as he walked slowly toward the empty bar stool. My grandfather reached into his back pants pocket, removed a small metal object with holes, placed it on the bar and sat down with his back against the room’s wall. No words were spoken but the bartender placed a mug in front of him, opened a bottle of beer and poured some of its liquid into the mug.
The young boy believed my grandfather to be a gruff man who did not possess a kindly disposition but his curiosity was unbearable. While kneeling on the bar he raised his head toward his father’s ear and asked about the metal object on the bar. My grandfather overheard his question and said “young man, these are brass knuckles but you don’t have to worry about them; only bad people need to be concerned”. My grandfather then raised himself off the stool, took a few steps toward the youngster and while patting the blonde hair on his head said with a smile on his lips, “I’m the police here in Noel, and I make sure little boys like you stay safe”. The marshal slowly stepped back, lowered himself back onto the bar stool and sipped a drink of beer from the mug.
After a few minutes a man appeared in the pool hall’s doorway and said “Marshall, there’s trouble at Shadow Lake”. Shadow Lake was Noel’s local hot-spot where people came to listen to music, dance and drink. Without speaking a word, the Marshall rose up from the stool, placed the brass knuckles back into his rear pants pocket, and casually walked out of the pool hall and disappeared from sight as he advanced up the steps.
Thirty minutes or so passed before my grandfather walked back into the room. He strolled over to the still empty stool, removed the brass knuckles from his pants pocket, placed them on the bar and sank onto the stool. Without any words being spoken, the bartender brought the mug of beer and the bottle up from under the bar and placed them in front of my grandfather. The boy wanted to know what had transpired but neither he, nor anyone else, asked.
Years later, and after the boy had grown into a man, he often thought about the once busy, but long gone, pool hall in the basement. He recalled the smells of dampness and smoke, and he remembered the constant rumble of conversation as the men shot pool, played snooker and moved the dominos across the table. The man could picture the bar in his mind and remembered his father sitting him atop that bar. But more than anything else he remembered the often empty stool at the end of the bar, the brass knuckles, the pat on the head and my grandfather.