DANFORTH, Ill. (AP) – For the past 12 years, this game has preserved the youth of several retired Iroquois County farmers.
Every year, from November to April, Roger Wilken invites five of his friends to his garage in Danforth for weekly bull sessions and games of ping pong.
“Old guys like us need to exercise or else we’re going to get fat,” the 81-year-old joked. “We also need to stick together and have fun.”
“It beats doing nothing and putting yourself in a nursing home,” added George Tammen, 85, of Danforth. “It gets you out of the house and gets you moving. It’s a good time.”
The group strives to have four people at the weekly matches, but that depends on some busy schedules.
“You have to work around doctor appointments when you’re this old,” said Bill Miller, 77, of Gilman.
The old-timers use a peg scoreboard to keep track of matches. When they’re not playing, they’re closely watching the net.
Only the sounds of a ping pong ball and squeaking shoes can be heard during a match. Occasionally, the retirees erupt with cheers for a stellar play.
“There’s not much talking during a game, it’s that competitive,” said Ken Redeker, 74, of Crescent City. “But you never hear a swear word. This is a nice bunch of guys.”
Miller, who played ping pong while serving two years in the Army, brings his own paddle. He got a new paddle for Christmas to replace a 25-year-old paddle he used to play with.
Win or lose, the men rejoice in sportsmanship. Just ask Duane Tammen. As the young man of the group, the 68-year-old from Danforth graciously accepts his defeats in the name of camaraderie.
“I get whupped by a bunch of old men,” Tammen said with a laugh. “Somebody has to be the whupping dog. Every once in a while, they let me win so that I keep coming back.”
But it’s not just about ping pong and exercising. It’s also about socializing. After a few rounds, the men take a break for cans of Sprite and a batch of brownies. That’s when they talk about sports, farming and their grandchildren, in addition to comparing notes from their churches.
“I don’t make it to all the coffee shops like these other guys do,” Tammen said. “So I have to come here and get what’s new.”
“We haven’t really gotten into politics yet,” added Steve Krones, 79, of Gilman.
The ping pong frenzy wraps up around April. Some of the retirees help their families with their farms.
Nonetheless, they eagerly wait for November, when Wilken pulls his truck out of the garage and sets up the ping pong table again.
“It started with just a few of us and we’ve added people over the years,” Wilken said. “Bob Dieken kept playing until he was 89 years old. It just goes to show that this is a game you can play no matter how old you are. This keeps us young.”