Tuesdays with Si

Life lessons over the Ping-Pong table

And the life lessons are on the house.

Nothing in Si's home has changed in the 27 years since Paul, then barely a teenager, took his first Ping-Pong lesson from Si. "Every speck of dust is still here!" Paul whispers, giggling. Even the pens by the phone are the same, Paul swears, except now they're all dried up.

Si has other students these days, mainly Sun City types. Paul is the only kid who still comes now that he's an adult. The kids, they grow up and stop playing Ping-Pong, Si says. "They're getting older, they're having dates, and they forget." That's a mistake, according to Si, because Ping-Pong keeps you in good shape.

Si at a tournament, many Ping-Pong games ago.
courtesy of Si Kenig
Si at a tournament, many Ping-Pong games ago.
Blazing paddles: Si (left) and Paul in a heated volley.
Hector Acuña
Blazing paddles: Si (left) and Paul in a heated volley.

Once in a while, Si's former students stop by to see if he's still alive.

"A couple of weeks ago, there was a knock on the door," Si says. He didn't recognize her at first, but she knew him. "She looked like a star, she was so beautiful. She has a baby, she got married." They live in New Jersey.

Paul, too, has left Si and Ping-Pong from time to time. He was serious about the game as a teenager, then quit altogether for three or four years. After that, he played and took lessons, but sporadically. About two years ago, he found Si again.

At first, Si admits, he wasn't so happy with Paul.

"I don't like quitters," he says one night, scooping up balls after a lesson.

Paul confirms that. He remembers that when he was 18, he told Si he was taking a break from Ping-Pong. Si was mad. "He said, 'If you quit table tennis, you'll quit other things in life.'"

But now Paul's not a quitter. He comes to the Phoenix Table Tennis Club on Mondays and Wednesdays, and to Si's every Tuesday. Si is proud.

Si and Paul are volleying one recent Tuesday night when Bill Kenig pokes his head in the door. Bill is Si's son. Also a former Ping-Pong champion. Now he does hair in Scottsdale.

"Okay, I fixed the toilet," Bill yells.

No answer from Si, who continues to volley.


Si stops, looks at Bill.

"I fixed the toilet."

"Good for you!"

Si keeps playing.

Bill settles in on the couch and tells some Ping-Pong war stories. He was Si's first student. Si would make Bill play for hours; if Bill could beat his dad by 15 points, he could drive the car for an hour. Ten points, half an hour. "He was a man of his word," Bill recalls. Even if it was 11 p.m. on a school night, Si would take Bill out. To this day, Bill loves to drive at night.

Si's passion for table tennis began long before he moved his family to Phoenix. He played as a kid in Poland and later in Munich, Germany, where he lived after World War II. "When it's cold, people do things indoors. What can you do? They didn't have bowling," Bill says.

Bill has fantastic tales of his father's wartime antics. Si, who is Jewish, escaped Poland alone as a teenager, sneaking aboard a train to Russia. There he lived with an older woman and worked in a meat plant until the woman reported him to the authorities and he was forced to join the Russian army. Si shows off the scar on his head from an encounter he had with some shrapnel in Stalingrad.

Eventually, Si returned to Poland and then to Germany, where he lived in a commune and met his future wife, Sara. He wanted to go to Israel, but she had relatives in the U.S., so they ended up in New York.

Bill's first Ping-Pong memories are of standing on a milk box so he could reach the tables at Washington Baths in Coney Island. Years later, Si made a deal to buy a small market from a guy in Brooklyn. The guy told him about how he was moving to sunny California to strike it rich, which sounded good to Si, so he gave up his $100 down payment and moved Bill and Sara across country.

Bill recalls playing on concrete tables in Santa Monica, with the wind whipping the balls away. They lived in Los Angeles until Si lost the lease on the small hamburger stand he ran.

Si remembered visiting Tucson once; the weather was nice. So the family relocated to Phoenix. They arrived on June 10, 1964, Bill says, laughing. The temperature was 110.

Si bought a tiny house across the street from the Encanto Park golf course and put a Ping-Pong table on the back patio, which was later enclosed.

He's the longest continuously playing member of the Phoenix Table Tennis Club.

Paul Hamra is a joiner. He belongs to the American Legion, the Young Republicans, the Singles Gourmet Club. He's an Elk. He even goes to Temple Beth Israel synagogue once in a while, although he's Catholic. All good places to schmooze potential clients for his jewelry business.

But Paul won't find many customers at the Phoenix Table Tennis Club, which meets in a west Phoenix church gym. And Si's in no position to buy a fine Swiss watch like the $7,000 platinum Rolex Paul wears.

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