Champions of the free world

At a lounge in Gilchrist, a Tournament of Champions requires 2 things: A Saturday night and 16 players, as long as they're 'terrible at everything'

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GILCHRIST —

The Pine Room Lounge is kind of like the bar in the old “Cheers” TV series — except much more rustic, and much less politically correct.

Through the years, tiny Gilchrist, home to the Gilchrist Family Restaurant & Pine Room Lounge, has remained one of those unique places that anchors Central Oregon to its small-town roots.

It’s a place where everybody knows your (nick)name. Where people never wonder if they went to the wrong bar to meet their friends. Where beer turns a loser into a winner. And most recently, it’s where many local folks come to play the Tournament of Champions.

Nearly four years ago, to research a sports feature story for The Bulletin, I visited the Pine Room’s two-lane bowling alley for a night of league play. Now, I’m back, and I can report that since that winter evening in 2006, no one has improved his or her game. Nor has anyone started keeping score.

The Saturday night Tournament of Champions, consisting of shuffleboard, darts, bowling and billiards, is played in the Pine Room of the Gilchrist Mall, which, contrary to popular belief, is NOT the only building in this town, located 45 miles south of Bend.

In lieu of stretching, Tournament of Champions players might warm up with a bacon cheeseburger and a few “pint curls.”

“Do you come here often?” I ask one of the most chatty men at the bar as competitors start rolling in for the tournament.

“Where else you gonna go?” he replies with a smile.

His name is Vern Grindy, and his second home is in Gilchrist. Like so many in Central Oregon, he moved up from California.

“This place is familiar,” he says. “California is too crowded, too much traffic.”

The ceiling of the Pine Room is still plastered with signed dollar bills and lottery tickets.

Mainstay ambience pieces include a talking deer head mounted on the wall, a popcorn machine, and cigarette and scratch-ticket dispensers.

“What’s changed in the last four years?” I ask Rick Ward, bar owner.

“That Beaver sign,” he says, pointing to a glowing orange-and-black Oregon State University sign. Ward has also added, notably, a whole wall of certificates recognizing top finishers in the Tournament of Champions.

“We pulled the tournament from retirement in February,” notes Ward, who says the competition was tabled for a period of time a few years back. “It was part of our stimulus package. Now, anyone can be Champion of the Free World.”

That is the title bestowed upon tournament winners.

The tournament begins when 16 people sign up, or when Ward has rounded up 16 participants in the bar. The players are then divided by random drawing into eight teams of two. Each team competes against one other team in a matchup also determined by a drawing. Every team plays to win two of three games in pool and darts, and one game in both bowling and shuffleboard.

Ward says the tournament accepts players from age 21 to 100, as long as they are “terrible at everything.”

‘Hot shots’

My partner and I are playing against Peggy Herndon, wife of town joker Jody Herndon and a retired flight attendant, and 82-year-old Mary Geales Ernst, who turns out to be quite the pool shark. She is also the daughter of Frank Gilchrist, founder of the town of Gilchrist. As Ernst explains, the family, which has been in the lumber business for generations, came from Mississippi and founded the town in 1938. Until 1991, Gilchrist was the last lumber-company town in Oregon. Residents recall when Crown Pacific Partners bought the Gilchrist Timber Co. 18 years ago, when, they say, many changes occurred. Among those changes: Residents no longer had to work in Gilchrist to live here.

Troy Terry, Herndon’s partner for this evening’s competition, calls himself “Crestonian” (from Crescent, two miles south of Gilchrist on U.S. Highway 97) and holds Herndon’s old job as a locomotive engineer with the Gilchrist-based Klamath Northern Railway Co. Herndon is now retired, and he admits to being “older than dirt — even older than Darrell (Meadows, a timber faller from Gilchrist).”

If Terry were to take out a personal ad, it might read: “Loves riding quads, hunting, fishing, and coming to the bar to make (a fool) of myself.” He says he hunts deer, elk, bear and cougar. Naturally, I’m curious as to whether he has ever gotten a cougar.

“No, but I’m sure that older woman’s still out there for me,” he says, laughing.

At the start of Tournament of Champions play, newbies are initiated with a “hot shot” of cinnamon schnapps, chased by a “brain tumor” — a shot of peach schnapps, Baileys and grenadine. Patrons typically find out why the drink is called a brain tumor while country-swing dancing near the end of the night.

My unlucky partner of the evening is Michele Londo, a Eugene registered nurse with friends in Gilchrist.

“I’m competitive,” she tells me. But she says she won’t complain about my performance “as long as we beat my husband (Jason Londo).”

After I lose our first game of pool by scratching on the eight ball, Michele Londo does it herself, sinking the eight ball in game two.

“I’m losing it all for my team, too,” Jody Herndon says consolingly and with a playful grin. “I’m making Troy do all the work.”

Following a little Creedence Clearwater Revival and, appropriately, Jimmy Buffett’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” what seems to be everyone’s favorite comes on the jukebox. Suddenly, the crowd starts belting out Toby Keith’s “I Love This Bar,” raising the vocal volume as the bartender turns down the music at the chorus line.

One of a kind

As I register the third of my four nearly scoreless frames of bowling — I knocked down a paltry total of 11 pins in the first five frames — Ward notes that Gilchrist is the only place in the world where a person could play this particular tournament in this particular setting.

“I mean, I know it’s the only two-lane alley in the United States,” he says.

After the third frame, I realize that Gilchrist also might be the only place where I can roll nothing but gutter balls and still be welcomed into any local bowling league.

“You’re tied with yourself for lowest score,” Ward says in a congratulatory tone. “You can keep score without even looking at the sheet!”

Many cocktails, insults and raucous wins and losses later, Jody Herndon and Troy Terry take the title of Champions of the Free World — for this week, anyway.

Barry Haight, of Crescent, and Jason Londo finish second after a playoff round of bowling, and the team of Dave Wirtz, a Crescent retiree of Union Oil Co., and Terri Anderson, of Gilchrist, takes third.

Some Saturdays, players tell me, the tournament goes two rounds, making for a late night. On this night, the one-round tournament alone lasts nearly four hours.

“A Pine Room minute could be 30 minutes to an hour,” Ward notes.

Teams begin disbanding until next week’s fun, and though only the top three teams take home prizes, everyone leaves with some sort of reward. A few get a parting swing around the tiny dance floor, others take home new friendships, and no one leaves without the warm spirit of small-town camaraderie.

I leave with all three — plus a certificate, handmade by Ward, that reads: “Not quite Champion of the Free World.”