The throws of passion

Posted Sept. 25, 2008, at 8:45 p.m.

PALMYRA, Maine — Close your eyes and hear the sounds of slow-moving nights and gathering friends.

Clank. Clank. Thud. Clank.

“15-15.”

“Six you got.”

“Don’t knock it off.”

“Payback’s a-coming.”

They’re the sounds of a horseshoes game, as much a part of summer and fall afternoons as hot dogs, cold beer and corn on the cob — a game woven through with laughter, rivalry and friendship.

For more than 14 years, two dozen men have gathered every Thursday night from just after snow melt in May to hunting season in October for their weekly traveling horseshoes games. From Pittsfield, Palmyra, Stetson, Dexter, Plymouth and Newport, the men rotate each week from home to home, horseshoes pit to horseshoes pit.

The game on a recent late summer evening is behind a fence company, at the back of a field, under the lights in Palmyra, with a bonfire in a barrel to keep hands warm between games.

The throwers begin to gather at dusk, when the workday is done, family supper is over. They often play until nearly midnight.

Each player drops $5 in the pot and draws a card to see who his teammate is.

“I tell you right now, boys, whoever gets me tonight is in trouble,” warns Meredith “Junior” Spooner of Hartland. Spooner is the oldest thrower, and a bit of coaxing reveals he is 61. Justin McMann of Palmyra, 25, is the youngest.

“This is really fun while challenging yourself at the same time,” Eddie Leeman of Newport says. “As long as we’ve been playing, you’d think we’d be experts by now. No way.”

Leeman says he plays better in his bare feet, but this night he’s wearing shorts and workboots in a nod to cooler weather. Others have on sweat shirts, fleece jackets or jeans. Clearly, there is no dress code, and attire depends on whether you’re dressing for warmth, for rain or for bugs.

During the day, these guys sell propane or install fencing. They’re mechanics, plumbers, contractors or printers. One of them sells ice cream. Another delivers oil. These are blue-collar workers who put in long days and hard hours.

But all of that is left behind when the steel shoes start hitting the sand.

At first glance, it may seem like a silly game: Throw a curved piece of metal at a stake 40 feet away. Then do it again about 100 more times.

Yet it’s far from foolish for this group of friends. It’s a few hours full of jokes and friendship that provide a respite from responsibilities.

“It’s just a way for a bunch of us to get together,” Dick Jacobs of Canaan says. “It only costs $5, and I think my wife looks forward to me leaving each Thursday night.”

As the teams toss, chatter and challenges ring out, as well as shouts when a shoe is well-thrown.

Stories flow, and in the only somber moment of the night, the men tell the sorry, sad tale of “Stetson Bob” — Bob Barthner from Stetson.

It seems that Bob’s wife moved a plant pot earlier this summer and Bob fell over it, putting an end to his horseshoes outings.

“He had to get a new knee. We miss him,” Jacobs says.

It’s quiet for a minute while they slowly shake their heads, reverently acknowledging the loss of a key pitcher. Then there’s some irreverent speculation about whether Bob’s missus deliberately sabotaged his horseshoes nights.

The laughs that follow are slow and deep and genuine.

“This is just a night out with friends,” Will Richardson of Palmyra says. “No one takes it very seriously.”

They will play five games, stopping to have some venison steaks off the grill and some beverages. New partners are selected for each game, and the mood is easy and content.

Game night is the only time most of these men see each other, and they’ve become solid friends.

“It’s a great night out,” Mark Kennedy of Pittsfield says. “You can come here one night and be the best thrower by far. And then the next week, well … you never know who’s going to have a good night.”

Clank. Clank. Thud. Clank.

The shoes fly: 2 pounds each, tossed 40 feet at a foot-high stake. The scores are recorded on a board by moving a clothespin. It’s a simple game with easy rules and inexpensive equipment.

This backyard game has been popular for a long time.

Daniel Webster was a famous horseshoes pitcher, as was Abraham Lincoln, while George Washington excelled at quoits, an earlier version of horseshoes.

The National Horseshoe Pitchers Association of America says horseshoes originated with ancient Greek discus throwing, and the game in the form we know it today grew out of the throwing of mule shoes in the Union camps during the Civil War.

The NHPA estimates that upward of 15 million Americans enjoy pitching in tournaments, leagues, recreation areas and backyards.

Indoor courts are becoming popular. and modern technology has even caught the craze: Nintendo Wii now offers a horseshoes game.

“Not for me,” one player asserts. “Give me the feel of the shoe and the spray of the sand.”

Yet this group has no interest in the history of the game. It’s the here and now they are enjoying, living in the moment with a few good friends, grasping the last few weeks of good weather before the snow flies.

But what do horseshoes players do in the winter, the men are asked.

“Wait for spring!” they shout.

Clank. Clank. Thud. Clank.

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