On a brilliantly sunny Sunday, I headed to the family camp on Beech Hill Pond, disembarked from my truck, and was approached by a wiry teen carrying a wooden hammer.
“It just got mowed this morning,” he said, cryptically, peeking over his shoulder at a pack of hammer-wielding buddies. “Course is running fast. Hard to hold on the bank.”
“What about that sidehill?” I asked. “That’s nasty.”
“Not as bad going down as coming back,” he said.
I nodded, understanding the jargon in the way only veterans of our hardscrabble sport truly can.
If, that is, any of us truly understand our own hardscrabble sport entirely.
At some camps, people gather for games of horseshoes. At others, they splash in the water, or throw Frisbees.
For years, “The Game” at our camp has been cross country croquet.
During a quick Internet search on Friday, I learned that croquet “has a reputation for being a genteel game.”
Perhaps that’s why my nephew, Kyle, refuses to call our version of the game “croquet,” and deliberately mispronounces it “crow-kett” when he’s trying to round up players for a game.
This game is not genteel.
It is not relaxed.
And it is not, purists would likely point out, a game that resembles proper croquet in the least.
All of which is perfectly fine with us.
We do not honor the United States Croquet Association requirement of white attire (Heck, if the majority of male participants are even wearing shirts, it’d be surprising).
Not that our game doesn’t enjoy some grand tradition of its own, of course.
Our game is probably similar to that played at camps around the state.
In its present form, our version began some 25 years ago, when a bunch of bored college students (my brother seems to have been the ringleader) were looking for a way to kill some time between beers while spending a weekend at camp.
They grabbed an all-but-forgotten croquet set and a few bent-beyond-recognition wickets, walked around the lawn, and began formulating their sport.
It didn’t take long before they began tinkering with the game, and adopting rules that carry through to this day. Those rules have been handed down from the ringleader to his sons, nephew and niece. They have in turn been handed down to friends of those sons, who show up most weekends to play a game or six.
Since its origin in the 1980s, we’ve broken mallets, lost balls, bent wickets and worn out several croquet sets, all in the pursuit of that grand tradition.
The most important part of our game, you quickly find out, is that as soon as you think you’ve got it figured out, you’re wrong.
Man, are you wrong.
It is, after all, “cross country” croquet. And all it takes to make the game even more interesting is another nephew, or son, or assorted pal deciding it’s his turn to set the wickets in the most devious places he can think of.
Ah, yes. Setting the wickets.
Real croquet (as far as I’ve been able to ascertain) relies on a set course, with wickets in the same places, day after day after day.
The grass is smooth. The balls roll true. Birds chirp happily. Everyone has fun. Nobody throws their mallet into the woods and leaves the course, crying.
That’s not our game.
Cross country croquet is much more fluid than that (and when I say fluid, I not only mean it changes … I also mean it’s very likely that you’ll end up playing a ball out of the lake at some point).
The course architect has the ultimate power (though he can be shouted down by the masses if a potential wicket placement seems particularly dastardly).
Side-hill wickets are common. In some years, wickets have been put up against rocks, or behind trees, or on top of rotting stumps (even the course architect on that day would surely admit that stump-wickets are an exceedingly bad idea, and placing them there breaks a general rule: Hard is good. Tricky is good. Impossible is not good at all).
The field of play is not a field at all. It’s a lawn (in places). It’s a sunbathing area (in others). It’s the woods (if you’re unlucky). And it’s the water (if you’re not careful). Some wickets are placed in shaggy grass. Others are placed on the dead patch of former lawn where my boat lay all winter and most of the spring. (Note to players: That territory is greasy-fast. Picture Augusta National’s greens, without the grass, and with a four-mile-long water hazard lurking, ready to gobble up errant shots).
Golf has hazards. Ours does, too … except they’re not really planned.
The grill always stands in the same place, over near the horseshoe pit. It will remain there. You can not move it. Ever.
When a player’s ball rolls under this grill-hazard, it’s incumbent upon the player to lie down on his or her belly and poke it back into play (unless it’s nearly suppertime and the grill has been lit, at which time the rules committee might show a bit of lenience. Then again, it might not).
The hammock is also in play. Even if someone’s lying in it. You are not allowed to hit the slumbering sunbather with your mallet to get them to move out of your way.
Come to think of it, we may have a few genteel traditions after all.
A few. Not many.
Cross country croquet is a rough game. Well, now it is … again.
There was that span of years when the nephews and niece were young — call it the “dead ball era,” if you like — when the rules committee decided that whacking a seven-year-old’s croquet ball into the forest and making them play it as it lies (a customary penalty we inflict on our rivals after we successfully hit their ball with ours) might be a bit extreme.
Now, thankfully, everyone has grown up a bit, and we can start acting like kids again. “Sending” players into the woods or into the lake (just place your ball next to theirs, step on yours, aim, and swing as hard as you possibly can) is again an important strategic part of the game. And even if it makes no strategic sense, it’s an immensely satisfying option to consider when you’re losing, as I usually do.
A quick note: Those players (like me) who enjoy sending their rivals into the puckerbrush are easy to spot.
They’re the ones walking around wearing a single shoe, so that they don’t break their foot when they start flailing wildly at a ball they’re standing on.
In real croquet, I’ve learned, players are allowed to carry a ball back onto the field of play and place it in-bounds after they’ve been banished to the hinterlands by a rival.
Not in our game. There is no out-of-bounds. The forest is in play. Stop whining. Go find your ball. We’ll see you in a half hour.
In our game, sticks and dead branches can be moved. Spectators and beach toys can’t. When the game starts, everything that’s lying around (whether an inner tube or lawn chair or a person) becomes part of the course. No drops. No lifts. No relief. No griping.
There are, of course, exceptions.
My brother and the founding fathers of our great game saw to that.
For instance, there’s the soggy-ball amendment to the whack-’em-into-the-woods rule.
The founding fathers quickly learned that getting back onto the field of play from the woods wasn’t too difficult … usually.
It might take you a few turns to get back to civilization, but you’d get back … eventually.
The lake, however, was another matter.
Competitors who found themselves in the water (down a steep, rocky embankment) often spent the rest of the game there, trying to smack a floating croquet ball out of its soggy lie.
Nowadays, thanks to the rule-makers, a player can skip a turn, retrieve his ball from the lake, and place it on terra firma.
Real croquet players, I have learned, are expected to behave nicely toward their rivals. No trash talking. No distracting. No funny business whatsoever.
In our game, I’m sure you’ve already guessed, those rules do not exist.
Heckling happens (especially when I’m playing). So do distractions. And funny business? Well, those of us who aren’t particularly good at hitting balls through wickets get to be quite proficient at the more subtle ways of gaining an advantage.
And in our game, we’d have it no other way.