Monday, August 8

Croquet Glory: An Oxymoron

Although we graduated college six (!) years ago and travelled our separate paths, Austin and I have remained good albeit long-distance friends. Some of my fondest memories of college involve Austin, including an English Department trip to Oxford, Mississippi.

As a nervous freshman, I found myself walking down a lonely hallway one afternoon. A guy sitting in an office off the hall leaned over, looked me dead in the eye, and smiled the most excellent grin right at me. Although we didn't know each other then, or really for a couple of more years, it was Austin, and I'll always remember that moment of unencumbered friendliness.

He's graciously agreed to let me share this essay of his with Fierce Beagle readers. It's fantastic. As someone who makes up for in competitive spirit what I lack in athletic ability, I can only dream of one day having my own moment of Croquet Glory, or something like it.


* * *

“Croquet Glory: An Oxymoron”

Few of my athletic achievements are worth recounting, even if I give the word “achievements” a generous interpretation.

At David Lipscomb Middle School, I distinguished myself by sustaining the worst broken leg in the history of the football program. This injury occurred during practice before the season had even started, so I didn’t even have the satisfaction of changing the momentum of the game.

In high school, I made my tennis coach cry.

During a mission trip to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, the summer before my junior year of college, I scored a goal with my right foot from midfield. I happen to be left-footed, so this wasn’t so much an achievement as an accident. At least millions of people care about soccer and start riots after their favorite teams lose or a referee makes a bad call. No one breaks windows and overturns cars after a croquet match.

Other than Scrabble, croquet is the only game that I’m confident I can win every time. Neither game is an Olympic sport, and neither does anybody care who wins. I may as well be the No. 1 seed in grocery shopping or hair braiding.

I grew up playing croquet in the side yard of my grandparents’ big Dutch Colonial in Nashville.  On summer weekends we played hours-long, heated games during which aunts and uncles bickered about strategy and whether Steve’s foot had slipped off the ball and moved it during a roquet.

My grandfather, who was hard of hearing due to a case of childhood mumps, would look from face to face, trying to read lips and follow the argument.

“What? What?!” he’d bellow. “What’s that she said? It’s your turn! No? Well, whose turn is it then?”

He was also color blind and played with the yellow ball because it was easier from him to distinguish from red, green, and blue.

This all seemed quite normal to me until I learned in high school and college that other families don’t play croquet. Most of my classmates had never heard of it. Some confused it with a lightly fried salmon patty. Being a skilled croquet player was less impressive than the ability to flip one’s eyelids inside out. Despite my friend Hunter’s patient tutelage, I never figured that one out.

I finally found an opportunity to shine during the fall semester of my senior year of college. I studied abroad for three months in Oxford, England, and lived with forty other American students in a Victorian mansion that had been converted into student housing. It was called “The Vines” and wasn’t as nice as it sounds.

We lived on Pullens Lane just below Headington, and our cozy narrow street had earned the nickname “Rape Lane” from the locals. I didn’t share that endearing moniker with my parents until I got home.

As Josh, the Junior Dean, was showing us around the grounds, he pointed out a level stretch of grass behind the house and said matter-of-factly, “The croquet pitch.” I never knew it was called a “pitch.” I thought you just carried the mallets, balls, and wickets out to the yard and set everything up.

That evening Josh explained the game to the ten or so people who wanted to learn, and I tried to hide my eagerness. Play commenced—we were in England, after all—and I had the pleasure of giving Josh a good old-fashioned American bushwhacking.

“You’re not bahd!” he said afterward.

“Not bad”? That, I thought, was a bit of an understatement, considering that I’d just paved the pitch with his English boarding school condescension. Perhaps “not bad” is a phrase that Brits use when they’ve had their “arses” handed to them.

Croquet was the only game we played with any regularity that semester, and my performance in that first game gave me an instant status as some kind of croquet talent, though I hesitate to use “croquet” and “talent” in the same sentence. Alas, if only I had been born at the turn of the 19th century!

Alliances formed, and my new friends developed special strategies to keep me from winning. I had become a force, a personage. I loved it. I was the Donald Bradman of croquet; the Hank Aaron of the running double wickets.

When the special strategies didn’t work, they simply stopped inviting me to play, or when that was too obvious, they conveniently forgot to come and remind me that they were starting. I would hear the thwack of two wooden balls colliding and know that they weren’t enjoying my winning streak as much as I was. Either I looked pitiful or they realized that their exclusive games were a bit juvenile because the Vines Croquet Club eventually agreed to let me to play again if I agreed to certain conditions.

I had to start at the beginning while everyone else started halfway, or I had to play on a team all by myself, or I wasn’t allowed to roquet, or I could only swing my mallet in front of my body, not between my legs. I still won, and my new handicaps seemed more sporting to my fellow Oxford Scholars.

One evening, five of us decided to play: four of them against me. Zach played, and Erik, and Ashlee, but I can’t remember the last person. Maybe it was Garrett. I’d managed to pass all the wickets despite being roqueted every three turns. If I hit the last stake, the game was over.

To their credit, my friends had improved at strategy. When we first began playing, I’d have to say things like, “Now would be a good time for one of you to hit the other’s ball, take those two strokes, and come after me. Otherwise, I’m going to win.” They had since begun to craft their own schemes and execute them. I had already tried for the stake a few times, only for one of them to roquet my ball off into the longer grass.

The last roquet had sent my ball seventy-five feet from the stake. A couple of the others were close to the last stake themselves, and were quite proud for having held me off. The distance gave them an extra boost of confidence. They were finally going to get me because there was no way I could win in less than two strokes.

Knowing what happened has probably changed my memory of my thoughts and feelings of the moments leading up to the shot. When I gripped the mallet and lined up the shot, I experienced no prescient knowledge of the outcome. I wasn’t “in the zone,” but I did feel confident when I swung the mallet and hit the ball without skinning or shanking it.

I watched it bounce over the uneven patches of ground toward the stake. As I drew the invisible line of its course, I knew it was going to hit the stake.

Then it did—game over.

“That’s just ridiculous,” Ashlee said and threw down her mallet in disgust. She had been close to finishing. “That’s not even fun.” She stormed inside.

Erik was more encouraging: “Dude. That—was—awesome.”

Zach shook his head in disbelief. “That has got to be one of the most incredible things that has ever happened during a game of croquet.”

“Thanks, Zach,” I said.

I couldn’t help but smile. I hadn’t had many moments like that. In an ancient English town behind a house with ivy growing on the facade next to a road nicknamed Rape Lane, I stood in the twilight and savored the most magnificent shot of my obscure croquet career. Perhaps five people witnessed this singular accomplishment. Perhaps five more even cared to hear the story. Perhaps all ten have since forgotten the incident.

The legend will die with me—the seventy-five-foot closer, my fifteen minutes of croquet glory. At least I knew that it wasn’t an accident. Luck comes with practice. Legend comes with commitment. What story do you want your life to tell?

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