(Left to right – Bob, me, Bill shooting out of the iris, Dr. Bill)
I don’t like to lose. At anything. Ever. Just ask my wife. Sure I will smile and accept defeat graciously (and it’s gotten much better in my old age) but inside I’m still growling. I’m not sure how it started but I have a clue.
Now I know this backyard recreational activity probably does not stir up in most people’s minds the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. It’s not even a sport. But it does for me. Blame my family. It was THE thing every summer when we’d get together.
I don’t know who bought the first set. When my Great Grandfather’s family was done working in the field there would be a quick game back at the farm house to relax and end the day. Maybe squeeze in a quickie right after dinner. Maybe two.
My Grandpa Willie and his brothers would play at his farm just a couple miles away. If the game went too long lanterns were brought out. This wasn’t single players seeing who could make it around first. The game was partners. Teams of two. Six players, three teams, one course. The oldest men played. You had to finish together if you wanted to win. And if you know this much about the game then you know there is also a wild card thrown in called a Rover. This player went through the last wicket but did not stake himself out and becomes “live” on everyone each turn. Thus wreaking havoc each turn while helping his partner to finish.
My Dad played at our house in West Point with his uncles, cousins and sons. Same scenario. Sometimes pickups would be pulled around and headlights were turned on if the game went too long.
We didn’t follow official croquet tournament play. We played by “Vance Rules”. I can still see the course. It was spread out over the big yard. Boundaries were the house on the east side, the ditch on the north, Mabel Barber’s yard to the west and the alley on the south. If your ball got stuck in the flowers or trapped against the house you could set out a mallet’s length. In real croquet there are close boundaries. Where’s the fun in that? There would be shouts of “Send him!!” or “Don’t hit your foot!” and “Put him in Mabel’s iris.”
Eventually I was allowed to play and it was a big deal. I showed promise early. One game I was just beyond the big tree on the northeast side. The only hope of staying in the game was to shoot all the way back to the starting wicket where my oldest brother’s ball sat. I had to curve the shot over the mound that was there from the big maple root. It was at least twenty yards away but my ball found Bob’s ball like they were magnets. He rolled his eyes and threw his mallet in the air. It was the shot heard round the yard.
Arguments over strategy were part of the game. If “advice” was received from the opposing team Dad would say, “Play your own stick”. If Dad was your partner he would always say, “Shoot to me”. Taunting was also part of the contest and howls of laughter over missed shots could be heard from Clampitts.
Stories in the kitchen followed with tales of embellished miracle shots and amazing come-from-behinds. Sometimes it was a race into the house to see who was first to announce to Mom who had won. For my parents 25th wedding anniversary lights were strung up and the game didn’t finish till well after dark.
My brother Bill tells this story; “Dad and I were partners playing at Grandpa’s one Sunday afternoon. Dr. Dick and someone else were partners. Dad staked the partner out. Dick was going for the last two arches while I was going for the two arches at the other end of the course. Dad and I took turns making impossible shots and hitting Dick at liberty like we were using laser guided balls. This continued until I completed the course. The veins on Dr. Dick’s neck were sticking out so far as he tossed his mallet halfway back to Carthage. Dad and I won the game!”
In my family this was bragging rights. It was the big game. The winning shot. It was one’s day of glory till the next time when you and your partner had to prove it all over again.
Since living in Michigan I haven’t played as much. Primarily because we haven’t had an adequate yard. There’s been a few times we’ve broken out the set but the little kids don’t get play much. That’s just the way it is. You have to earn the right. Baseball is America’s pastime. Croquet is Vances.
Five generations of Vances have played this wonderful game and it looks like it will continue up here. My kids bought me a nice set for Father’s Day a few years back. We broke it in with emphasis on broke. I sent one of my son’s balls across the park. I hit his ball so hard that my ball exploded. There’s also a few mallets held together with wood glue and nails.
I need to get a new set and my eye is on a hard maple, long handle, 8 player set made by the Amish. They know what they’re doing. It’s over $300 but I figure it should last till I’m playing with grandkids.
Grandpa’s farm is a cornfield now. The tree that held the rope swing that seemed to go up forever and the barns with yards that my Dad grew up on are a fading memory. The house I grew up in is in shambles. The crack of the ceramic balls fell silent there 20 years ago. The only real games left are at family reunions every couple years. But I look forward to them like any popular sporting championship.
Simply put, I love croquet. I guess it’s in my DNA.
When I hover over my ball the memories come flooding back. I see my Great Uncle Chellis down on his knees pounding the ground laughing. I see Grandpa flash a wry grin after a particularly good shot. I see Dad struggling around the yard on his artificial leg with a cane in one hand and mallet in the other. I hear Dr. Bill’s cackle. I hear my brothers complaining about “push shots” and that “there better be a backswing”. And I hear myself giving it right back asking, “if they are ready for their lesson?”
Here in Michigan we’ve only played singles because there is so many of us but it’s time to change that. Now that they are older I need to reintroduce the old game that has amused the Vances for generations. In such a hurried world we need to take the time to slow down and set em up.
So bring your cooler and lawn chairs. It’s summertime and I’m ready to play. It’s tradition. It’s sacred. It’s family.