“Two showing”, “Nobody Home”, “Six Pack!”, “Pretty Shoe”, this is the language that echoes over the stirring, sweet and oddly endearing sound of steel as it ricochets off steel. Horseshoes is a game I didn’t expect to love.
Carl stands thirty feet away tottering precariously on legs that are not fully committed to keeping him upright. His loose fitting shorts wobble over skinny legs that disappear into worn orthopedic shoes. His T-shirt, in faded lettering extols his former employer, Xpress Trucking. Yes, my Carl was a life-long truck driver. His shaved face is ready at any moment to turn into a broad grin except when he is poised to pitch; suddenly he is all business. He holds the two pound ten ounce hunk of metal as he spies the pin between the legs of the shoe. Just before drawing his arm back like a human pendulum he begins to wiggle the thing in two short circles which give the impression that he is calling a curse down on the fate of the toss. Carl’s laugh is mostly a cackle but of such a warm and endearing nature that everyone in earshot smiles too.
Ed is a mystery. His age is elusive to a casual observer. He’s skinny and his slight frame is always covered in what appears to be the same jeans, T-shirt and bucket hat. His hair is as shaggy as is his beard which can camouflage his gap toothed smile. Always soft spoken he often slips off to the end of the courts to draw on his preferred brown wrapped cigarettes. Ed is intent on the game and monitors the score closely yet his pitching style resembles one you might think belongs to a rank beginner with a loping step forward and a toss trajectory that rises higher and higher before plopping into the blue clay 40 feet away… usually close to or wrapped around the peg. Ed told me today he actually refers shuffleboard.
Jim is one of my favorites (actually most of them are). Jim is skinny and smokes like the proverbial chimney. He is vaguely aloof then suddenly springs a warm and genuine smile I really like. He takes his shoes seriously but only for the 80-100 seconds it takes to pitch his two shoes. Coolly competent one suspects he was a good athlete even as a kid. His inside joke for me is an oft repeated “Tom, relax”. He has a point as the most successful pitchers employ a reassuring rhythm without deviation. My response is “are you saying I should toke-up before play begins”.
Diane and her mate Michel are from Quebec. Both are trim and fit if diminutive in stature. These activity freaks are often running from horseshoes to lawn bowling to racket sports and more. Their English is better that our French for sure but it seems that the everyday chatter at the pits are oftentimes lost on them. But they smile a lot and keep on pitching. It’s clear they enjoy all the little moments.
Heather is another good player. On the short and round side, she pitches a fair share of ringers and more than a few double ringers known variously as a “double decker” or “six-packs”. Heather hails from West Virginia and her accent validates her story. Her dad also throws but she learned her technique from her mom. Mom now shows up some days holding Heather’s baby in her arms. Shoes are a family affair. In the summer that devote whole weekends to shoe tournaments. Recently I’ve seen Heather and Ed develop a strong comradery that makes me curious. It’s clearly a relationship beyond their shared smoke breaks but the amateur sociologist in me will no doubt be left wondering about more details.
Rick is king of the hill. His shoes seem to shoot out of his hands, twist cleverly at the midpoint then clang dramatically onto the pin with remarkable regularity. Rick’s physique is wiry and taut and his approach to managing the horseshoe show is equally ship shape. He has everything – matches, pit care, rules – ticking like a clock yet is absent each Friday. I eventually learned it was his other love to play accordion that keeps him away. Instead off he goes once a week to play at a nearby nursing home. Rick is my unofficial pitching coach. He sneaks up at odd moments and says something like “hey Tommy, hold it a little bit back on the tang” or “don’t cock your wrist quite so much”. I’m unsure his advice is very useful but the attention is heartwarming.
We have Don who is eighty-eight and Walt who is 87. Both pitch with an abandon that belies their age and assorted frailties. Bill Murray is another guy who has been tossing for years. Bill will often throw his shoes then turn to ask if he had any points or occasionally “what’s the score”. Bill had to stop driving four years ago with the advance of Macular Degeneration which has claimed his better eyesight. Although he admits he sometimes cannot see the pin he still throws some good shoes. How does he do it?
Horseshoes is a sport as simple as tiddlywinks or checkers. It doesn’t get more basic. Here the routine has 20 to40 folks quietly assemble three times a week. Each, like amateur riverboat gamblers, come with fifty cents ready to roll the dice for a high stakes payoff. On a good day winners pocket two and a quarter. The best part of these mornings is the odd snippets of conversation that bubble up. “Trump has some good ideas but god help the country if he’s elected” or “how much did you take home from bingo last night?” or “I had thirteen sisters and brothers. Now I’m the last one”. It’s as if, three mornings each week, the world slows down to a simple pace and the sun shines down with good grace for all.