The croquet mallet is mightier than the sword

Croquette: it's all fun and games until somebody gets hurt.

Croquet: it’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt.

Growing up on Hunter Lane as a child was an interesting experience. It was a suburban block where blue collar dads who spent their time under cars in an auto shop comingled with guys working the mailroom at some amorphous corporation.

It was a neighborhood where everybody seemed to get along. Neighbors had BBQs on the reg and every single person on the block would be invited. Kids ran around, high on soda and Tastykakes, chasing lightning bugs at dusk. The grown-ups laughed over their Miller Lites as the “Clink Clink!” of horseshoes was followed by an eruption of manly cheers and backslaps.

After several years, though, a hairline crack started working its way across our neighborhood. There were still the guys working at the mechanic, but the guys who’d started in the mailroom had slowly crept toward middle management. Old friends began to move, promising to never lose touch and to get together every week. They bought houses in neighborhoods with “associations” that dictated how many cars could be parked on your lawn at any given time and what color you could paint your house. New neighbors moved in to hesitant smiles and half-hearted welcomes from the families who had been left behind. Everyone started keeping to themselves. Before long, we didn’t even know the bulk of our neighbors.

When I was in kindergarten, my dad had swimming pool put in the backyard. This was tremendous for a family who couldn’t bring themselves to use the air-conditioner in the sweltering, humid Pennsylvania summers because a family of birds had taken to living inside the window unit.

We had pool parties with family, friends from school and my dad’s buddies from work. My brother and his high school friends kicked back on the chaise lounges, listening to cassettes on their Walkmans, soaking up the sun and talking about girls. It was an amazing and carefree time.

Even with the pool, we still had plenty of lawn space. Though, instead of launching horseshoes, we now played the incredibly sophisticated and fancy British game, croquet. I think this game may have made its way into our backyard because I had – earlier in the summer – dropped a bocce ball on someone’s foot, eliciting a very high-pitched squeal of pain from an incredibly large man. Perhaps at that point it was decided that I could not be trusted with throwing heavy objects like bocce balls and horseshoes and that a game like croquet would be safer for all involved.

When I think back on it, we had a picture-perfect life in that neighborhood. My dad got home from work in the summer while the sun was still high, and he’d play a game of croquet with me and my mom. Sometimes, if my brother wasn’t off with his friends egging cars or TP’ing houses – or whatever it was that 14 year-old boys did when there were no adults around – he’d play, too. After the game, my dad would head to the grill to cook up some hotdogs and hamburgers while my mom defrosted/cooked some lima beans and whipped up some Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese.

One evening, after one such idyllic summer day, my mom and I sat in the kitchen playing a game of Gin Rummy. I remember that it was a beautiful evening and that the windows were open, not because of the bird infested air-conditioner, but because there was a breeze that brought a steady relief from the heat, as well as the scent of sunflowers and raspberries from the garden.

My dad had gone downstairs to watch an episode of Magnum PI; it probably wouldn’t be long before he fell asleep on the couch, visions of Ferrari’s and Hawaii dancing in his head.

My mom lit a cigarette and looked at the cards carefully guarded in her hand. I remember watching the smoke curl through the window when she exhaled. She picked a card from the pile and discarded another. I was about to take my turn when –


My mom and I jumped up, peering out the kitchen windows toward the pool.

“Mike?” my mom yelled out the window, hoping my brother and his friends were taking a nighttime dip to cool off after a long day of mischief.

She turned on the light by the back patio. But there was nobody at the pool. It was silent. Eerie.

“Jim!” my mom called out, “I think there might be somebody out by the pool.”

Which was a ridiculous notion. My dad was religious about locking the gate by the pool. And if somebody had jumped the fence, my mom and I would have seen them or heard them. Right?

My dad and mom walked outside; I trailed behind them, suddenly aware of every rustle of the leaves, every chirp of the crickets. For the first time in my life, I realized that our yard – the place where I’d slept so many nights in a flimsy tent with my brother – could be scary. It was incredibly dark, surrounded by tall hedges on every side. Hedges where anyone, or anything, could hide.

My dad unlocked the gate to the pool, and then we saw it: every single piece of our pool furniture (2 chaise lounges, 4 chairs, and 2 side tables) rested on the floor of our pool. I was confused as to why anyone would do something like that. Then I immediate switched gears and thought about how impressive it was that the culprits had managed to throw all that furniture into the pool with just one splash.

My mom, knowing what was going to come next, tried to run interference.

“Jim, it’s just a silly prank.”

But my dad was not having it. If it hadn’t been so dark outside, I’m sure I would have seen his face flush that special red-purple hybrid that indicated Incredible Hulk amounts of rage.

He went inside and called one of the neighbors he was still friends with, Dave, who arrived at our house no more than 12 seconds later. He and my dad were going to “go find the punks that did this.”

My mom tried to talk them out of it, but just like my brother was off being a prankster with his friends (in fact, there’s a 99% chance that he was either responsible for throwing the furniture in the pool as a prank on my dad, or that someone was getting revenge on my brother) my dad and his friend relished the rare opportunity to exercise their Y chromosomes.

They went into the garage, each plucked a croquet mallet from the rack and set out to administer some neighborhood justice. My mom paced the kitchen frantically, getting tangled in the phone’s chord as she fretted to her sister.

While she frantically worried about my dad and what he and Dave would do if they stumbled on the pool furniture bandits, I worried that with my dad gone, now would be the perfect time for them to come back and do something else to the house.

Of course, nothing happened. My dad and Dave came back about half an hour later with blood-free mallets. By that time, my dad had cooled off. Miller Lite cans were popped open and laughs were had while he and Dave fished the furniture out of the pool with the skimmer. My mom and I resumed our game of Gin Rummy. All was right with the world again.

I never have been able to look at a croquet mallet quite the same way, though.

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