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Night Crawler 

Wednesday, Apr 14 1999
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Silke in Overland
Alice thought she had never seen such a curious croquet-ground in all her life: it was all ridges and furrows: the croquet balls were live hedgehogs, and the mallets live flamingos, and the soldiers had to double themselves up and stand on their hands and feet, to make the arches. ... Alice soon came to the conclusion that it was a very difficult game indeed.

-- Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

As a watery morning sun struggles to warm the grasslands surrounding Lake Anza, members of the Berkeley chapter of the Overland Mallet Club gather on the westerly shore to sip hot tea and brandy and nibble at raspberry-filled biscuits while awaiting dilatory companions. As one would expect from croquet enthusiasts, the conversation is civilized: The condition of the playing field is discussed at length, as is the advantage of lightweight overland croquet wickets (or hoops as they are called by the English) vs. the heavyweight wickets preferred in lawn croquet; other hobbies, like wild game sighting in Kenya, are also discussed, along with the high, aromatic quality of the brandy being squandered in their morning cups of tea. As one would also expect from croquet enthusiasts, the group is sharply dressed, though they have broken with the long-standing tradition of croquet "whites" and opted for creased white shirts and khaki slacks in keeping with the rugged-individualist spirit of overland croquet.

Clinton Marsh, current publisher of Phooka: The Journal of the Overland Mallet Club, wears a very trim pullover and a maroon tie that offsets his wire-rimmed glasses and impeccably combed blond hair. It is the 24-year-old publisher's contention that the rigid formality of croquet "whites" has discouraged young people from pursuing the noble sport -- but that a clean, tasteful look is imperative.

According to Phooka lore, Marsh came upon the journal while searching through the folklore shelves in his local library. In some tome or other, Phooka was mentioned as the only currently published periodical to give matter-of-fact advice on human dealings with the Fairy Kingdom. Contributions to the small magazine are written by a group of "theosophist-sportsmen" whose epic games of drunken overland croquet send them crashing through the wilds of Great Britain, where contact with the "unseen world" is inevitable.

Marsh tracked Phooka to its most current publisher in Wales and met with editor Reginald Bakeley, who agreed the journal could be published in United States by Wonderella Printed, under Marsh's guardianship. With Phooka, Marsh inherited a literary legacy enriched by the contributions of great croquet players such as Rudyard Kipling and the Rev. Charles Dodgson, otherwise known as Lewis Carroll. (See his ingenious "variation on croquet castles for five players" printed in Phooka No. 425.) Marsh also inherited Bakeley's ongoing editorship (see his step-by-step "groundskeepers' guide to dwarfs" in Phooka No. 426), and a newly discovered passion for the physically grueling game of overland croquet.

A full game of overland croquet may take anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks to complete, depending on the course, which might cover three or 300 miles. Because no well-respected overland course would exist without steep hillsides, rivers, lakes, rocks, and brambles, serious wicketers must prepare for the rigors of the trail: While the "quiet good taste" of croquet traditionalists like James Charlton and Wm. Thompson requires soft, flat-soled shoes, the overland player is better advised to wear sturdy walking shoes or well-worn hiking boots. The "white broadcloth Sea Island pima cotton long-sleeved shirt rolled just below the elbow" might be augmented with rain gear, as overland play does not pause for thunderstorms. Leather caps and lightweight helmets from the Great War era are acceptable during uphill play, when a wooden croquet ball might strike an unexpected rock and suddenly come hurling back down on players below. (Footmen are of great assistance in uphill play, as they can chase a well-hit ball and hold it in place until the player's next turn. Water boys also lessen the severity of the course by supplying the appropriate beverage to fortify a player's spirit; as water boys are sometimes a hard-to-come-by luxury, a hip flask can do the job for shorter courses.) Of course, no overland pack would be complete without a secondary white shirt in which to crisply approach the last wicket (the first shirt inevitably exhibiting wear from blackberry brambles and river crossings).

The Lake Anza Overland is a relatively short, but taxing, course perfect for an adventurous Sunday afternoon, when a game of standard six-wicket just sounds a little too pedestrian.

Marsh has brought wickets and three custom-made overland mallets (longer than normal oak shafts, with heavy-duty ash mallet heads) for unequipped dilettantes, while Palmer Hardwood and his lady companion, Bunny Raggoni, have supplied solid plastic croquet balls. (Some wicketers believe plastic balls cheapen the game but, unlike most wooden balls, they float, a quality that comes in handy when you've hit the ball into the lake and are forced to take your next shot from a canoe or fishing pier.)

At half past 12, the final players -- Laramie Crocker and Erica Treat -- arrive without proper attire (which raises a slight crinkle of the Marsh nose), Crocker swinging a hand-fashioned mallet that resembles Thor's Mjsllnir. We set off across the lake to the hillside beyond. For my benefit, Marsh chooses to skip the first wicket, which caused several injuries during last year's trounce (a game of simultaneous play), and we scramble up a thorny clifflike incline of sliding, snake-infested rock. Our first wicket of the day is around a bend, up a gentle slope of hiker-flattened grass, hedged on both sides by colorful indigenous plant life -- miner's lettuce, wild celery, bay, and poison oak -- and gregarious songbirds. Despite the misleadingly gentle grade, the overland technique of "strike-catch-set" -- line up shot; strike; with follow-through, sprint uphill to catch the ball and set it before it rolls down again -- must be immediately mastered if the ball is not to drop off the cliff we have just ascended.

The other players quickly pass me by, but Marsh lingers for moral support as I firmly lodge my ball again and again in the underbrush. Around the bend, my perspiration is rewarded with a vast field of tiny yellow mustard flowers buzzing with ladybugs and small white butterflies. A blue jay swoops down with a heckle and careens toward a lone gnarled oak that stands in the very center of the field. Lewis Carroll's attraction to the game suddenly makes very good sense. Up ahead, in tiny silhouette, Hardwood takes his sixth swing of the day and very definitely loses his ball in the high grass along the trail.

"The most important thing to remember in overland croquet," advises Marsh as we prop our balls with stones and join in the hunt, "is keep your eye on the ball at all times."

Hardwood takes the setback with admirable humor, saying, "In the game of croquet, you've got to take the good with the bad, and the bad with good scotch." The pause in play affords us the chance to pull from our hip flasks and admire the countryside. When we are all quite sure the wayward ball has escaped down a nearby rabbit hole (it only stands to reason), a replacement is called for and, after another fortifying belt, the game is again under way. Not knowing the ins and outs, I make poor use of a roquet (hitting an opponent's ball) -- failing to knock Crocker's ball into the mustard field -- but close in on Hardwood, who has mounted another hill, where he is aligning himself with an unseen wicket. Despite valiant effort on my part, Hardwood is the first to score the wicket.

The second wicket takes us cutting through dense, shadowy forest (delightfully cool and downhill). On the 11th stroke a fabulously executed roquet hurls Marsh into the lead. Crocker's orange ball is caught for a time in a ravine as the rest of us emerge from the dark tree line into a sun-speckled field of miner's lettuce. Boisterous strains of salsa music and a young boy from Mexico City greets me with fresh tacos and a large smile. I'm sure I did not pay for the service but I am tremendously grateful for the sustenance.

The miner's lettuce proves to be a fresh-smelling but tiresome bog that captures our balls in four inches of trampled, lettuce-y mush. Noting our distemper, the young boy brings us cold Coca-Cola and more smiles, as Marsh scores the wicket.

The third wicket takes us into the woods again and down a precariously steep hill -- which proves to be the bottom-scraping undoing of both Hardwood and I -- over a small stream, and up the other, equally precarious flank. Marsh warns that an overshot of the wicket at the top will send the ball flying over the cliff and into the drink hundreds of feet below. Nonetheless, Crocker and Treat speed through, claiming their first wicket of the afternoon, using a combination sidehand golf swing and between-the-leg croquet swing.

The fourth wicket proves the most treacherous -- straight uphill with a huge fallen tree and several jutting rock outcroppings to traverse -- but as it is to be the final wicket, it is the most invigorating. Hardwood and Crocker nearly lose their balls over the top of the hill and must scurry after them, crashing through large bushes of poison oak. In the heat of the game, and with the final wicket in sight, they feel no pain and share a jolly laugh at their misfortune.

In the end, Crocker comes out ahead, but it is some time before I hear the news, having entered a strange dreamlike state near the fourth wicket's fallen tree trunk. The fugue lasts between two minutes and two hours, and when I finally arrive at the final wicket, with the sun beginning to set below the tree line, a delightful English couple is serving the rest of the players orange-liqueur biscuits and Pimm's (flavored gin) with 7UP and cucumber slices. It has a rejuvenating effect on my addled mind and body.

After a sportsman's toast, Marsh inquires about sidetracking fairy encounters along the trail. Thinking of my surreal tree trunk fever, I shrug.

"Theosophy, drinking, and croquet form the tripod on which Phooka is set," says Marsh with reverence and a certain gleam. I am reminded that a Phooka is a shape-shifting fairy who offers unwary drunks a safe ride home, only to carry them miles away and drop them in the nearest lake. I take the warning to heart.

All facts about Phooka are based on Phooka and should not be considered fact by the skeptics who have not played overland croquet.

Send comments, quips, and tips to crawler@sfweekly.com.

By Silke Tudor

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Silke Tudor

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