The only part of backyard croquet I remember much about was whacking my sister's ball into Mrs. Ditmar's forsythia bushes, from which it might or might not be extricated, depending on Mrs. Ditmar's mood. As I discovered last week on our penultimate vacation stop, Newport, R.I., you can't do that in tournament croquet, although you can get into a position known as "severely dead." Which is exactly what you were when you dug through Mrs. Ditmar's forsythia bushes without permission.
My wife, Donna, and I learned enough about degrees of deadness and other aspects of the game to complete a three-day instructional course given by the U.S. Croquet Association at the Newport Casino from Aug. 7 to Aug. 9. Another 10 years of study and we should have the game pretty well mastered, as croquet lies somewhere between Chinese checkers and astrophysics on the complication scale. But you can't beat the setting. The two-a-days (as they say in football) were held on the beautifully manicured lawns at the Casino, which also houses the International Tennis Hall of Fame. I felt that any minute, a policeman was going to blow his whistle and tell me to get off the grass.
Our sons, Jamie, 12, and Chris, 9, were too young to participate, but our instructor, Bill Hoy, gave them some pointers between sessions. Jamie did passably well, but Hoy's tips were lost on Chris, who insisted on employing a renegade sidewinder style—in tournament croquet, everyone hits the ball underhand, like Rick Barry—that suggested horseless polo. Neither thought much of croquet as a spectator sport. "About as thrilling as bowling," said Chris.
The uninitiated should know, however, that croquet is nothing like bowling. For one thing, you don't get served gazpacho and cold cucumber soup at bowling lunch breaks. And you can't wear a bowling shirt. Unless it's a white bowling shirt, and, frankly, that would be pushing it. Donna showed up in a black-and-white jersey for the first day of the course, but she changed when she noticed that every other member of the class was dressed all in white.
The 20 students ranged from hopeless to below average. It seemed that those who grasped the mental aspects of the game couldn't make the shots, while those with some shot-making ability were a little slow at understanding which shot to make. Donna and I were in the latter group. Nevertheless, teamed up for the first time since mixed-doubles tennis almost ended our marriage in the mid-'70s, we won our second-day match over Marta Green and Caroline Fleming, two women 10 years our senior. Somehow we resisted the urge to high-five or spike our mallets.
I fared less well in my next outing, when I teamed with Ernestine Stowell, a chiropractor from South Hadley, Mass. I spent most of the match "severely dead," which meant that I was prevented from hitting any other balls on the court until my ball passed through a wicket. One of our opponents, Gary Meunier of Madison, Conn., suggested that a tombstone be erected around my ball. Ernestine tried to carry us, but we eventually lost.
I'm not ready to trade in my nine-iron for a croquet mallet, but the school did give me an appreciation of the sport's cerebral aspects. "It's like chess," says Bob Kroeger, the Casino's resident pro. "You can smash your opponent quickly or make him suffer." A white drop cloth of gentility covers the sport, and the people are quite nice, but a cutthroat mentality is there too. Kind of like mixed-doubles tennis.
After receiving our diplomas, the graduates were invited to the Casino for an evening "tea dance," at which, inexplicably, there was neither tea nor dancing. I hadn't seen that much linen since a Macy's white sale. The men wore white-linen trousers with their blue blazers, and many of the women wore lacy, calf-length white-linen dresses. "I'm not only in the wrong outfit." said Donna, sporting a subdued flower-print skirt-and-blouse combo, "I'm in the wrong century."
No one had a better time that evening than Jamie and Chris, who were taken by the ambience of the Casino—the beauty of the lawns, the high fashion, the free flow of money and banter. The kids served as ball boys for the evening's wicket-shooting event, in which contestants paid $10 for the chance to hit four shots through a wicket from about 12 feet away. The prize for making three was a bottle of champagne. The boys watched in amazement as several gentlemen played two or three dozen times each, peeling off a 10-spot every time.
"Can't you just buy champagne for around 10 bucks?" Chris asked me.
"The kind I drink?" I answered. "Easily."
Donna grimaced as she got a firsthand lesson in the treachery of a sticky wicket.