The summer I was nine, my dad brought home a croquet set for me. I was totally surprised, because he normally wasn’t a “bring home a gift for the kid” kind of dad. That was Mother’s department. He told me it came from the local hardware store, where he bought paint for all his jobs, so I wondered if it was a “thank you for buying hundreds of gallons of paint” gift which he passed on. (The forerunner of the “re-gift.”)
But no matter. I was the first kid in the neighborhood to have such an exotic item, and suddenly I became very popular. The wooden set came with four mallets, four matching balls, all color-coded, plus two stakes for bases and a set of metal wickets.
We played with it almost every day that first summer. We’d pound the posts into the ground at opposite ends of the backyard, set up the wickets in an x pattern, with one in the middle, the others flanking the sides of the posts, and two more in front of each post.
Starting at home base, the object was to hit your ball on the opposite post and then tag home base with it, after rolling it through all the wickets.
Sometimes we’d abandon our journey to pursue the enemy, and hit that ball with ours, winning the chance to knock it off course. “Knocking” was our favorite part of the game. Once your ball was touching the other ball, you put your foot on your ball, then wacked it, which sent the other ball rolling away. And if you were lucky, you didn’t even hit your foot.
Sometimes two of us played; other times we’d field four players, but we were always out for blood. We’d stage elaborate tournaments, with qualifying rounds, semi-finals and then the big championship. I swear we deserved Super Bowl rings. Sometimes bitter quarrels sprang up, although fists never flew.
Occasionally a kid got mad and went home, trying to get a parent involved, but no soap. The standard parent line was “Quit griping or I’ll give you something to gripe about,” or the more genteel: “You’ll have to work it out.”
We played with that set for years, until we all outgrew it. Then my nephew inherited it and played some more. Eventually, the set was lost, but I still remember the fun it gave a bunch of Old School kids with time on their hands and killer instincts.