Bocce…the game…summer…the family
Our families spent summer Sundays at Lido Beach. After supper, while the sun was setting in the soft red sky, we moved from to the open field in the rear of the property for another tradition; bocce. I looked back toward the circle of tented cars and saw coffee pots on Sterno stoves with smoke bubbling to the sky. A mild breeze rippled the clouds and ushered in a cool mist over the beach and the hill. My sweatshirt and long khaki pants kept me cozy and warm.
I loved the smell of the cinnamon colored field…warm and sweet, a combination of salt air, fish, cut grass and the stall like the horses at the rodeo. The trodden grass was the perfect bocce court.
I saw bocce played on courts built for summer games; boards defining the field of play for organized games with teams, regular players, standings and spectators. Unlike our game, a kinder, gentler bocce, those players screamed and gestured. At Lido, our court had no boundaries and our teams no standings. And we laughed.
We played bocce with hefty solid, marbleized, bowling-size balls of different colors and patterns. To start the game, a smaller tan ball, the pallino, called “the pill,” was thrown to different locations and became the target.
There were two teams of four, each player throwing in turn, attempting to get his ball as close as possible to the pallino. Elders with feeble gait, stooped posture, arthritis and gnarled, beaten hands awoke from beach reverie and food slumber to play. Oil invaded rusty joints and dry eyes. Old men could now see and throw. Restricted arms opened and swung like pendulums. The old men were dressed with the usual Sunday garb…long dark pants, a white open shirt with sleeves rolled to the elbow (they allowed themselves the luxury of no tie), and brown or black dress shoes. They never quite understood the beach.
The first to throw the pallino followed with his ball. Thereafter, the game proceeded with each team alternating throws of the players. The object was to get a ball next to that little pill. Each became intent on getting their ball close or blasting (more later) someone else’s out of the way.
I loved the “blast” shot, something earned and granted to only those with years of experience. It could only be one of the elders.
“Om a-gonna blas.”
“Be careful. Watch-a.”
“He’s gonna knock that close ball away!”
The blaster’s shirt, once clean and starched, was wrinkled with sweat. There were a few gravy spots strafed along the front (he enjoyed his macaroni). His engine came to life. When he smiled, I noticed his short, yellow teeth of equal size, half normal. He hobbled forward, gripping the ball in the palm of his hand with his gnarled fingers facing the ground and his knuckles facing the sky. He shuffled. He swayed. He bent. He peered. He swung his arm while taking a step back and let the ball fly with a flip. From his body I heard one crack, and then another and another. The ball soared in slow motion, rising slowly and, silhouetted by the sky, fell like molasses toward the pallino. All of a sudden, the hobbled gait was gone. He ran! He ran alongside the missile!
As he ran, I heard him mutter, “I gotta. I gotta.”
“Watch out! Here it comes.” It was perfect! Smash, bang, bang. And now the only ball next to the pallino was his partner’s, not even his…now long gone into the distant field.
“Nice-a go-in-a. Gret-a blast.” The only thing the proud blaster did not do as he strutted forward was to blow on his fingers.
The game ended too soon but not before some muffled screaming, a bit of discord and pointing of fingers and lots of laughter. The feigned anger was all in fun. It ended when the men were called to coffee.
Bocce is a game that holds a place in my heart because of those days at the beach and the people who played…Dad, uncles, brother and cousins. The smells of coffee, beach, salt air, warm fields along with the game were an unbeatable combination. The day ended with an exodus at dusk; cars streaming out of the lot when we could no longer see the water, the smoke, the sun or the trampled grass. From the back seat of Dad’s Chevy, I looked back at the fireflies blinking over fields of wild roses, never wanting to let go.