The blue ball ricocheted off a tree, across the lawn, and up onto the back porch steps where it came to rest against a silver shell-shaped serving dish of residual shrimp. ‘Twas a highly improbable yet entirely plausible shot. For cocktail croquet, that is.
A variation on the classic game, cocktail croquet originated, so to speak, in New York and Boston of the late 19th Century. Originally fashionable with high society, croquet soon lost much of its shine due to a growing association with gambling, drinking, and philandering. It’s true! The game was banned in Boston because the behavior of players so alarmed the local clergy. By the early in the 20th century, though, the game generally had regained its luster among the gentile class.
Cocktail croquet has been played in Rehoboth at a certain discreet home in the Pines neighborhood since the early 1980s. There is no set schedule, no regular teams, and no ordained uniforms. It happens when it happens, perhaps when a special guest is visiting, possibly after Peyton Manning quarterbacks a particularly good game, or, as in this case, when a certain challenge has been issued.
I wouldn’t label the game “a tradition” because that sounds way too formal and cocktail croquet is anything but.
This summer’s marquee match pitted “Lewd and Lascivious Lower Columbia” versus “Millionaire’s Row,” also known as Sussex Street, the place where dreams are realized and fortunes are lost. As a neighbor and a friend of the hosts, I was playing on the salacious squad.
On the day of the match, the oppressive heat had lifted and a light breeze was blowing from the east. The lawn was in excellent physical shape. Lush. Green. Mosquito-free. Such a lawn, few of which remain in todays chopped up, over-built Rehoboth.
The bar too was ready for the competition and well furnished with vodka, gin, and scotch. Ice was plentiful. The Italian antipasto was handmade: asparagus wrapped with proscuitto, sweet peppers stuffed with boursin cheese and served popsicle style on a pretzel stick, and bruschetta with a spicy black olive tapenade. Shrimp cocktail platters shimmered in the sunset.
At six o’clock, the athletes began arriving on foot, by bicycle, and in cars. Soft boogie woogie piano music wafted from the house. “Millionaire’s Row” was turning out in mass for its inaugural match. To use a college football phrase, they were “traveling well,” bringing a multigenerational entourage of old party boys and young fabby boys, homeowners and summer renters. Those too nelly to play came to cheer, brandishing red and blue pompoms.
They even brought a member of the opposite sex – a first for cocktail croquet. Miss Kissy embarked from a silver Mercedes convertible, nattily attired in Connecticut country club couture. Her little navy blue needlepoint slippers with embroidered anchors and bows were the envy of every fellow.
Cocktail croquet, however, is where expectations are turned upside down. Rather than polite, it is cut throat. Pomp and circumstance? Dismissed. White wine and beer? Absolutely not. Rules? The hosts “interpret” them. And it is difficult – embarrassingly so.
The course is always set up in a classic nine-wicket, two-stake, double diamond arrangement. Rather than being arranged in the middle of the lawn, most wickets are placed on the perimeter, along slopes that lead directly into gutters and flower beds where seventy-odd low-slung azaleas and rhodos await. Hit your ball under one and you must play it as it lies, no matter what contortion you must go though in order to do so.
Back on the eighty-foot course, huge oak trees with ancient roots disrupt your path. And then there’s your opposition, every one vengefully poised to send your ball careening across Columbia Avenue, bury it in the ivy, or force you to play off concrete steps next to the shrimp tails.
Uninitiated, “Millionaire’s Row” didn’t stand a chance. Mercifully, the game was called on account of darkness.
As I stood on the course, mallet in hand and enjoying the smell of cut grass and the flickering of the fireflies, I began to reconsider whether or not cocktail croquet was indeed “a tradition.” The beauty of this particular match was the generation exchange of values, i.e. the old guard showing a fun group of newcomers a side of Rehoboth they hadn’t seen. Certainly there was rowdy drinking going on. I didn’t witness any gambling. And, I’m not sure I saw any philandering. But, then again, the way some of the fellas were backing up against the bushes for their shots, one never knows.