Keep Calm and Rave On

Gays getting married. Gays having babies. Gays serving openly in the military.  Yes, we’re seeing some amazing things in this new century.  Here’s one I wasn’t prepared for: gays playing beer pong.

You heard me right. The ultimate beer drinking game is no longer the province of straight frat boys and Snooki wanna-bes. Now the gay twenty-something pocket boys – those wispy lads so thin you can slip into your back pocket – are playing pong right here in Rehoboth Beach.

“Pong” is shorthand for a drinking game in which you try and land a ping-pong ball in your opponent’s cups of beer. If you succeed, your opponent must drink the beer.  It sounds easy and in concept it is.  Except that there are numerous variations on the game and every group of players seems to have its own special rules.

The National Beer Pong League — yes, there is such an entity– counts more than sixty recognized variations that can be played without paddles and more than a dozen with paddles. You’ve got Dartmouth pong, Cornell pong, Bounce pong, Long Island style, Philly style, Beirut East Coast style, Auburn rules, Virginia rules, and so the list goes on.

There’s even a set of rules for strip beer pong. And special names for players too. A camel toe, for example, is someone who always shoots before consuming the beer. A Che (Guevara) is someone who refuses to play by the house rules.

Pong tables vary too, though you can basically play the game on any flat tabletop.  The most popular size today is eight feet by two feet, and you can order one online in plastic, wood or aluminum at prices starting as low as $89. Handmade elegant wooden ones are available too and can cost upwards of $700. Picnic tables work well in a pinch.

The game has become so popular that there are leagues all over the country dedicated to pong. There is even a World Series of Beer Pong, held annually at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas where hundreds of players compete for a $50,000 grand prize.

How did this all come about?

Most historians — and I use that term loosely — believe beer pong originated at Dartmouth College in the 1950s and 1960s. Some older alumni think it grew organically from the simple fact of putting cups of beer on the table when playing the game of ping-pong. However it started, by the 1970s, the game of beer pong had developed rules and spread up and down the East Coast through the college and university circuit. At Dartmouth, it became so popular the school sanctioned it as an actual intramural sport for a short period of time.

I played pong for the first time in the fall of 1979 in the basement of a UVA fraternity. It was hot and heady with the scent of college boy sweat, Polo cologne, and marijuana. Little Feat’s Waiting for Columbus album was playing on the stereo. Juanita my sweet chiquita, what are you up to?

A paddle was thrust into my hand and I was steered to a ping-pong table set atop a pool table with arranged with plastic cups of beer. A neophyte to beer pong, the brothers no doubt considered me an easy target.  Little did they know I’d been playing ping-pong for many years in my own basement. I had a good lob and I knew how to deliver some wicked topspin.

Yes, back then we played pong on real ping-pong tables and with real paddles. Old school.

Things started to change in the early 1980s when the frat boys at Lehigh and Lafayette chucked the paddles and started chucking the balls by hand. They called their new variation “Beirut” in reference to the Lebanese civil war. The rival schools are located but seventeen miles apart in eastern Pennsylvania, so, naturally, each claimed to have invented the game.  While the origin might be at issue, the raison d’etre wasn’t: to get bombed.

Today you find diehard fans of both the paddle and paddle-less versions. It’s a matter of preference. The pocket boys of Rehoboth toss rather than paddle. And though I’m personally partial to the classic version of pong, I am quite impressed by the boys’ sense of sporting style. They’ve got a specially designed table, balls, and even plastic cups all emblazoned with the slogan “Keep Calm and Rave On.”  I was told it’s a riff off of the British government’s “Keep Calm and Carry On” campaign to buoy public spirit during WWII.  Crowns for queens.  I like that.

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Cocktail Croquet 2011

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.