01 Jun

Forty feet and friendship

“Forty feet and friendship” in Main Line Today (June 2008).

“Clink! Clank! Thump. Clank!”

Followed by cheers, jeers or groans.

“Clink! Clank! Thump. Clank!”

Back and forth the sounds echoed, the metal-on-metal music of men playing horseshoes. Listening and watching from afar taught me much. Men hurling metal. A game perhaps, but so much more.

In the midst of family reunion chaos, my father and his brothers would amble away from the crowd, a slow-moving gaggle of white-haired Irishmen in search of peace. With archaic tools in hand—two long metal spikes, a hammer and four iron horseshoes—they set to work. Far from all the noise that filled their day-to-day lives, the family elders sent two orange-tipped spikes deep into the earth. They claimed their turf.

My father, his four brothers and a brother-in-law to boot—facing off both 40 feet from one another and next to each other. Two on two. One on one. Throwing steel.

The game fascinated me. I admired, envied and stood in awe of these men. From my childhood eyes, I couldn’t imagine how I’d ever have the strength to launch such heavy objects so effortlessly into the air. These men hit metal each time, landing a leaner, knocking an opponent’s shoe into scoreless territory, or circling the spike. It was magic. But only now, as a father myself, have I begun to discover its essence.

Forty feet and friendship.

The six white-hairs standing before me were the fathers of 28 children. My own father had seven sons. That’s a lot of noisy mouths to feed. A lot of Little League games and recitals to attend. More than a handful of broken windows around the house to fix. Trips to the emergency room. Parent-teacher meetings. Perhaps a visit or two to the local precinct in the mix. In short, untold sacrifice.

Together with their wives, these fathers gave up a lot. Watching them at play during a horseshoe game was all the evidence one needed. Here brothers reconnected; fraternal friendships were renewed and recharged.

Thick as thieves throughout childhood, they began to see each other less and less when their own children came along. It made the game of horseshoes all the more blessed.

Forty feet and friendship.

At 2.5 pounds, steel horseshoes are not only dangerous to nearby onlookers—thus precluding much of an audience—but they’re also too heavy for children and some women. I have a feeling most females simply have no attraction to the game. Hurling an object 40 feet to a pole, then turning around and doing it again. It’s a bit like playing fetch with yourself. Two parts asinine, one part canine.

With seven brothers and an ever-growing brood of children between us, it’s increasingly difficult to get together. For us, as it was for our father and his brothers, 40 feet goes a long way.

This Father’s Day is our first without our dad. Behind the tears, I can smile as I remember his last game of horseshoes. August had arrived, and our father’s unbeatable battle with cancer was coming to an end. For a man weeks away from his death, he stood tall against the odds. Horseshoes in hand, he launched the steel into orbit. He landed a ringer.

I envied his strength. I still do.

Tossing the horseshoes this year will certainly feel a bit empty. But if I listen closely enough, I’ll hear the stuff of life.

“Clink! Clank! Thump. Clank!”

Forty feet and friendship.

Turns out a solitary game of horseshoes isn’t really solitary after all.