Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Polo

Wolfy with Polo Pony, 1976 (photo by Georgiana Silk) 

in the summer
there was polo
on tuesdays
thursdays
and then big games on sundays
i rode in the back of pop’s truck
with the goal posts
and the boxes of balls
and the bell that rang to end the chukkers
pop’s umpire equipment too
a leather saddle bag for balls
and his whistle on a red cord
we would drive the length of the field
that good green stretch
and straighten side boards
with the blue and yellow paint
and rough places where ponies had scuffed them
then we would raise the goal posts together
they were made of balsa and canvas
light enough to break away during a collision
i looked like alice in wonderland
carrying those 9 foot posts to their proper place
then we would talk to the groundsman
and pop would give strict instructions for the care
of that green magic piece
sometimes they would mow, right before the game
or they would roll the field with an iron barrel
the grass was perfect, a map waiting for its lines
“three football fields long, folks” the announcer would explain
to the picknicking crowds
like the polo field was the 8th wonder of the world
finally we would head for the gooseneck trailers
circling like wagons at the marshy end of the field
cat tails grew up taller than the trailers and
sometimes my friend t. and i would pick them
and parade them on the field
like princes announcing the games
pop would tell the players which team they would play on
he spent mornings and nights before the games
handicapping and building teams
he accounted for ponies - their speed and soundness
he accounted for players - their ability or downfalls
sometimes the players complained that pop had mismatched them
pop didn’t care
“tommy” they would call and show him a new mallet or a new pony
her soft round sides gleaming and tail switching at flies
as they dressed, putting on their numbered jerseys and white britches
i would look at the ponies
i offered grooms my help and was always hired for one job or another
hotwalking, tying up tails, tacking up, and bathing
i loved to bathe the hot ponies when they came in from a chukker
to strip them bare of their heavy tack and bandages
to free them of their double-bitted bridles and drawreins and breast plates
sometimes there would be a shock of blood, a cut to the knee
a rip at the corner of a pony’s soft fat lips
a tiny stream of watery red from the nostril
the blood told me of the battle they had just fought
even with the stinging heat of the summer evenings, steam would rise off the ponies’ hips
and their nostrils opened wide to reveal the most delicate pink insides
the air that rushed from those nostrils blew at my skin and warmed my sunburned arms
the bucket of dirty sweaty water at my feet offered little cooling effect
i mimicked the grooms and didn’t squeeze out the sponge
i slopped the warm water on
their black necks and rubbed their muscles barely reaching their toplines
i felt liniment sting my eyes
i was wary of their heavy shod feet and i worked fast to offer them relief
the ponies were so tired from the seven minute chukkers
that i could lean on them and practically knock them over
the veins around their eyes beat a fast tempo with their nostrils
when the ponies were washed
we would walk
 along the stone wall and under the trees
sometimes stopping to watch a moment in the game
or to hear the clapping from the club house porch
where the wives sat with their cold drinks sweating in their tanned hands
they were shaded under big hats
and their lipstick and toenails matched their lilly pulitzer skirts
as we walked
the ponies transformed to the cool watery eyed individuals
that they were earlier in the day
they regained their composure and seemed to say thank you
with a warm brush to my small arm
i was always relieved to see them cool
to be able to put my hand on their chests
to find they were dry
to be able to safely offer them water
and to declare that they could be tied up to the trailers again
Then the rush of the end of another chukker
would bring yet another pony
her sides heaving and soaking with sweat
Sometimes a set of reins would break
and ponies would have to be traded
mid-chukker
this was like a trick on a high wire or an acrobatic feat
for the player and the groom holding the fresh pony
the player and the pony with their failing equipment
would come off the field full tilt
divots of green flying behind them
the player would make a flying dismount
from one saddle to another saddle
as the groom caught one pony and released the other pony
and then the player and his fresh pony would bolt back to the game
which had never noticed his absence
When a mallet broke in mid-play
a similar stunt took place
the player and the pony would gallop in toward
a groom standing perfectly still holding the new mallet out as an extention of their arm
the player would swipe the mallet from the groom as he spun back to the game
it was like watching knife throwing or sword swallowing
when i was old enough, the grooms allowed me to perform these tricks for the players
my heart would jump every time
but i felt as though i had entered a fraternity of stunt men
as stunned picknickers looked on
they were getting their charity ticket money’s worth
to see that dirty little girl make the pony switch!
to know these tricks were performed three and four centuries ago in pakistan and north africa
made it an anciet art to me
pop never missed a chance to remind me how old polo was
his library was filled with old sporting books with etchings of fat persian ponies
and turbaned sikhs playing polo on monglolian mountain sides

the picknickers would come in to fairfield from the city
they drove cadillacs and station wagons and drank campari with their fried chicken
the men always seemed as though they wanted to be polo players
but were better built for golf
and the women always seemed as though they wished they had a polo player
but they were much more suited to their golfers
they asked questions about the horses and the players
they wanted to know how fast the ponies went and they were perplexed by the danger
at half time, the announcer would tell everyone to head out on to the field
to stomp divots and we would oblige
the players would sit in their canvas chairs
and watch the picknickers groom the field and their wives would mill among them
little children would carry divots and place them back in the holes and press hard
with their little hands
as i walked and washed the ponies, i was glad the picknickers were working too
the game could not go on without this weird cocktail party on the field
which ended with the wives returning to the shady clubhouse lawn
and the picknickers to the other side of the field where the sun poured onto their faces

when the games ended, i helped load the ponies head-to-hip-hip-to-head
the tail gate would slam shut and the trucks and trailers would roll away
in dusty parade while the ponies heads pressed against the rails
and their eyes watched the empty green field in the lowering summer light
the picknickers streamed by in the funny big cars and they would wave goodbye to us
we were like circus performers to them
they asked the players for autographs on dog-eared programs

then the field was quiet except for the sound of conversation in the clubhouse porch
the wives and the players were reunited
and the players headed in to the clubhouse for showers
and a sprinkling of holy aftershave
they would all gather in the bar and smoke
t. and i would sit on the foot rests under the bar
encrusted with dirt, grass stains, and horse sweat
despite the “no minors” sign over the bar room door
we would eat potato chips and sour cream with chives dip
and the bartender would pass us shirley temple after shirley temple
the players and the wives now smelled of smoke and gin
and chanel #5 and bay rum
which all mixed together to make something sweeter and warmer
and more intoxicating than its ingredients
there were verbal replays of the day and slow motion memories
there was relief among the wives that the ambulance had left the side lines empty
finally i would get tired and pull at pop’s pants
he would brush me away, tell me i shouldn’t be in the bar
i would call home and pull at his pants again
eventually, he would leave and drive me home in the back of the truck
half asleep among the dented, slightly green polo balls, the goals posts,
and his whistle around my neck
the breeze that blew over the cab of the truck and down over my suburn
made me happy and cool
i always knew that was how the ponies felt riding home in their trailers.

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