Barbara Lawlor, Gold Hill. Years ago, in the late 70’s, I lived in Los Angeles at the intersection of Alvarado and Sunset, made famous in a Linda Rondstadt song. At the time, it was considered to be gangland, but I never found it so.
It was ethnic, boasting the Burrito King, probably the best burrito I’ve ever had. I liked to put my son, Bryan, in a back pack and walk to Echo Park, where we would sit on a blanket, eat the burrito and watch people of all nationalities stroll by the lake where the ducks trolled for food.
In one section of the park, a group of elderly Italian men would pull up folding chairs, light cigars, and, dressed in shirts and vests and ties, despite the heat, play Bocce Ball. All day. They would break for lunch, salami sandwiches wrapped in wax paper, packed neatly in brown paper bags and drink wine and talk about the progress of the game. Or not talk at all. They spoke in Italian so I never knew what they were saying. I liked to listen to them argue softly, gesturing often with their cigars.
I have often thought of those days with my Italian men, especially when Gold Hill residents took up the game as their community sport. It was small at first, but over the years has grown to include 16 teams, a good deal of machismo and a professionally constructed Bocce Court in a field at the edge of town.
Every year, the annual Bocce tournament is held on the Saturday before the Fourth of July. Over the years, I have covered the event for the newspaper, publishing the winners, always a diehard bunch of old timers and usually a few teams of newcomers.
Before the last tournament, held on Saturday, July 1, my friend Marilyn and I decided to throw our hats into the ring, to do something we have never done before, to take a risk, to not care if we made fools of ourselves. After all, how hard could it be?
You hold this ball, a rather heavy one, and roll it down the court, kind of like a bowling ball, and aim for the target, which is the pallino, a smaller, white ball. The team closest to the pallino throws until they are closer than the other team or until they run out of balls. One point for each ball that is closer to the pallino than the opponent’s closest ball. Two points for a leaner, when a scoring ball touches part of the pallino. The first team to reach seven wins the round, with each round going up in points needed to win.
Marilyn and I did not enter the tournament without training for it; at least a half an hour the week before. Yeah, sure, we could do this. We have hand/eye coordination. We were seeded first against the team that came in second last year. How demeaning is that? Yet we won a point during the practice session. We were optimistic.
When we asked if it was better to smoothly roll the ball or to let it bounce a bit, one player said he thought rolling it worked well; but he had never won so we were basically on our own.
We also learned that Bocce is not an aerobic sport. “It is not at all for fitness,” we were told. “The hardest work of the day is standing up.”
All I can say is we didn’t get skunked. The young couple we played against beat us 7-3 and everyone said we had nothing to be ashamed of. The couple went on to the final championship round where they were taken out by two hotshots. By the end of the tournament, we had learned a lot.
First of all, Bocce is an incredible community game. Everyone came with something to share to eat. They brought chairs and umbrellas and wore fun hats. A perfect way to spend a summer day in the mountains, good for all ages.
Second of all, no matter how much you practice or plan, the court will getcha. As the balls are thrown over the raked gravel, ridges are formed that can skew a ball totally off course, and most of the time, you can’t even see them.
Third, the other team is also out to get you and just when you think you are the closest to the pallino, someone who used to be a friend, knocks your ball away from the scoring point.
So, there is strategy, technique, aggressiveness and lots of body language involved, but it doesn’t matter if you lose, because the food is great.
The winners of this year’s tournament Rick and Norm, sponsored by Marrocco’s Restaurant in Ward and they won on sheer attitude. They never stopped telling everyone they were going to be the champs, and they methodly worked their way to begin the winners.
Somehow it seems that those grand old Italian men in Echo Park played the game a little more pensively, taking time with each ball while their teammates gestured wildly at the court, giving directions. They played every weekend afternoon, not just one day a year, so they had all the time in the world.
Winners of the 2017 Pogo de Oro, Gold Hill Bocce Tournament:
First Place: Rick Skinner and Norm
Second Place: Krista Malek and Dustin Geessman
Third Place: Gretchen Diefenderfer and Michael Albes and Maggie Simms and David Brigham