Brothers and Horseshoes
Two free bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches hung in the balance as my brother, John, and I stepped into the final pit to face our senior opponents in the Horseshoe Championship at Hither Hills State Park.
It was the middle of our annual camping trip on the East End, a trip that we looked forward to every year – the beach, the barbecue, the biking, and on this occasion, the bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches. We were young for goodness sake, though I doubt that our excitement over those items is any different now.
I was eighteen and my brother was sixteen. Both of us were fairly athletic but often described as long and lean. Stringbean was a noun thrown my way. Still, we could each hold our own in the usual camping competitions, whether it was the daily, yet ruthless tetherball matches or intense, nightly softball games. Unfortunately, neither of us had thrown horseshoes with any regularity before; John could barely lift the pieces of iron, much less toss them.
So, when we saw the sign for a horseshoe contest, we were intrigued but somewhat hesitant. How would we do? Would we embarrass ourselves? Who would we be playing? We put our anxieties to the side and signed the sheet to participate. The tournament would start the next day. We needed to practice!
After a few back and forth throws, we realized that practice was not going to change very much before the first round began. As we approached the pits to start the tournament, we realized that we were the youngest pair in the field and the least experienced horseshoe throwers. As we talked to each other, we realized that we were in some trouble. There were many realizations.
Luckily, those understandings came with the knowledge that we were on the East End. Mini-golfing, grabbing an ice cream, or taking in a movie in Montauk or East Hampton, all was well. We let go of the worry and the competitiveness and focused on the fun… and on us. That became ever important. The fun that two brothers could have spending time together.
Sixteen teams had entered, so we would need to win four rounds to be crowned champions, but we had already sort of won. The first game was tight as we learned the ropes a little bit; we came out with a 21-18 victory over two guys who were in their thirties. They had started strong, getting out to a quick lead, but cockiness grew and we were able to come back for the win.
The second match was more of a rout. I threw two ringers, John threw a ringer and a leaner, and we moved out to a quick lead. 21-9 was the final score. What was interesting again was the average age of the team we played — 40 to our 17. And these two had clearly “horseshoed” before but did not have their best game in hand that afternoon.
We had a break before the semifinals, which was nice. John and I walked the loops of Hither Hills and then crossed over the dunes to take a dip in the ocean. The waves smashed and the sun beamed – typical – but we talked about the adventure that we were on in a horseshoe tournament, an atypical adventure.
We rattled off strategies that made no sense, we mentioned the fun we were having and how the competition reminded us of when we were younger playing whiffle ball in the backyard. Very quickly the tournament became nothing more to us than enjoying each other’s company one more time before I left for college and John stayed home, a separation that had never been thought of but was on the horizon – the sun slowly dipping down towards the water that peaceful afternoon.
Returning back to the pit around dinnertime, we knew that we had to encourage each other to perform well. Simple lines like, “let’s go,” “do good things,” and “get in close” outspoke our growling stomachs, and we threw our shoes just well enough to win. 21-19. Having beat a pair of forty-five year olds who had clearly played the game consistently, we were on to the finals!
The sun was setting as we strolled back to the championship. Upon arriving, our opponents were already there and practicing. They were each fifty. They were experts. Ringers and leaners in a practice round! Seriously? John and I tossed a few shoes, none of which got closer than an arm’s length to the stake.
The first toss was mine. It did not go well. My opponent put one within six inches of the target. I threw a leaner; he threw short, and we were ahead!
In the next inning, our adversary threw long. John hit a ringer! After that, we traded winning scores, but we grabbed that last victory toss, a horseshoe of mine that wrapped its legs around the stake. Not too shabby for two brothers that had never played the game.
Having won, we got a tan, cardboard-like piece of paper guaranteeing us two bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches from the General Store. Mom and dad might have taken a picture of John and me, horseshoes raised, but it’s one I don’t have to see because the image is in my mind – it is the picture of my brother and me – best friends then… best friends now.
Oh and the bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches tasted great that next morning.