by Melanie Peterson
On a quiet, winding road off the Hudson River, you can hear the crickets and birds chirp from the surrounding woods, as the sun holds firm in the sky, casting a warm blanket of light across the 20-acre grounds. It’s a warm Friday afternoon in July, and the sound of old friends greeting after a long 2 years apart, can be heard across the property. The first one on the scene is Dave, one of the head instigators of this annual rendezvous over the past few years, who eagerly awaits as he welcomes, hugs, and catches up with all the familiar faces, most of whom he hasn’t seen in person for 2 years now. As more cars drive into the lot to join the weekend’s festivities, you can feel the relief, joy, and excitement emanating through everyone. This is The Peterson Annual Croquet Tournament: it’s year 42.
Starting back in 1980, one year after the group graduated from Vassar College, the friends casually decided to play a game of croquet on the lawn at my dad, Jeffrey’s, house, after a weekend of partying. From there, what could have been any other college-like weekend of fun and goofing around with friends, turned into a slowly evolving, nearly half-century staple event that has held the group together, like a family, when so many others have drifted apart. Over the years, the friend group has brought siblings, grown up and started their own families, met new friends, and brought them back to grow this ever-evolving, small community for one summer weekend every year.
At this croquet tournament, almost no one wears all whites to play, except for the Finals game on Sunday. The “courts” aren’t groomed and the rules are slightly different. We set up the courses on the flattest stretches of grass we can find at the year’s chosen location: this might include hazards like roots, trees, rocks or campfires, etc. throughout the field. The standard rules are pretty simple: 6 players race around the “8”- shaped course, through the wickets, and hit the stakes at each end. Players can hit another ball in between wickets to get two more shots for their turn, to help them get through faster. Once done, they turn into a “Poison” ball, whose job is to kill (hit) every other ball, without going through a wicket or hitting the stakes. The last player left on the court wins. While becoming first Poison is an advantage, with the right strategy (and a bit of luck), it’s anyone’s game. This standard version of play is called a “Poison Round”. The winner of each game qualifies for Semi-Finals.
Friday, Saturday, and early Sunday see hours and hours of back-to-back games on multiple fields, as everyone tries their hand to qualify for Semi-Finals on Sunday. Semi-Finals is the speed round: no Poison play; just a race between the players to get through the course, and the first 2 players to get through first, move on to the Finals. It is during the 3 Semi’s where one sees some of the craziest shots, as desperate players pull hail-mary attempts to slow down the leader and secure their own spot in the Finals. Finals is the last game of the tournament, where the final 6 Semi-Finalist winners play one last Poison round game to see who claims victory for that year and gets their name engraved on the winner’s trophy.
To call the occasion solely a croquet event would be amiss, considering that amidst the back-to-back croquet games, there are volleyball, badminton, soccer, ultimate frisbee, wiffleball, spikeball, kan jam, bocce ball, board games, etc., throughout the weekend. My dad, Jeff “Organizer of the Activities”(as he has dubbed himself), loves sports and games and has more than a few like-minded enthusiasts that help set up and rally the troops for competition. Lounge time by the pool and hot tub are also popular hangout spots throughout the weekend: some almost never leave the area at all. One thing that is nowhere in sight is technology: everyone is free to do what they want, but everyone seems to choose to leave their phones behind, catch up with and enjoy the company, relax and just be present in the moment.
Saturday night sees the big, family-style dinner and free-for-all talent show (monologues to musical acts to nunchuck demonstrations and more). It continues with a toast, heartfelt welcome to newcomers (sharing why this event is so special to them), and remembrances of those who have passed on. The traditions of the night finish with campfire sing-alongs and s’mores, and then more croquet games into the wee hours of the morning.
The size of the group ranges every year from around 40 to 100 people: milestone years like the 20th, 30th, and 40th, tend to draw the highest numbers of friends, family, and newcomers, while the core group of around 20-30 keep coming back every year, bringing new friends when they can. Members of the original group like “Iceman” Jeffrey, “The Kevinator” Kevin, “Big Mean” Dave, Mikey, and others have kept it going all these years, sharing and v4delegating the organizational duties along the way. Some come from around the area, while others come from all areas of the globe: Kevin and (our very own) Dan from CA, Mike and Bill from FL, Harrison from Singapore, Chris from Switzerland, Lynn from Portugal, and so on.
As a group, I think we all recognize the importance and significance of this event. I’ve been going my entire life; so, when I was younger, I took it for granted. Only more recently have I understood how special it really is. In a world where more and more people are increasingly feeling more isolated and disconnected from others, we have created this tight-knit, but growing family that we can come back to every year, connect with, and confide in: an event that inherently keeps us from drifting apart.
One of the things I love about the tourney is that many of us come from different backgrounds, with different stories and journeys, different perspectives on life, politics, and so on. But, no matter those differences, there is a level of respect and love for each other that holds us all together. We are all here to enjoy each other’s company, engage in some friendly competition, and talk about the world and life: all judgments aside.
As the core group of Vassar college buds has grown older, they have slowly started to pass the torch to the younger generation, to keep the fires lit. Committees for awards, rules, set up and logistics, budget, etc. have been formed with everyone (core members [young and old], friends, family, and newcomers alike) to help ensure that it keeps ongoing. Everyone donates some money to the cause each year to keep it afloat, and during the years when some families have trouble, others chip in extra to help out. Outside of the tourney itself, life lessons and stories are passed down to the next generations, and career and life goals conversations lead to newfound connections and causal networking.
When Covid struck and the 41st Annual Croquet Tournament was canceled, the group turned to monthly Zooms to lift each other’s spirits. For some in total isolation, the virtual meetups became a lifeline for some small amount of normalcy, nostalgia, and support. Now, as year 42 has brought us back together, we look forward to what the future will bring.
PICT 40th 2019 FINALS newer pic: 2019 40th in Catskills, NY, Sunday Finals group photo in whites: me kneeling in pink hat, Spencer on my right, Jeffrey sitting in green shorts, Kevin in orange hat under an umbrella.