I’m huddling with a squad of shoulda-retired rugby players under a sun canopy – rainwater sheeting wildly off its wavy overhang.
A fork of lightning unzips the grey-black sky.
We bunch, even more discomfortingly, closer together.
One … two …: A deafening peal of thunder.
Sitting on a Patriots canvas chair, in black rugby shorts, a black sleeveless shirt, the rain running over the brim of his black ten-gallon hat, a rain soaked cigar in one hand, a bottle of beer in the other, his rainwater-glistening arms, full-sleeve-tattooed battles, real, mythical, and some entirely self-imagined, sits the craziest bastard of us all, the self-nicknamed – Hazard.
It’s an Old Boy’s rugby tournament: A cocktail of genuine fun; self-surprising accomplishment; over indulgence in alcohol – and ibuprofen; and never-shoulda-happened-in-that-way-at-this-time-of-life broken bones.
Under the rain besieged canopy a shoulda-retired player holds up his right hand: The pinky finger sticks out at a somewhat unnatural – one could even say unhealthy? – ninety degrees to its normal sticking out direction.
“Oh Jaysys, that doesn’t look right,” another shoulda-retired says, slow-shaking his head all-knowingly. “You know how ya fix dat now do ya, ya just… .”
He grabs the miscreant digit in a tight grip, yanks hard on it.
The miscreant digit’s owner’s knees buckle, face melting in pain, eyes welling up with tears.
“Ya know what,” the Unintentionally-Sadistic-Good-Samaritan says. “I’m a carpenter, why don’t we ask my wife to help, she a receptionist at a doctor’s office.”
The teary eyes nod in intense please-stop-this-pain agreement.
The Sadistic-Samaritan reaches over the huddle, taps his wife on the shoulder.
The downpour of rain intensifies in a way that forces everyone to first look up, then out at the gushing waterfalls running over the edge of the canopy.
Hazard eases himself up out of his, now indigo-blue, Patriots chair, deliberately opens the cooler, rummaging around for another of his Anti-Hero IPAs, rainwater gushing off his hat into the ice.
“Come in outta that you psycho,” a woman voice calls out.
“Stop filling up the cooler with water,” a man yells, irritated.
Hazard stands upright.
The sky unzips.
The canopy-huddle contracts tighter.
He snaps the can open with a hissing beer spray.
The air cracks with thunder, but we can’t huddle any tighter.
“What?” the doctor’s receptionist snaps.
“Come ‘ere. Can you fix dis fella’s finger?” the carpenter flips his thumb toward the teary-eyed visage. “’Tis all wonky.”
“Sure isn’t there a doctor over there,” the receptionist demurs, tipping her beer towards the excruciatingly straight back of a man in deep-head-nodding conversation at the edge of canopy.
The Sadistic Samaritan leans over toward the upright doctor, taps him on the shoulder.
The man of medicine turns, his face obscured by a cloud of smoke from the huge cigar in his mouth.
“Here doc, can you help dis fella, his finger’s aboutta fall off.”
The doctor stoops over, picks up a you-can-definitely-trust-me-medically-because-I-have-such-expensive-leather-doctor’s-bag. He hands his shot glass to the shoulda-retired next to him, opens the bag and holds it for the Sadistic Samaritan to see inside.
“Pick yer medicine, man,” he says, with a heavy Southern twang.
The expensive-leather-doctor’s-bag is wedged full of bottles of bourbon.
He pulls out a Wild Turkey.
“This one’s ben known to cure just about ev…very…thing,” he nods sagaciously at the Samaritan, “from adultery to testicular cancer.”
Old Boys Rugby: A psychological condition, whereby human males who have not sufficiently damaged their musculoskeletal system as teens and young men, are mind-controlled by midlife crisis to go deep into their garages, pull out their old gear-bag; brush the cobwebs off aged boots, try, but fail, to remove that intractable scum from the mouth-guard; heartrendingly pretend-in-private that the shorts and jersey fit after fifteen hard years of holidays-barbeques-golf-weekends; before putting everything back where it lived in blissful oblivion; only to, in a fit of focused-pique, Amazon a whole new – “never knew gear could cost so much, but still cheaper than a motorbike, and safer, right honey?” – kit for delivery in time for a threatened, but never executed upon, “run around,” at some Thursday night rugby practice.
I’m a part of this gathering of a few hundred shoulda-retired rugby players at the 2013 Old Man of the Mountain tournament in New Hampshire. For a solid eight hours, with many, long breaks, we play on what passes for an airfield nestled amongst the beautiful White Mountains. It’s probably six acres of a level-ish grassy field, down which, on a regular Saturday, single engine planes speed, towing gliders, piloted by even more heavily afflicted midlife-crisisers – Top Gun syndrome – sitting thumbs-up-grinning as they take off for a few death-defying minutes gliding on air shafts above Franconia Notch. Once a year the Top Gun crowd, with wry, where-did-these-idiots-come-from smiles, turn it over to the Old Boy’s rugby tournament. The six acres allow for multiple simultaneous games, a huge parking lot, and a veritable one day, middle-age, Mardi Gras in the mountains.
I arrive around ten, park, walk out to the playing fields, only to be almost knocked down, when a, normally-very-sensible, Volvo came up behind at a very insensible speed. The car pulls to a sudden stop, out jumps a woman.
“Oh my God I’m so sorry,” she half yells in my direction. “My husband just broke his leg, what-am-I-going-to-do, what-am-I-going-to-do.”
I look over to see six shoulda-retired rugby players cradling in their arms a man, whose blanched face and closed eyed alertness show his excruciating level of pain.
“Oh-my-God, oh-my-God,” his wife runs around the car, flinging open the rear passenger door.
The cradlers carry the injured player to the open door. The woman runs around opens the other door.
They slide him in.
Back arching, he cries out in pain.
The woman settles his head and shoulders on a folded towel, gently closes the door.
One of the cradlers swings the other door shut.
The door bounces back.
The husband screams a pain-scream that no wife should ever have to hear.
“Oh-my-God, oh-my-God,” the woman runs around to the other side.
She tries to get the foot all the way inside the car.
The pain-screaming exhausts itself.
Eventually the door is gently closed.
“Oh-my-God, oh-my-God,” she runs to the driver’s door. “Where’s the nearest hospital?”
It’s a solid forty-five minutes away, down I93.
She pulls out at high speed, shoulda-retireds scurrying out of the way.
With the sound of his screams still reverberating around my brain, we warm up for our first game.
It’s all supposed to be just fun. Run around, get sweaty, drink too much on the sidelines with old friends, everyone misremembering how great a player they used to be. The problem of course is that the ego doesn’t age out: It just gets more focused.
Thus some shoulda-retireds show up completely unfit, a high hazard to the deftly evolved hinge joints in their limbs, maybe even to the magic that is the blood pump itself; their internal clock set to when the first beer-shot-cigar can be consumed. A minority … ok, a sizable minority … ok, ok, some days maybe even the majority, don’t set the clock at all and start guzzling cans-cupped-in-hands as soon they waddle over the sideline.
An entirely different set of shoulda-retireds tone down their triathlon training for a few hours, so they can dash around the rugby field, score a few tries, lecture everyone else what ligaments-tendons-fascia have been sprained-torn-shattered that day, and then, guzzling coconut water, climb back into their SUV, with the mountain bike on the roof – “for a twenty miler, that can’t be missed, on the way home.”
In between are some people who would like to feel, just for thirty seconds, that they were twenty-five again, and are willing to put in some, though not a lot, of effort to fake out that feeling. I like to count myself in that set.
“Listen to me now, listen,” our self-appointed captain says, earnestly. “We’re playing a team from Canada. They’re serious, they’ve come this far.”
“I think Canada is actually closer to here than Boston is,” our tighthead prop says, his bushy eyebrows pinching his face into an ambiguously quizzical look. “Maybe, th…ey, should be afraid of us.”
“Shut up,” the captain faux snaps. “Now listen to me now, listen. Do not tackle anyone in red shorts. I see they have one of them old guys. Red shorts mean they’re over sixty and can’t be fully tackled. Just kinda wrap them up around the shoulders.”
“But that’s a high tackle,” the tighthead complains.
“Shut the fuck up saying!”
We get into position for the kickoff; thunder clouds crowding ominously into the valley.
“Sorry boys,” the referee, in a gut-bulging, fluorescent yellow jersey, yells to us. “Tweaked my calf in the first game, won’t be able to keep up very well with play. Just listen for my whistle.”
Our outhalf, veins bulging in his forehead, sneer-snorts at the limping referee, who is trying, and failing, to reset his stop watch.
The ref eventually gets the watch set, and blows his whistle loudly.
The outhalf kicks off, the ball floating in a high, slow arc, perfectly timed for our rag-taggle chase.
I see the red shorts standing behind the Canadian team’s forwards.
The ball hits the ground, and bounces right into the red-shorted arms.
He looks up at us bearing slowly down on him. He’s bewildered to be so suddenly in possession.
I slow down, not sure exactly what to do.
Hazard crashes past me, spinning me as he clips my shoulder.
The sound of a pain grunt tells me what happened next.
The referee’s whistle shrills through the air in a continuous breath-in-breath-out issuance.
On the ground the red shorts writhes in pain; Hazard standing over him like a hunter standing over his kill.
“I fucking told you not to tackle the red shorts,” our self-appointed captain screams in Hazard’s face.
“What the fuck man! I didn’t hear nothen’, I was in the woods smoking a bone during the warm up.”
The referee finally arrives, his whistle still breath-in-out blasting.
“Ok, what happened here?” he asks, pulling the whistle from his mouth: A spit rope dangling from the whistle.
“Eh, … they ran into each other,” our captain says, offering a hand to the red shorts.
“Really?” the referee snaps, suspiciously.
“Yes sir,” the red shorts says in a perky English accent, accepting the hand up. “I tried ta get around ‘im, but me old legs just ain’t what they used to be.”
“Well it’s an automatic penalty for touching a red shorts,” the referee glares at our captain. “And I strongly suspect that it’d be a red card, if only I didn’t have this tweaked calf.”
He furrows his brow for added disciplinary emphasis.
“Get back, get back,” he waves us off. “Ten yards, ten yards at least. Actually go back twenty. I’m already sick of this game.”
We turn to walk back.
The red shorts streaks past me, ball in hand, moving at a shockingly fast pace.
He jinks and weaves through those few of our team actually paying attention.
Our outhalf takes off after him, forehead veins bulging. They arc in zigzags across the field, the red shorts with a devastating jink that forces the younger, heavier, man into lumbering changes of direction.
Thirty seconds later the red shorts dots the ball down in the far corner, and falls to his knees, hands on hips.
The referee’s whistle shrills into my ear, blowing in-out continuously, his arm up in the air for a score, as he limp-run-walks from halfway towards the posts.
“He can move,” I say admiringly to one of the Canadians turning back to halfway.
“Yeah, he played at the Hong Kong Sevens, … in 1973!”