NOSTALGIA & REALITY
(20 May 2014)
It’s been seven months since I hung up my polo mallets. Yesterday I took my longest one off its now rusted hook and climbed on too-tall April, my best polo pony.
My withdrawal from polo, one-day-at-a-time, has wobbled down an irregular path. For the first few weeks I exercised my three horses on non-polo days at Hering Ranch. That way I avoided the sight of horses tacked up in double reins and bright bandages and the whipsaw of emotions that would trigger. On polo days Susan Harris, my teammate for over a decade, tacked up and played April in club matches. Afterward she kindly texted me how Mare Mountain performed.
After a month of complete polo abstinence I ventured out to the ranch on a polo morning. I was surprised I could watch six chukkers— including April’s joyful and vigorous play under Susan— without getting overly emotional. Later, I drank beer and swapped stories on Kip Hering’s porch with old colleagues as if nothing had changed.
The last few weeks I’ve driven to Hering Ranch each Saturday, saddled my other Thoroughbred and my Arabian, and watched polo matches from their backs at various places along the sidelines. I’ve responded with smiling but firm “No thanks” to offers that I umpire or “just try a chukker or two.” I continue enjoying the camaraderie of post-polo beers.
Occasionally I track down out-of-bounds balls, dismounting to toss them back on the field. Between chukkers, while players change horses and tack, I ride my two geldings for exercise laps on the ranch’s half-mile track.
Last month after a game I overheard one player say to Susan, “You should put April in ride-offs more often. When she’s fired up, nobody rides off that big mare.” My mind flashed back to numerous times April and I shoved opponents off the ball while charging full-speed down the field. After that vivid reverie, walking along by myself, I was suddenly swamped in tears.
Last week threw another twist in my recovery road. Finding myself nearly alone on the 80-horse ranch, I first exercised my three horses on the track. I let 37-year-old Khourney quit early when he felt reluctant to go a second lap. Zarahas and April each put in a spirited mile. But, before untacking April, I grabbed that long polo mallet and remounted her.
Instantly she perked up her head and pranced to the polo field. Snagging a ball from the umpire’s net, I tossed it onto the just-mowed turf. April trotted patiently while I took a couple calibrating swings, then she leapt to gallop after the ball. It was old times again as we charged up the field, April deftly maneuvering to keep the ball in play. Thirty yards from the goal, I blanked my mind from everything except the sweet spot under the ball’s equator. As I swung my arm through the clockface of twelve to six, the ball sailed straight through the posts. Oh…my…god! Nostalgia surged through me like a whoosh of cocaine.
“Let’s do this again!” my addict-voice yelled. So we retrieved the same ball and flew down the field toward the other goal. Then reality struck. As I hit my woulda-coulda-shoulda goal shot at the large space between the posts, the ball flew wildly off to the right.
Now sobriety-voice took charge. “Your shoulder blade’s not a whit better, still floats whenever you raise your arm— no nerves have grown back. Your shots remain unreliable, erratic, the same frustration that led you to quit. This is what happens to heroin chippers. Time to return to the wagon, Art.”
“You’re right,” I sighed and soberly walked April back to our tack shed. More thoughts flooded my mind. I was no longer a contributor to or eager opener of the U.S. Polo Association’s monthly magazine. And even if I could recapture my past, the polo world has moved on. After owning and tending Hering Ranch more than a half-century, Kip has sold it. He’s stepped down as decades-long president of the Lakeside Polo Club; the new president is the real-estate agent who brokered the sale. Susan was badly injured and may never play polo again.
That’s it, my latest and smallest up-and-down tussles with my still favorite sport. I got a blast of nostalgia charging up the field, and a jolt of reality running back down. So I’ll return to just watching the game. But addictions never completely die. Though old addicts watch without touching their volatile drug, their minds— like the rhythm of hoof beats— remember, remember, remember, remember.