Conkering hero

Do children play conkers anymore? Friends told me that the deer were back in Lithia Park by the tennis courts, feeding on the horse chestnuts (known as conkers in Britain). So I recently checked them out, taking a walk through the park and admiring the splendor of the autumn attire and hearing the scrunch of my feet on the thick layer of leaves.

And there they were, chomping on the chestnuts that continued to plop from the trees marked with a warning notice: PLEASE DO NOT EAT.

The shiny, reddish-brown nuts released from their spiny outer covering are toxic to humans. They certainly aren't the chestnuts "roasting on an open fire," as depicted in "The Christmas Song." Those are available in local markets at around $5 per pound.

At my appearance, the deer looked up but didn't take fright. They just gave me a doleful look as if to say, "What do you want? Have you come to grab our grub?" And then they resumed eating. What memories it evoked.

Eighty years ago, as a kid growing up in England, I was only too ready to dash out into the woods in autumn to seize the biggest conker I could find. I would pierce its center with a gimlet, nail or small screwdriver, striving to make a clean cylindrical hole, and lastly thread a 10-inch length of string through it, tying a stout knot at one end. Then I would be ready for battle.

At my school, which happened to be a co-educational one (only boys boarded, and that included me), the girls, save for a couple of tomboys, didn't take part. They mostly thought we were nuts. Which, of course, we were, fighting one another tirelessly at every opportunity. I took on challenge after challenge, but never even came close to earning the title of Conkering Hero.

Now, here's the deal. Two players, each with a conker threaded onto a piece of string, took turns to strike each other's conker until one was shattered. It could be dicey for the boy holding his chestnut aloft, awaiting the zonk from his opponent; the strings often entangled or an ill-aimed shot rapped one's knuckles. Apparently, some schools in Britain today prohibit the playing of conkers, fearful of legal consequences if children are injured. A few years ago, one headmaster equipped his pupils with goggles. I, on occasion, had to retire hurt!

The horse chestnut is not native to Britain. It was introduced from the Balkans in the late 16th century, and is handsome in form and foliage and very beautiful in bloom. The double-flowered forms are usually planted in public spaces, as the desire of youngsters for the conkers often results in considerable damage to the single-flowered fruiting type.

Why horse chestnut? I have it on the excellent authority of Stanley B. Whitehead in his "Everyman's Encyclopaedia of Gardening," published in 1911. He writes: "The series of horseshoe-like marks on each leaf-scar are particularly interesting as seen in autumn. The bold terminal bud of the twig, with its sticky resinous covering of scale leaves and lining of hairs (which protect the bud in winter) and which swells so boldly in spring, also arouses interest." By the way, my mother gave me this book at Christmas 1954.

I was curious. Had America ever played conkers? It seems so, during the late 1950s and early 1960s. In a small Bronx, N.Y., neighborhood, near to Van Cortland Park, children would forgather for so-called chestnut fights once the nuts fell from the trees in the park.

Not to linger on the lingo, a new conker is a none-er. If it breaks another none-er, it becomes a one-er; or a two-er if it breaks a one-er; and so on. The winning conker absorbs the previous score of the losing conker, as well as a game point. Thus, if a two-er plays a three-er, the surviving conker becomes a six-er.

I've lived in Ashland since 1985. It strikes me that the darling deer are less timorous and more adventurous and seen more frequently on our streets. They know a good thing when they find it. My garden, for instance, which they visit regularly to feed on my roses and tulips.

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