It’s an annual event in Annapolis, MD. Liberal arts St. John’s College plays the U.S. Naval Academy in a fiercely fought croquet match on the tree-shaded lawns of St. John’s.
Every spring, my friend Barbara and I show up for the festivities. Surrounding the croquet pitches, several thousand people throw down blankets or pitch beach canopies, open up their coolers and put out a picnic spread. Some groups go whole hog, with silver candelabra, champagne and chocolate-dipped strawberries. Half the crowd dresses as though Jay Gatsby were going to stroll up any minute. The local vintage shops have surely been cleaned out, as women don bias-cut skirts and floral hats. The Navy midshipmen (and, I’m happy to say, midshipwomen) party in dress whites.
Not many people actually watch the croquet matches, since most of us haven’t a clue how the scoring works. Every now and then the swing music stops and a loudspeaker booms out the rankings.
St. John’s has a secret weapon in this ongoing battle with the Naval Academy: their costumes. Navy teams wear tasteful Academy uniform. The Johnnies, on the other hand, seek to instill shock and awe in their opponents. The first year I went to the match, St. John’s players wore cutoffs, Communist party tee-shirts and Birkenstocks. A couple of years ago, they elected to go as Vikings, complete with horned helmets and fur vests over bare chests.
This year, they raised the bar higher. The Navy team appeared on the playing field wearing white shoes, white slacks, white shirts and white cardigans adorned with a big gold N. Moments before they emerged, the Johnnies shaved their hair into Navy trim and slipped into their white shoes, white slacks, white shirts and white cardigans adorned with a big gold N. It was just about impossible to tell the teams apart, except that the Johnnies’ white sneakers were scruffier than the Academy would tolerate.
The Johnnies won. They almost always win. Navy is usually gracious in defeat.