Bocce Dreams

Shelley’s Review:  As a lifelong bocce player, I am grateful to Cheryl and crew for this effort. I am excited to get in there and play. Against a novice! Someone I can beat! Or not. Either way, celebratory Spanakopita is on me. 

Happy rolling

She crouches in a warrior-like stance on the battlefield, studying the situation ahead of her.  Cradling a red, magic sphere, her weapon of choice, she tenses her muscles, considering the pathway to that little white ball.  This is her last chance at victory.  After careful scrutiny, she centers her consciousness, finding the peace within.  She shifts her weight and lithely steps out as she extends her right arm back, still cradling the weight of the projectile in her hand.  With balletic movement, she propels her arm forward and lets go of the ball, knowing it will find the most opportune trajectory.  The solid red orb rolls among its previously tossed brethren to settle alone and victoriously close to its intended target.  The spectators in the stands are awed by her graceful athleticism.  Game over.

Our neighbors Bob and Susan asked us if we wanted to play Mah Jong.  I politely declined.  I’m too much of a flibbertigibbet to sit down for a few hours of contemplative non-movement.  I have plenty of indoor activities to keep me busy.  I need to expend my twitchy energy outdoors.  Susan then suggested bocce.  I don’t speak Italian, but because I grew up in New Jersey, I knew the pronunciation of bocce (BA chee), though had zero knowledge of the actual game.  Some balls, a group of people drinking chianti and wild cheering in some sort of dirt court seemed to be the at the heart of this activity.  I was willing to give it a try.

Mud on the court

We briefly entertained joining a local bocce club, which had regular games at an eastside restaurant.  After Bob and Susan ran a reconnaissance mission, it was decided this particular group was both too regimented (every week!) and too loose (make-shift court, at a restaurant), so we fell back to reconsider our options.  Then Bob took a look at the bocce court at the county sports complex, a no-fee, open-to-the-public park with many opportunities to succeed or fail at a variety of sports.  This was after Hurricane Fred swept through western North Carolina, dumping enough rain to dampen basements and swell the creeks.

The intended bocce court had been deluged with mud from the nearby creek.  Unloved, and unusable, the court in its then current condition didn’t offer us much hope.  Until Bob decided it was a great choice.  It was a ten-minute drive from our neighborhood, offered a real bocce court boxed in by wooden sides and came with a tiny set of bleachers from which future fans might cheer us on.  Were we sold?  Not quite.  Bob stepped up his game, rehabilitation-wise, and contacted the proper county authorities to pitch a deal.  We do the work; they pay for materials.  The county accepted his plan and the great bocce court reconstruction was underway.  We were all in.

Actual mudslinging

Even a few of inches of mud is a heavy load.  Sixty feet of a mud-slab covering, varying in depth, had to be removed from our adopted playing field.  Bob started shoveling the stuff on his own, pulling mud off in chunks, flinging it into a wheelbarrow and depositing piles of the hefty mass along the creek bank.  I thought we should be building a great wall of mud to stop the overflow of the creek, but a big storm would probably just redeposit the same offending substance onto our painstakingly restored bocce court.   My husband and I joined the mud-scraping team, pulling on our work gloves and determination as we surveyed the labor ahead.  Shovels were deployed.  I simply broke up the mud into smaller portions, slid a manageable selection toward me and lifted the chunk en masse with my hands, walked it to the wheelbarrow and slapped it in for carrying away.  Susan took on the chore of trundling the lumpish burden over to the creek bank. 

As the sun began to dry out the mud, it was not as easily lifted in one piece.  As I slid a portion toward me, it split into layers and crumbled in my hands like Satan’s baclava.  This thought made me think of Greek food and my stomach began to rumble.  After scraping up the remnants of my mini-disaster, I called it a day.  It was lunch time and for some reason I was in the mood for some spanakopita.  My legs ached the next morning from all the stooping and lifting, and my stomach ached because instead of filo and spinach, I had eaten leftover soup.

Job satisfaction

After a couple of days of mudslinging. We began to attempt to level out the underlying layer of sand while our chief engineer Bob leveled the side boards and added a second board atop the first.  Once again, wielding shovels, we scraped sand dotted with bits of mud off the playing field and onto the walkway between the two courts.  Oh yes!  There are two bocce courts, side-by-side with a walkway in between.  Our battle plan was to NOT think about that second court.  Once we filled the walkway, a decision had to be made as to a replacement surface material.  Bob settled on rock dust, which looks like sand but is gray in color and is just as much fun to play in. 

 Another of our neighbors assisted Bob in constructing a proper drainage system around the court to avert further flooding damage.  The county deposited a mound of rock dust at the site for the finishing layer.  We attacked the dunes of dust inside our court with rakes and shovels in order to spread it out evenly over the surface.  Evenly is not as easy as it sounds.  Bob concocted a leveling tool that was a bit unwieldy over the rock dust, but which eventually gave us a clue as to where the stuff needed to be redistributed.  With most of the work done, we waited for rain to wet it all down before the necessary compaction process.  We needed either a herd of rhinos to have a dance party on top of our bocce court or some sort of machinery intended for uniform smushing.  Both seemed equally improbable, but Bob once again worked his magic and the court surface was properly smashed down.  We had to tidy up a bit after the rhinos, but the court was finally ready for a showdown.

On a beautiful September morning, four players assembled with their grit and eagerness and shiny new set of bocce balls.  A makeshift scoreboard was propped up on the bleachers.  The rules were explained to the novice players and the action began.  Thankfully, Susan patiently nudged me when it was my turn to toss the ball toward the other balls out on the court.  It took me a while to learn how much muscle power was required with each throw in order to get close to that little white ball without my toss flying past it or stopping woefully short of the target. 

Enjoying the game

Playing this game with our friends, on a court we had rehabilitated, under a bright sky kicked something loose in me.  It had been a long time since I had done that much manual labor toward a goal uncertain of providing any sort of payback.  Our remuneration, in the grand scheme of things, was modest.  But in my experience, the dues we paid for having this playing field were well worth the investment.  Both work and play gave me a sense of accomplishment, a satisfaction in creating something that rewards the restoration team and others with a fun place to gather outdoors and give game-related shouts of joy. That first game was a blast.  Our spectators were squirrels and passers-by.  I brought tea and oatmeal cookies as a form of sports nutrition.   No time limits, no pressure (well, not much) and an outdoor physical activity enjoyed with quasi-competitive friends gave me a level of enjoyment I had not experienced in a while.  The pros are demanding a rematch.  Can’t wait.

Alla nostra salute!


Guest Editor Shelley has been playing bocce since childhood, which means she can both teach us the techniques and kick our butts.  Ethel always feels like a champion when Shelley edits!


  1. How fun! I think that’s the game old guys would play down on Houston Street in NYC!! If we ever get to visit, I’ll sit in the stands and cheer!! ?

    ps-are you sending knee tape?

    • My hip musculature needs a bocce conditioning workout since both times I’ve played, my glutes were sore. I’m going to try switching up throwing sides so that I’m not lopsided!

  2. Enjoy!

  3. What a noble undertaking! And the court looks divine. I saw it when it was still slathered in mud, so I know how much work you did.

    I’ve owned bocce balls for years, but we usually play on grass and any relatively level ground we can find with minimal obstructions. No doubt your fancy court makes rolls much more predictable, but then you miss the joys of playing on a slope and trying to avoid rocks and roots. We’ll challenge you all to a game next time we’re up your way.

  4. But who won that first game? I heard rumors of a fantastic come from behind victory.

  5. What a fantastic opening paragraph! Wow! That’s a gem.

    I remember seeing the old Italian men playing in my Brooklyn neighborhood.

  6. Late in commenting perennial email backup), but loved reading your piece! Agree with Maurice about your opening paragragh, I was THERE, seeing you! Loved your all’s “jump in there” spirit! 🙂

    • Thank you Carol. Unfortunately, the bocce court was once again deluged with water from the last rain despite our heroic efforts to provide for some drainage. Next step…beg for higher ground.

  7. What a great description of a wonderful game…both playing and getting to that point! It was nice to be reminded of the work it took to schlep that slag. I’m looking forward to the rematch on the re-renovated courts (post Ida flood) and the new improved “art” crafted scoreboard!

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