We had a good old-fashioned outdoor get-together (a.k.a. party) a couple of Saturdays ago at our remote Texas County outpost.

My wife did an amazing job of orchestrating it, and it had all the trimmings of an enjoyable gathering in the south-central Missouri Ozarks. The guests included several relatives from the Springfield and St. Louis areas and a handful of folks we’ve met during nearly six years of residing in the Jillikins, who represented a detailed cross-section of what this area has to offer.

The food spread was one Guy Fieti would have been proud of, with a feature attraction of chicken legs and thighs that we smoked over apple wood for an hour or so in the morning and then brought to a crispy finish on the gas grill in the afternoon. The accompanying dishes pushed the culinary portion of the event over the top, such as tubs loaded with awesome coleslaw, baked beans, and mashed potatoes, and scrumptious dessert items brought to the table by several of the guests.

And to top things off, the weather was entirely perfect as has so often been the case this spring, (man, do we need some rain…), with temperatures were in the mid-70s, minimal breeze, and no detectable humidity.

It was the kind of scene my wife and I had hoped for: old people enjoyed sharing stories with younger folks, dandy photo opportunities were plentiful, and humorous moments kept popping up, like my wife’s nephew riding bareback on a donkey right up to the area in the front yard where all the people were gathered (it was Abe, who is turning out to be by the most amicable of the Three Amigos).

Doug Davison

But while the good eats, good company, and good mood were enough to send everyone away satisfied, the there was one thing that took place, one series of moments in time that transpired, one incredible situation that manifested that nobody in attendance will soon – if ever – forget: an absolutely epic horseshoe tournament.

It started rather innocently, with a few people randomly tossing shoes back and forth where I had set up the stakes alongside the driveway in front of the house. During planning for the day, my wife and I had envisioned trying to put together a bit of a tournament as one of the group activities, so I finally grabbed a clipboard, a pen, and a blank sheet of copy paper and went around asking each of the 20-plus attendees, “are you in?”

I could tell there was fun about to start when 16 said “yes.”

We decided upon a single-elimination format and I formulated a bracket with eight first-round matches featuring every imaginable age and gender combination, with old and young, male and female going head-to-head in round one. In the interest of beating sundown, games were played with four turns per thrower (up-and-back twice), each throwing two shoes per turn, and whoever led at that point advanced. In the case of a tie, matches went into sudden-death overtime.

I had set the stakes up on a grassy area about 32 feet apart (a few short of regulation), in between a large walnut tree and the utility pole just south of the east-west section of our driveway. Our horseshoes are lighter and stakes aren’t as beefy as regulation gear, but they’re metal, so good shots resulted in clinking and clanking sounds and subsequent “oohs” and “ahhs” from the gallery.

As the first match was about to begin, a line of folding chairs formed on the other side of the driveway occupied by anxious competitors awaiting their turns and desiring a good view of the carnage that was about to unfold. Not long after the competition began, heckling, rooting, and other banter could be clearly heard coming from the gallery.

“Maybe it would help if you put on your glasses!”

“Maybe it would help if you took off your glasses!”

“Come on what’s-your-name, get a ringer!”

And after some of the shots that went long and hit either the tree or the pole, “aim for the little stake, not the big one!”

Making advancing through the bracket even more difficult than it already was for some of the male throwers was the fact that some of their female opponents weren’t against attempting to secure victory by stretching the boundaries of sportsmanship. More than one tried to spook their foes by incorporating such tactics as sharp sounds and jerky motions at strategic moments. Nevertheless, male throwers appeared content to let chivalry reign, holding their tongues and keeping their hands still as their opposite sex opposition tossed a shoe.

Adding to the drama as the rounds progressed were several matches that went into OT, including my first-round loss to my wife’s nephew Alex. Also making things interesting were multiple occasions on which a ruling from a neutral party was needed to determine whether or not a shot was a ringer, of which shoe was closest to a stake.

Meanwhile, our 35-pound Welsh Corgi, Jamie, took in the whole deal while sitting in a chair by himself, barely moving as he remained riveted to the action going on in front of him.

Finally, after 14 entertaining and mostly tightly-contested matches, the tournament came down to a fitting championship between my wife’s brother’s friend Michael and my youngest daughter’s boyfriend, Jory. The final was designated as a first-player-to-seven points affair, and a round of applause went up as the two warriors stepped up to the playing pitch.

Despite his obvious lack of experience tossing shoes (he said he hadn’t done it before), Michael had made it through the bracket by dispatching two opponents with extremely timely ringers and downing another in overtime. Conversely, the experienced Jory had sent preliminary round opponents packing by piling up “closest to” points with a consistent onslaught of accurate tosses.

With the moonless evening sky darkening, what had been a fine competition from the get-go culminated in appropriate fashion, as the two men found themselves tied at two apiece after splitting closest-to points through four turns.

Michael was first to throw in the fifth turn, and stuck a shoe in highly respectable proximity to the stake. The drama continued to mount as Jory’s first toss bounced away from the stake, leaving Michael in good position to take a lead and be only four away from the title overall win.

But his hopes were quickly dashed when Jory then secured the championship in decisive manner by recording the final five points with a perfectly executed walk-off ringer.

As the champ let out a victory yell and was congratulated by his fans, Michael walked away with a big smile. I looked at him and shrugged.

“You live by the ringer, you die by the ringer,” I said.

Jory left with the tournament bracket in hand.

“I’m framing this,” he said.

I’d be surprised if the tournament isn’t repeated at some point in our little corner of the Ozarks. In fact, I think the phrase “second annual” has a nice ring to it.

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald.  Email:  ddavison@houstonherald.com.

After his victory in an epic Ozarks horseshoe tournament, Jory triumphantly holds up his trophy and the shoes he used to prevail.

 

 

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