The Kingsville Bonspiel
“We’ve got a team!” I excitedly told Rob, my UWO room-mate and cousin, on a Thursday evening one November, about 4 decades ago.
It was our habit to try to find a Saturday bonspiel at least twice per month. We loved to get away from the books and the studying, and go throw some rocks, and for a short time be among fellow curlers rather than among medicine and dentistry students. However, this particular weekend wasn’t shaping up well. I had searched the bulletin boards (this was pre-internet days!) at the on-campus curling club at Western, and at the London Curling Club where our men’s team played on Tuesday evenings, and I had discovered and signed us up for a one day spiel to be held in Kingsville ON. However, though Rob and I were ready and itching to go, Darren (work) and Luc (exams) were not going to be able to make it.
I hated to cancel out, and not just because I knew that it disrupted the planning, draw making, and budgeting for the clubs that hosted these spiels. However, when I called to do just that, John, the spiel organizer said “Mark, I have 2 ladies who are club members here, and they’d love to curl but their team-mates have backed out”, and so of course I immediately agreed to join forces with the ladies.
Saturday morning found us making the 2 hour drive down the 401 towards Kingsville in my Pontiac Acadian in the pre-dawn darkness, with the first draw being scheduled for 9 am. Why was it so much easier to get out of bed so early for a bonspiel than it ever was for getting to classes? The two hour drive was nothing for us; being from “the Soo” we scoffed at the soft Southern Ontarians who whined and moaned about driving long distances. Besides, we were going to get to curl all day! and the drive gave us time to speculate about important issues. Such as; would our new teammates be any good, or any fun, and what positions did they ordinarily play. I always wanted to skip because I loved the strategy of the game, and I loved to try to call shots that would get the most out of each player’s strengths and weaknesses, and I loved saving an end (or a game) with the hammer, and it was a rewarding challenge to quickly learn the ice in a new club and discovered where it curled hard and where it ran straight. Rob enjoyed second, because he could throw the big weight to clean up after any screw ups by the lead, and being a body builder, he enjoyed the challenge of saving a shot with his sweeping prowess. Would the ladies, being members of the local club be able to give us tips about the ice, such as “sheet 1 curls hard towards the boards going away from the bar” etc.
What would the club itself be like? how many sheets? Would there be some top-notch men’s teams there, dominating the field? (in those young, arrogant days, we never considered the possibility of any top notch women’s teams that would ever give us any trouble).
We rolled into Kingsville (about as far south as a person can go and still be in Canada) with 30 minutes to spare, pre-google maps and pre-GPS and with only an address and a fold up road map of Southern Ontario, (of course with no special enlarged insert map for downtown Kingsville) and saw a fellow walking down the street towards his morning coffee, and he was
able to quickly direct us to the club because in those days, everyone knew where the town curling club was.
We bounded up the steps, with our duffle bags full of shoes, brooms, sweaters, gloves, and immediately entered “the curling world”. What a wonderful place it always was; the bar, with “eye openers” being served and consumed, the smell of old moldy carpet and stale cigarette smoke; the registration table with 2 or 3 volunteers with the usual welcoming packets with a name pin, and your draw schedule, and bar tickets and meal tickets, and many people in strange sweaters, and tams, and kilts, and pins, and pants that they’d obviously been curling in since long before they’d had their growth spurt in high school, and everyone looking excited and nervous and eager to get to the ice and beat up on the opposition.
John, the organizer, immediately deduced our identities. “Oh great! you made it, fantastic! OK let me introduce you to Judy and Donna”. We met the ladies, and instinctually gave our new team-mates the quick visual evaluation, and in 10 seconds or less we observed that they were friendly, and happy and excited to curl and further, that they were too old to date or try to make moves on, being older than our mothers. Judy was clearly the better specimen being more fit and curvaceous, filling out her sweater pleasingly. They were encouragingly attired in appropriate curling garb including curling shoes with grippers and carrying personalized brooms. Judy even wore a kilt, so obviously and most importantly they were curlers. This meant that we maybe had a good chance to win some games and humble some of the local teams. Of course, we simply wanted to be on the ice and throwing rocks, regardless of scores and game outcomes, but, I cannot deny that we loved to send the other team to the bar after 8 ends with much less of a spring in their step than they’d started the game with.
There was just time to quickly grab some breakfast (coffee, scrambled eggs, toast, and charred bacon) and zip down to the men’s change room, (complete with its perfect small town curling club decor; threadbare carpet, painted and worn wooden benches separating banks of lockers, and antique urinals separated by painted plywood dividers, and mirrors over the bathroom sinks decorated with paint splashes from the last time the club was “updated”).
Finally, to the ice.
It turned out that Judy always played lead, and Donna vice, so we matched up perfectly. We were to play a men’s team on sheet 2. Donna warned that they were “good” and that their skip could “really hit”. Which meant in reality that he could throw the rock hard, but not necessarily anywhere near his target. These guys were of Judy and Donna’s vintage. The game began well. There were no stop watches in sight, as one would see today, but Rob, after following Judy’s first 2 draws down the sheet quickly informed me that the ice was “fast”. I could rapidly see that Judy’s out-turn was going to be reliable, but that she was doing something very strange with the in-turn, so I wouldn’t be asking for it very often. Of course, Rob’s release I had known for years.
I knew too that it was best to give Rob something “up weight” and a little bit challenging, (such as a run back double), as early as possible in the game to help him settle in. Donna was a natural thrower, and always on the broom, and had great draw weight, so I planned to make good use of that. Judy and Donna both could sweep with enthusiasm and to good effect, with Judy being the more fun to watch while she did. As we proceeded to win the first game rather comfortably, there were the usual reactions with the men on the other team growing quickly frustrated that they were losing (to a mixed team!) and questioning the calls their own skip was making, and criticizing each other for not being able to find draw weight and so on, while Judy and Donna excitedly and delightedly praised us by saying things such as “you guys are very good curlers”. We loved it, and tried to act humble.
In the middle ends of this first game, some idiot about 2 sheets over, while sweeping, suddenly lost control of about 3 dollars in change onto the ice. I don’t know if he had the coins in his shirt pocket and bent over too far, or if he sprung a hole in his pants pocket, but suddenly there were nickels and quarters and pennies (pre loony and tooney days) everywhere. Rob looked like Phil Esposito as he flicked coins away from our traveling rock with his broom and whacked them in several directions. Someone on the next sheet slid onto a penny and hit the ice. There were coins being deflected every which way for a few seconds, until they all came to rest and started to melt into the ice (because they were warm from having been in the guy’s pocket). Everybody dug coins out of the ice for a few minutes and for some reason we returned them all to the sheepish curler. Someone did suggest that he go and put them in his locker while he curled.
Some teams had their 2nd game before lunch, and we were one of them. Game 2 went very well too, and I don’t remember many details, but I have remembered one incident for the past 40 years. We were tied in the 7th without hammer, and the other team had come up just short of the house with a draw, ending up on centre line equal to Judy’s first stone with about a 2 foot port between the 2 front guards. I decided that we’d go through the port and try to bury behind the centre guard, so as to maybe steal one, or two points and take a lead into 8th. If we could get Judy’s 2nd rock to the 4 foot buried, we’d be off to a great start. I asked for Judy’s reliable out turn. Rob readied himself to dig a trench if necessary, so as to get her rock to the 4 foot, no matter how light she might throw it. As Judy slid out of the hack, somehow the pin on her kilt got hooked onto her sweater, and when she stood up after releasing the stone, the front of her kilt was amazingly and completely lifted up to her chest. She wore shockingly small and brightly coloured underwear, and had surprisingly nice legs, so my jaw dropped. I realized that I should somehow try to tell her, because she was completely unaware, and continued following her rock down the sheet towards me. Of course, in the old curling clubs in those days there was always a lot of noise with shouting and brooms beating the ice and echoing so I could not yell to her. I tried to get her attention by pointing to her, and I made vigorous downward motions with my non-broom hand as best I could. However, both Rob and Donna, watching me for the line call, and knowing that we had to navigate the port, noticed the shocked expression on my face and the unusual hand signals, and quickly decided that it must mean that Judy had thrown terribly inside the broom and that they’d have to sweep like hell to save the shot, which they furiously proceeded to do. Meanwhile, Judy finally noticed the unusual draft and scurried to a bench along the side wall to correct her “wardrobe malfunction”. Anyway, with this incident behind us, we did win again.
Upstairs for lunch; slices of beef, with gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, rolls, some sort of a pastry desert, a beer, and sitting around a table with the usual conversation about where were we from, and did we know so and so from Sudbury (“no, we’re from Sault Ste. Marie, its a four hour drive further than Sudbury”) and so on. It was predictable and would be “unexciting” to most, but we loved it. Everyone was there to curl, and everyone was a curler. Nobody, as long as the bonspiel was still on, was an accountant, or a housewife, or a farmer, or factory worker or retail sales person or lawyer, fireman or medical student. We were all just curlers. If someone was not known by name, he was referred to in curling terms such as “those 2 young fellows curling with Judy and Donna”, or “that hunched over old man who can hardly walk on solid ground but get him on the ice and he can draw the 4 foot 99 times out of 100 even after (or especially after?) 4 beers for lunch”.
These one day bonspiels back then were often 3 games of 8 ends each, at the completion of which there were usually about 3 teams who had won all 3 of their games, and the winner was whichever team had beaten up the opposition by the greatest score in winning their 3 games. Rob and I always referred to these contests as “maim and destroy” bonspiels. Our final game was to be played on sheet 6, which was against an outside wall and directly at the end of the sheet was an exit door to come on and off the ice, with a very large glass window in it. I can see that window clearly in my mind, all these years later.
I honestly don’t recall if we finished first, second or third, but I do know that we were given some little trophies, and a set of golf balls or a ratchet set or screw driver set or something and we made and listened to the usual speeches about how well run the bonspiel had been (“and a big round of applause for the cooks”) and how friendly everyone in Kingsville had been and thank you for pairing us up with Donna and Judy, the 2 best curlers in their club, to help us win, and that we’d “definitely be back next year”, and so on. (of course, 4 decades later we’ve never been near Kingsville again).
In any case, game 3 was a tight, hard-fought battle. The opposition was unsmilingly serious, with matching sweaters and so on, and an apparent grim determination to win. My memory is anchored by the following event; coming home in the 8th, towards the bar, it was a mess, with a very crowded house, with at least 10 rocks in the rings, and many guards out front. I needed to come off one of our own and make a very flat roll across to take out one of theirs which was buried behind guards, and sitting in the four foot. So, I had to throw all the weight I could manage, which I did do, so the sweepers were flying. Halfway down the sheet, I knew I likely had the shot, and therefore the game. My attention though was drawn for some reason to an older fellow, standing behind the aforementioned window in the door at the end of the sheet who was watching our final shot come down the sheet. Suddenly I heard Donna screaming for sweeping and when I glanced back at my shot, I was horrified to watch Judy try to step over a guard, and to witness her foot as it clipped Rob’s foot, which sent Rob spinning around backwards on his slider. In order to miss hitting another guard, (because we curlers took great pride in NEVER disturbing the stones) he leaped over it. However, he did not stick the landing. He crashed flat on his belly, but having maintained all of his forward speed he continued to slide flat out, with great momentum into the house. Suddenly, he appeared as if possessed, with arms and legs jerking upwards and downwards, arching his back, lifting his head, twisting and contorting so as to miss every rock in the house as he slid through. Miraculously, rocks passed under him and around him, as he slid through the house and somehow ending up lying near the hack, flat on his back, having never touched any rock. The image that will likely stick with me forever is of the man behind the glass with his head tilted straight back and mouth wide open in a roar of laughter.
Of course, as we headed back to London late that evening, ready to hit the books again, we relived all of these moments and the days’ events, but already we began to discuss and think ahead to where the next “maim and destroy” spiel might be, (“I think there’s one in Mitchell in 2 weeks”).
I’m sure it’s no exaggeration at all to say that our love of the game of curling was a key element for us both to navigating the stresses and challenges of professional school in the 1980s