Life Lessons From Atherstone Ball and a Boy Named Chestnut

Top 5 Things You Will Learn If You Read This Whole Thing

  1. You can’t “Hippy” the desire to conquer land out of boys.
  2. Sometimes leadership is thrust upon us.
  3. Bob is an idiot.
  4. There’s a game played by a bunch of violent, drunk Englishmen that even Nazi bombs couldn’t stop.
  5. Even the most violent feuds can be settled.

Back when I was a little chunk of cheese, good ole Q.F. ran with a bunch of kids similarly burdened by free-love hippy parents who got stuck in the 1960s. We all spent a few hours each morning in homeschool classes geared toward creating in us an intense love affair with Mother Earth and then were kicked outside to run around and play in the forest while our moms and dads tended to the commune and did who knows what. (And trust me when I say I really don’t want to know what.)

Hippy Mom, she of the butt-length wavy blond hair and constant wearer of culturally appropriated moccasins, was not much for rules, but she did have one: Once she was done teaching for the day, us kids were not to set foot in the trailer until she came onto the shoddily constructed deck and called us back from wherever we were by banging on the big spaghetti pot with the metal stirring spoon. During the summer, this usually didn’t happen until the sun was well on its way to falling gently into the tree canopy.

This way of life created a pretty simple childhood. There was school time and then friend time and then family time. Rinse and repeat.

Except for the summer after my thirteenth birthday … the year the Watertons invaded.

The War With the Watertons

Sammy, Jim, Chris, Billy, Charlie, Peter, Jack, Jason and Dufresne made up the Brothers Waterton. They ranged in age from 14 to 5, an impressive accomplishment for their mother, Pomplemousse. They moved in to the big house just outside the commune right after the public school adjourned for the summer.

Two days later, we found the Pack o’ Watertons in The Clearing — our Clearing.

Now, when I say “our” Clearing, keep in mind that Hippy Mom raised us to believe nothing was truly ours, especially when it came to nature. But try as she might, she and her sisterhood of other similar Hippy Moms in the commune couldn’t remove from us boys the thrill of conquering, of grabbing a piece of turf and holding onto it like a baby goat on its mother’s teat.

The Clearing was nothing special to the outsider. It was merely a place where, for some unknown reason, stuff didn’t grow. In a landscape surrounded by giant redwoods and lush green fauna that created a permanent mossy aroma I still smell to this day when I close my eyes, The Clearing was a patch of moist, brown earth pock-marked with ankle-high weeds, roughly 100-yards long by 50-yards wide. We never wondered why The Clearing existed, though if we had we likely would have thought some secret government entity had buried toxic waste there in the middle of the night. Such was the nature of our homeschooling when it came to The Man.

Whatever caused The Clearing, it was ours, the boys of the commune, though no one could tell you then or now who was first to discover it, first to claim it. But once it was found, it was just sort of handed down to the next generation of boys who did whatever it was they wanted to do there, blissfully though temporarily outside the reach of their Hippy Moms.

And so it was more than a bit shocking when we came around the bend by the redwood with the big lightning scar and found a group of shockingly redheaded boys clad in dark blue jeans that were progressively more tattered the younger the kid wearing them and white shirts we never let our parents hear us call “wife-beaters.”

For about 10 seconds, we stood there in silence, the nine of us did. It was me, Skychaser, Moon, Ibis, Earth, Chestnut, Cumulus, Windgust and Bob, nine boys of the commune who ranged in age from 11 to 13, and, yes, we all hated our names. Except for Bob. We never were quite sure how Bob became Bob, but then again, we never asked anyone who might know the answer.

I was the leader of this pack of misfits, though there was no election or coronation or coup. It just sort of happened one day when Earth and Windgust were fighting over a supposed arrowhead we had found in The Clearing. Moon, who was Windgust’s older brother, turned to me to settle the dispute.

“Why is it my decision? He’s your brother,” I reasoned.

“Yeah, but you’re the leader,” Moon shot back.

“The leader of what?” I said, hands on hips as Windgust dabbed with a dirty knuckle at the fresh blood Earth’s fist had brought forth from his lower lip.

“Well… I dunno,” Moon replied. “The leader of us!”

An uneasy silence fell over our pack, and everyone except Moon and I seemed to find something incredibly interesting in the dirt to look at. Earth and Windgust, forgetting that a minute before they had been rolling around like idiots trying to grab a sharp object allegedly carved by our predecessors, sort of scooched next to each other, a safety-in-numbers reaction, I guess.

“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard,” I retorted. “No one’s the leader of anybody!” This was undeniable logic on the commune. Our Hippy Moms had taught us this philosophy since the time we were all running around the commune sans diapers, pooping wherever it felt right.

“You don’t really believe that crap our moms say, do you?” Moon said with a laugh.

As a matter of fact, up until that very moment, I absolutely did believe that crap our moms said. It wasn’t any sort of cult-like wonderment at a charismatic figure’s teachings; our moms were anything but charismatic. I just… never considered there was an option to believe anything different, and even if I had, I didn’t know what different things were out there to believe. Knowing all that, you shouldn’t be surprised that my response was…

“Of course I don’t believe all that … crap.” It was the first time I had said a word that even remotely approached one of the naughty ones. The word “crap” seemed to fall in a mysterious gray area unregulated by parents but too dangerous for commune kids to utter unless maybe it was in the context of animal feces.

“Good,” Moon smiled. “Then you’re the leader.”

And so it was that, as we walked into The Clearing that day to discover a pack of red-headed invaders, I was in front. When I stopped short, it was a comic cavalcade of commune kids each smashing into the back of the person in front of him. Bob, being the youngest and, if we were forced to say it, stupidest of us all, was last in line but, as usual, the first to make any sort of noise.

“Hey! What the hell did you stop for?” he screamed so loudly that birds in high redwood branches took flight. Like I said, Bob was an idiot.

Suddenly, nine dirt-smudged red-topped faces turned as if one to look in our direction while our pack fanned out around me.

“What the hell are they doing here?” Bob. Of course.

In the 10 seconds of uninterrupted observation time of these intruders I had before Bob opened his mouth, I had seen clearly what the hell they were doing here. They were playing what we had come to play that day and every day before it for about nine months: Kill the Carrier.

The game was simple. We all stood in a loose circle. Someone would throw a stick straight up in the air. Game on. As the stick reached its apex and began its descent, we would jockey for position to be the One Who Grabbed It. The “Carrier” was born. From there, there was one objective: Be the kid who carried the stick when Bob’s watch — he had the only watch in our pack — started beeping, indicating 20 minutes was up. You might think that, being the tallest, I would have the initial advantage and constantly start out with the stick. You’d be wrong. This was due in part to the fact that the pack was filled with kids who were, when away from their Hippy Moms, sneaky cutthroat bastards and due in another part to the fact that Kill the Carrier had only one real rule: No one dies. What happened before that stick fell into the first set of hands would often be considered felonious in other circumstances.

The irony of “no one dies” being the lone rule in a game with that particular moniker was lost on us. We were simple people.

What I saw that morning was that this band of interlopers was playing almost exactly the same game. The only difference was that, instead of a stick, they had a genuine Nerf football, which was something of a legend in the commune. In fact, more of us had seen Bigfoot than a Nerf football. We had heard of the existence of Nerf footballs, and there were a few unconfirmed sightings of one being held by a public school kid who had gotten lost and strayed near commune borders, but we had never held one ourselves and certainly wouldn’t be allowed to possess one, even if it were to be a communal football. Balls in general were not allowed, as they were tools of an unregulated monopoly, be it Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association or the National Football League. Once, reportedly, way back in the 1960s, a soccer ball had made it onto the commune and was allowed to stay for a while. That was way before Major League Soccer. But then some influential commune thought that Brazilian soccer player Pele was becoming too much of a capitalist star, and the soccer ball mysteriously disappeared in the middle of the night, never to be seen again.

These nine redheaded vagabonds had been playing our game in our Clearing with something we weren’t allowed to own. None of us was happy with these developments.

It was the boy I would come to know as Sammy, their leader, who opened this delicate diplomatic situation: “What the hell are you tools looking at?”

His voice was deep, much deeper than mine, and when he spoke, whether intentionally or not, his biceps flexed, tight and sinewy. Without thought, I looked down at my biceps, covered by the long sleeves of a hand-made shirt crafted from an old burlap sack that previously contained 50 pounds of potatoes.

Perhaps recognizing my hesitation and seeing a chance to advance his standing in the pack, or perhaps, as I’ve previously mentioned, because he was a total idiot, Bob shot back with: “A bunch of redheaded freaks in crappy jeans and dirty wife-beaters!”

Which, as you might imagine, did not advance the cause of peace.

“What did you say?” said Sammy, taking a few purposeful strides forward while his crew gathered and fanned out behind him. “I’m sure you weren’t saying that to us!”

Bob, and need I really say this again but being the idiot that he was, pushed past me and started to advance on a boy who, I surmised as he neared, could more reasonably be called a man.

“Queso! Do something!” Moon called to me in a panicky whisper. We all knew Bob was an idiot and, for a million different reasons, he deserved the beating he was in line to receive. But he was our idiot and if anyone was going to beat sense into him — or, at least, attempt to beat sense into him — it was us.

My initial thought was to argue with Moon, to bring back before the group this assumption that, when bad things happened, I was suddenly the one who needed to do The Something. I didn’t want to be the one to do The Something. I’d never asked to be the one to do The Something. And, at that current moment, I didn’t think that being the one to do The Something was going to lead to any better outcome for me than me not doing The Something would end up for Bob.

Still, there was an expectation, not just by Moon but by the rest of the pack. Bob needed saving. I was the one to save him. So, just before Bob was out of range, I reached forward and grabbed a big chunk of his burlap shirt. Thankfully, burlap is the opposite of the slippery fabrics my own little ones, raised outside the confines of the commune, now wear. So once I grabbed Bob’s burlap, not only was he not going to advance but, with a firm tug, he was going to get back in his place in the pack.

Bob flying backwards and landing on his ass with a thud stopped Sammy and his pack in their tracks, and I did not hesitate a second time.

“Um… yeah… Hey there. Hi. Yeah… that’s Bob. … He’s an idiot,” I said.

Sammy seemed to be having trouble processing all of this and stared at me with a similar blank expression to Hippy Mom’s when she opened the trailer door and peeked outside to check on us as a cloud of that sharp-smelling smoking encircled her head.

“An… idiot?” he stammered.

“Well, not officially. Not in terms of any spectrum or anything,” I said, unaware of my blatant insensitivity to the many fine folks I would come to work with one day at The Helping Hands Center. “He’s just… well… I guess the word is dumb.”

“Dumb?” Sammy replied slowly.

“Yeah… dumb… as in, not smart.”

“Not smart?” Sammy repeated.

I was unwilling to continue this game of Parrot Queso any longer, so I gently moved the topic away from Bob, who by that time was picking himself off the ground and wiping dirt from his butt.

“You guys playing Kill the Carrier?” I asked, in what I thought was a bold step forward toward a more unified future. Sammy evidently thought otherwise.

“What the hell is Kill the Carrier?” he barked, his hands balling into fists at his side, his posture changing so that he resembled a lion before it pounces on an unaware gazelle.

“Well… the game you were playing… with the Nerf football… Kill the Carrier, right?”

Sammy laughed and glanced over his left shoulder, then his right; his crew members echoed their leader.

“We weren’t playing no stupid Kill the Carrier, you reject,” he said. “We’re playing Smear the Queer.”

No sooner had the vibrations in the air caused by Sammy’s utterance stilled that Chestnut, who hardly ever made a sound much less spoke actual words, screamed… actually screamed… “You can’t say that!”

All of us… my crew and the red-headed crew in front of us… whipped around to look at the boy from whom the scream came with wide-eyed wonderment that a child so small could make a sound so loud.

Now, truth be told, at that point in the collective life of the commune kids, a few of us knew what Chestnut didn’t want anyone to know. I was one of them. So was Moon. Bob, of course, had no clue. It’s not because Chestnut had said or done anything overt, no more than any of the other eight of us had done anything obvious with a girl at that point in our childhood. We just… knew. And, even in the unenlightened early 1980s, no one cared. Not any of the Hippy Moms. Not any of the Hippy Dads. Not any of the Hippy singles who seemed to come and go with an odd irregularity. And not any of the commune kids… the girls or us boys. Chestnut was one of us, no matter which gender he would like to eventually one day lay down roots with.

The words “queer” and “fag” and “homo” were not part of commune kid lexicon. Maybe that was because of Chestnut or kids like Chestnut who had come before him. Maybe it was because more than a handful of Hippy Moms or Hippy Dads seemed to switch teams at some point in the course of their commune life. It didn’t matter to us. As long as you pulled your weight in keeping the commune going, you could do whatever you wanted with your personal time without fear of judgement.

Yes, Chestnut should have known that. But Chestnut was also 12 and full of hormones that confused the hell out of him. For those who say the persuasions people wind up with are choices, I present to you Chestnut, Exhibit A of what it means to be a child tortured by fear of being who he truly was, even in a world as sheltered and accepting as the commune. As a function of survival, people don’t tend to choose the things that are going to lead to a miserable, fringe existence, and that’s all I’m going to say about that right now.

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Anywho, it was the normally silent Chestnut who had the instinctual reaction to challenge a boy twice his size and strength who had dared uttered a word that besmirched the core of his being. And it was Chestnut’s turn to storm to the front.

I realized what Chestnut intended to do in time to stop him from doing it, if only…

If only Chestnut was wearing what Bob was wearing, an easy-to-grab burlap sack that previously held potatoes. But Chestnut didn’t like the feel of burlap, which, looking back now, strikes me as entirely reasonable. And absent any other material that our Hippy Moms had any sort of comfort working with, Chestnut chose to, whenever possible, go shirtless.

So… as I reached to stop Chestnut from charging toward his certain doom, my fingertips glanced off skin that was actually hot from sudden rage.

We all watched, jaws hanging, as Chestnut moved forward with barely contained fury, balled his right fist, brought it back incredibly far and, with controlled precision, threw what can best be described as a discus punch. Yes, his fist connected with Sammy’s jaw, which emitted a sickening crack like a good-sized branch being snapped in half. Yes, a tooth went flying from Sammy’s mouth, tumbled through the air and bounced off the cheek of the Waterton boy we would come to know as Jason. And yes, Sammy began to crumble toward the earth, instantly unconscious. What we didn’t see coming was what happened next.

Chestnut, having just landed what we all believed to be the first punch of his life, let momentum take over. Fist-hitting-jaw was just the appetizer, we would soon learn. For as Chestnut’s momentum spun him around, he suddenly went airborne and, before Sammy could faceplant, connected with the best spinning kick I had and have ever seen, right to the side of the offensive boy’s head.

But the show wasn’t over.

Now, instead of falling forward in an unconscious heap, Sammy was flying backward in an unconscious heap, which, though Hippy Mom never taught me physics and I sure as hell never signed up for it in my brief stay in college, I believe is not possible under the known laws governing our world. At the same time Sammy landed spread-eagle in the moist, dark brown dirt, Chestnut continued with his momentum and landed on both feet, perfectly balanced like one of those dudes in the ninja movies. On his face was a look we had never seen before, not just in Chestnut, but in anybody on the commune. His brow was furrowed, his eyes alive with fire and determination. Beads of sweat dripped from his unkempt dirty blond hair onto a forehead on which an impossibly large, pulsing vein had emerged.

For a split second, I wondered if that thing was a sign of an impending stroke, and, remembering my role as leader, I took a step forward to make sure Chestnut didn’t die on my watch.

Unfortunately, in the wake of seeing their leader knocked out, the rest of the Waterton boys were a bit on edge. My step forward was seen not as an act of concern for a cohort who might be on the verge of an aneurysm. It was seen as an act of aggression. I, however, was oblivious to this.

It wasn’t until I felt a sudden, sharp pain in the corner of my left eye that I realized a fist had just connected with my face for the first time in my life. And I didn’t like it.

Unlike Chestnut, Jason Waterton was not some sort of closet ninja, so while his punch to my eye was definitely not something I enjoyed, it did not render me unable to respond. When I turned to face him, a good six inches separated the height of my eyes from his. Having never fought before, my instinct was not to throw a punch. Rather, I did what I was used to doing on the commune when I stacked large bales of hay or sacks of potatoes. I picked him up using proper lifting techniques, turned and flung him toward the rest of my pack. He landed in a heap at Cumulus’s feet and, for reasons I’m still not quite sure of, the Cloud Boy kicked him hard in the ribs.

That’s when the real shit hit the fan.

Boy charged boy, fists flew, red-haired heads bashed into freckled faces, and burlap was torn.

It didn’t last long. We had certain advantages in what would become known as The Rumble in The Clearing.

  1. Sammy remained blissfully unaware of the Rumble, giving us a nine-on-eight advantage.
  2. Everyone on our crew was eleven, twelve or thirteen. The Waterton clan, mean bastards though they were, stepped down from 14 (Sammy) to Dufresne (5). I’m not proud of the fact that we fought kids that day who were just a few years out of diapers, but it happened, and history is history.
  3. Most surprisingly, we would later learn that Chestnut had been training in the wee hours of the morning with his Hippy Dad, who, prior to discovering the true hippy inside of him, had been a black belt in tae kwon do and served as an enforcer for one of the Five Families in New York City. The commune truly was a melting pot — and maybe part of the Federal Witness Protection Program.

Seeing the growing carnage in front of me, I finally rose to my appointed station: “Hey! Hey! Hey!” I screamed. “That’s enough! Chestnut! Let go of that nerve hold!”

Silence descended on The Clearing. No one moved.

It was then that Sammy began to stir. The boy I would come to know as Peter ran to his side and propped him up to a seated position, his legs splayed out in different directions. Sammy’s left eye was swollen shut, and an angry purple bruise was visibly spreading across his jaw. The one eye that remained available to him spun like a slot machine row in the socket. And then it focused on me.

I just so happened to be holding his next oldest brother, Jim, by one shoulder strap of his wife-beater. Blood trickled slowly down the side of his head from a wound I watched Chestnut inflict with some sort of never-seen-before claw hold.

Of course, Sammy didn’t know that. Sammy just saw Jim in my grasp bleeding from the head. Not sure it would have made a difference if he knew my only contribution to The Rumble had been throwing various members of his family toward other members of my own commune family. But we never got that far.

Rising unsteadily to his feet with the help of Peter and the rest of his brothers except Jim, who I steadfastly refused to let go, Sammy pointed at me with a finger covered in the soft earth of The Clearing. “You?” he said. “You’re dead.”

And with that, the Waterton boys began to make their retreat. Only then did I release Jim, who stumbled forward, angered not only by the use of an exotic claw hold on his head but also by the fact that his brothers hadn’t exactly retrieved him before moving to leave.

The rest of the summer was, to say the least, tense. We didn’t change our routine of going to The Clearing. The Watertons didn’t stop showing up either. If they got their first, they would play their offensive version of our game until we arrived. And then, when they saw us, their game would come to a halt. They would stand there, staring at us, sizing us up, as if they were considering whether now was the time to test the waters.

Each time this happened, Chestnut would move to the front of the line and I would gladly fade back. He would stand there, tall as he could with his short stature, and cross his arms in front of his bare chest, which, I kid you not, had begun to sprout tiny hairs. And then he would wink at Sammy, whose eye eventually opened again but seemed to stare off in a different direction than its pair.

Slowly, angrily, the Watertons would retreat, and we would play the game with its rightful name, the name that carried honor and integrity: Kill the Carrier.

Modern-Day Kill the Carrier

Which brings me to Atherstone, a tiny English town in Warwickshire, and if you didn’t have fun saying that in your head, you aren’t living right.

Like many places not in North America “settled” (stolen) by white people who think history began with them, Atherstone is old. Everything about it is old. Even the people are old, not being truly born until age 60.

Back when the Roman empire was a thing (a topic also not making the Hippy Mom Homeschool Curriculum), the area that is now Atherstone was a heavily defended settlement of some strategic importance. Today, the town is filled with roughly 9,000 people of no strategic importance, the remnants of a once-thriving felt hat industry and a couple of the more than 30 pubs that once existed along the town’s main thoroughfare, called Long Street.

Atherstone wouldn’t warrant a blip on people’s radar if it weren’t for this:

Ho. Ly. Shit.

This, my friends, is called Atherstone Ball, an annual game my commune friends and I know well. It is essentially Kill the Carrier with lots of alcohol and a weird accent.

The game, like everything else across the pond, is amazingly old. It has been played more than 800 times and, like our version of Kill the Carrier, has but one rule: No one dies. Other than that, anything goes and, as the video above attests to, anything does.

It started back in the year 1199, when the folks in Warwickshire and the folks in nearby Leicestershire got together to play the tea-and-crumpets version of Kill the Carrier. Warwickshire won.

How? Good question. They had the ball when Bob’s watch beeped, so to speak. More on that in a moment.

The game starts when an oversized medicine ball is chucked into the crowd at 3 p.m. on Shrove Tuesday (the connection of wanton violence to a religious day is fabulous).

Over the next hour-and-a-half, the ball makes its way atop and inside of a throng of violent, drunk Englishmen to both ends of Long Street three times. Why? No one really knows. It just does.

Oh, and it’s not pretty.

Reportedly, gangs of ruffians, who delightfully dub themselves “teams,” often meet up at this “game” to settle long-standing grudges. Got a beef with your car repairman? See you at Atherstone Ball. See the guy who cut you off in traffic? Let’s play. Don’t like your new son-in-law? Game on.

At 4:30, the violence is ratcheted up a few notches, as members of the mob struggle to gain possession of the ball before the final horn. For that, my friends, is why we’re here.

The goal of Atherstone Ball is simple: Hold the ball at the end of two hours of pure mayhem. There are no end zones or points. There are some police officers, but they are only there to enforce the “no one dies” rule. Participants can and do walk up to a police officer, turn to their best mate and punch him in the face as hard as they can. The only thing the officer does is applaud. Better than a lot of American policing these days, I would add.

The game seems to be slipping a bit lately, which is an amazing thing to be able to say for a game rooted in violence like Atherstone Ball. Depending on whom you talk to, one 2019 contestant’s ear was or was not ripped off during the fracas. How that can be up for debate is a good question.

The 2020 game was actually abandoned with no winner at all when an air ambulance had to be called to fly a game marshal to the hospital in critical condition after he was given advanced life support at the scene. Good news, though. Officials said there were “no suspicious circumstances they are aware of” that led to the nice little helicopter ride.

And the 2021 game was cancelled for the first time in history. Let that soak in for a second. Germany was leveling London with bomb after bomb after bomb after bomb, and these guys still got together to play Atherstone Ball. That, my friends, is dedication.

No person alive today personifies that dedication more than a four-time Atherstone Ball winner known only as Slesser. Let’s meet him together, shall we?

The only things surprising about the video are that I actually understood roughly 13.7 percent of what he was saying and that his beer cup was still full.

I sent the guys some video of Atherstone Ball via a two-word email: “Look familiar?”

It was Bob who responded first — of course it was Bob who responded first: “All they need is some mud…”

The Final Battle

It was late August when things finally came to a head between us commune kids and the Watertons. On an unseasonably cool early evening, we arrived back in The Clearing after a hearty dinner of boiled potatoes and other assorted grass. So many things had changed that summer, not the least of which was that Chestnut and I now walked side-by-side as we made our way through the forest. He had grown about three inches since The Rumble in The Clearing, but a good two-and-a-quarter might have been because of how much straighter he now stood when we walked together.

We came around the bend by the redwood scarred by the lightning strike, and there were the Watertons — fanned out in descending order, their dark jeans that much more worn and their wife-beaters that much more dirty compared to the first time we met them. Wind rustled the leaves overhead, sounding like bones rattling in the fading daylight.

Chestnut saw them a split-second before I did, and his arm reached out in front of my chest like a mother does to their child in the passenger seat of the car when she has to stop short at a red light. I looked at it, at the muscles that had begun to emerge in his forearm and the definition in his bicep. Chestnut would grow up to be 6-foot-4, 250 pounds and play linebacker for UCLA, an amazing accomplishment for a tiny kid from the commune with a questionable education. In the 1995 Aloha Bowl against the Kansas Jayhawk, he had 10 tackles and an interception return for a touchdown that he capped by diving into the end zone while mimicking that same discus-punch-spin-kick that had once smashed Sammy Waterton’s eye and jaw. The 15-yard penalty was worth it, I guess.

It was Sammy who spoke first that day: “One game. Smear the Queer vs. Kill the Carrier. Two hours. Whoever has this ball,” and with that he held out what looked to be a brand-new Nerf football still in its packaging, “when your boy’s watch beeps wins.” He motioned to Bob.

“Wins what?” Chestnut said, his voice deeper, braver, than I’d ever heard it before.

Sammy smiled slyly with just the right side of his face: “The Clearing. The name of the game. Everything.”

Not surprisingly, it was Bob who broke the silence that followed. “Why the hell would we…”

But then Chestnut turned his head and stared at him, and though Bob could not possibly have seen the heat with which his eyes raged, he immediately fell silent and took two steps back.

Sammy stared at me for a brief second but then, recognizing how things had changed, looked to Chestnut, who this time did not wink. Instead, he spoke one firm word: “Deal.”

What followed was pure madness. Before the ball had even begun to descend from its initial toss in the air, Jim had laid Chestnut out with an elbow to the side of the head. For most of two hours, Chestnut lay on his back in the moist dirt completely still, a trickle of blood coming out of the left side of his mouth and meandering down the side of his face. As the game allowed, we would try to check on him, attempt to wake him up, but it seemed the Watertons had a game plan. Every time one of us got near Chestnut, a Waterton would come flying at us with unhinged rage, tackling us away from our fallen leader.

Night fell and a cool breeze whipped through The Clearing from the north as possession of the Nerf football changed hands over and over and over again. We learned as we played, adapting our tactics both in an attempt to protect the ball and protect ourselves from violating the one rule of whatever the game was to be called.

“Ten minutes!” Bob screamed, and it was precisely at that moment that rain stated to fall. Not just any rain, though. What we in the commune called a gully-washer. Within moments, The Clearing became a pool of mud and the ball grew heavy and impossibly slick. All 18 of us were bruised, battered and bleeding to some degree.

Cumulus had the ball inside a protective circle of commune kids trying to fend off Watertons who seemed to be multiplying with the rain like Gremlins. Everyone knew time was running out. We felt it, felt the tension and the significance of the event. Sometimes, all of childhood can come down to a few defining moments.

I was the one who let Sammy Waterton through. My right eye was swollen shut by that point, and what I missed because of my impaired vision was that Charlie had landed a running kick to Moon’s left knee, folding him up like a party table. Into the gap rushed Sammy, who caught Cumulus unaware and simply ripped the slick ball out of his hands.

Everything seemed to stop. No one moved. The only sounds were our ragged breath and Moon’s soft whimpering from the dirt. Sammy looked at the ball, looked around, looked at the ball again, and then took off in retreat.

We pursued him like cheetahs as he charged through the stiff wind and the slanting rain toward the north end of The Clearing. For a brief moment, I was right behind him, could almost feel my hands grabbing the end of that stupid rat tail of hair that hung down to the middle of his back and yanking him to the ground.

But then…

Suddenly, there was an intense pain in my shin, and both Sammy and I were airborne.

So was the ball.

Unbeknownst to us, Chestnut, after nearly two hours of unconsciousness, had awoken in a puddle of mud and blood with drops of rain that seemed as big as nickles splashing in his eyes. At that very moment, Sammy Waterton was baring down on him, illuminated by a full moon that somehow managed to break through the clouds and trees.

Unlike the first time Chestnut had taken on Sammy, there was no fancy discus-punch-spin-kick combination. This time, there was only a foot raised a mere six inches off the ground.

It was enough, though. Enough to trip up both me and Sammy and to send the slippery ball spiraling into the downpour.

It was not enough, however, to trip up Bob. Bob the Idiot. Bob for whom you could make the logical argument as being the one who had led us to this very point in time.


With grace we had never seen in him before, Bob cleared Chestnut’s leg and, with a dive that stretched him beyond what his tiny frame should allow, reached out his arms as he crashed into the earth and slid through the mud.

Somehow… somehow… at that precise moment the Nerf ball, only two hours before brand new but now missing large chunks of foam, ten times as heavy with absorbed rain, brown instead of neon orange… that ball… somehow… fell right into Bob’s outstretched hands.

“Beep! Beep! Beep!” Pause. “Beep! Beep! Beep!” Pause. “Beep! Beep! Beep!” Pause.

Bob’s watch barely registered over the whipping wind and driving rain, but we all managed to hear it. The game was over.

We had won.

The Aftermath

Chestnut carried Moon back to the commune, his lower left leg dangling like a piece of chicken in front of a hungry alligator. We all followed as best we could, but instead of one cohesive pack, we arrived back in drips and drabs, bloody and broken. Moon’s parents took him to the hospital right away. His knee was destroyed, and he still walked with a limp the last time I saw him, 10 years ago. Charlie Waterton, we heard, spent two weeks in the hospital with internal bleeding.

Neither side gave up the other. We each took the blame on ourselves.

The punishments were harsh on both sides. Commune life when you haven’t been involved in a two-hour brawl that you won’t talk about is hard as it is. Commune life under parental martial law is something most kids can’t imagine.

The Watertons moved away two years later. One day, we arrived at The Clearing, and there they were, for the first time since what become known simply as The Battle in the Mud. Chestnut now walked alone in front of our pack and was on his way to filling out the frame that would help him become the run-stopping menace he was at UCLA. Bob had also moved up a few spots in the order and didn’t say and do quite as many dumb things anymore.

Me? I was happy in the pack, sometimes behind Chestnut, sometimes further back.

Sammy stepped forward as we stepped into The Clearing. “We’re moving. Again,” he said simply, and his shoulders sagged with a fatigue no 16-year-old should bear. “Our dad got a new job. More money. Oregon, this time.”

Each of the boys sported what appeared to be new jeans and, in the place of dirty wife-beaters, different colored polo shirts with the tiny horse emblem on the left breast. To us, this was a downgrade in wardrobe.

Our pack looked to Chestnut, who, in turn, looked silently at Sammy.

Then, slowly, hesitantly, Sammy stepped forward. Chestnut moved out to meet him. All of us, both sides, tensed and, not without a certain weariness, prepared to fight.

But when Sammy and Chestnut met in the middle of our two lines, the two didn’t throw down. They shook hands. Firmly and not without just a hint of competitiveness of who could squeeze harder or hang on longer.

We all followed their lead, stepping forward to shake hands with our counterpart. Then we moved on to the next boy… and the next… and the next.

It was over in maybe a minute, this event that seemed to have a spiritual significance. And then Sammy led a silent retreat into the forest. The next day, we watched as movers packed up their things into a huge truck that, just before nightfall, pulled away, followed by two van-loads of Waterton boys.

What’s the lesson in all of this? Well, I think if you’ve taken the time to read this, you might have found a few. It’s not my place to go pointing out what you should have gotten from the tale of 18 boys trying to find their way in a crazy world where crazy Englishmen will keep alive an 800-year-old tradition in the face of Nazi bombs.

Maybe it’s about friendship. Maybe it’s about the nature of boys. Maybe it’s about innocence or violence or homophobia.

The lessons are out there. I’m just not sure I’m the best one to lay them out for you.

Find Chestnut. Ask him. After all, I’m not the leader. He is.

Q.F. Conseco is the relative of website owner and Storyteller in Chief John Agliata. He is, in fact, John’s great-grandparent’s son’s son’s son. He lives outside Escandido, California, near the Hellhole Canyon Preserve with his wife, Flaca, and their three children, Franz, Hans and Helga. All three are homeschooled and extremely unsocial. Q.F. is a singer, songwriter and poet when he is not working as a trimmer for a large medical marijuana growing operation in Humboldt County, California. He plans on going to Atherstone for the 2022 Atherstone Ball game and has invited the surviving members of the pack to join him.

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