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Thursday, December 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Overcast
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Very mortal combat
What happens when a bunch of average guys head to the country for the weekend

What we call our Annual X Games are held on Josh's land in Green County. The lush, deep ravine was carved by a cosmic Bowie knife 10,000 years ago. We've been here 10 minutes. Lunchtime.

We gather around a sandwich, one of those five-footers. Josh is laying out the order of events for the weekend. "And, oh yeah," he says. "There's no toilet paper." Everyone's eyes go to the stack of napkins.

Below the picnic table empty red Coke cans, dented dead soldiers, lie on their sides in the grass. No beer is allowed until after the guns are put away. That's why guns are the first event of the X Games, the losing team of which must perform a chore on Josh's farm on Sunday morning. Two years ago the losers had to move the outhouse.

Some of us are strangers, meeting annually only on this weekend. Some of us raised our children together. We're carpenters, small business owners, teachers and landlords. A political pollster's wet dream.

Ah, but the Road Runner cartoon that is this year's election is nowhere in sight. Out here in the valley it's the Elizabeth Street Team, made up of people who live on or near Elizabeth Street, versus the World Team - for everybody else. The skeet range is set up on the upper crust of the valley. There are two kinds of shooters here. The people who hunt (they bring the weapons) and the people who, when handed a firearm, quietly say to themselves, "I want my mommy."

I'm in the latter group.

In accord with safety protocol, all non-shooters stand behind the firing line. I'm glad about that because nobody can see that my first shot is squeezed off with my eyes shut tight. I'm fairly sure the gun is aimed in the direction of the clay dove, which would be the sky.

Soon spent shells cover the firing line as though drummed down by a hailstorm. Team Elizabeth Street ekes out a three-point win in this event. There are some bitter rules disagreements over an absurd phenomena at the end called "The Ringer Round," which sealed Team 'Liz's lead.

Back down in the valley, shotguns are packed away and 22s emerge for target shooting. Compared to the kickboxer-to-the-shoulder recoil of the 12-gage, the 22s might as well be slingshots. Team World makes an amazing comeback here. We win going away.

Guns gone, the beers come out of the coolers just in time for the next event, an activity where sobriety shouldn't factor into safety one bit: archery.

The insulation board has a red dot spray-painted on it for the target. It leans against a walnut tree and is mostly neglected by the arrows that whiz past on their way into the hillside. The X-Games are a cocktail of the worst sportsmanship and the best. One moment good-natured taunts border on the brink of bar fights; the next, someone steps forward to give an opposing team member a few pointers on how to hold the bow.

More beer.

Just in time for the dune buggy event, which is like the Indy 500 time trials if they were held in Appalachia. The course is a half-mile round-trip over moguls, gopher holes and cow pies. One team member at a time drives the buggy while his mates serve as pit crew, helping belt and buckle the driver into the knot of seat straps. The straps dangle and flap, serving no purpose except to compromise the driver's ability to exit in the case of the buggy catching fire.

A barn pole serves as the colossal stick for the caber toss. Nothing paints a better portrait of a middle-aged man than the form and face of said man at the moment a caber is released.

By now Team Elizabeth has pressed so far ahead the discus event is a meaningless sideshow. We don't have last year's discus, borrowed and returned to O'Keeffe Middle School. A fat, round creek stone substitutes. The winner rolls it like a bowling ball.

A large bonfire is set ablaze at dusk. A six-gallon-deep fryer becomes a hillbilly sacrifice chamber, gobbling up one member of the animal kingdom after the next. A hundred chicken wings. A pork tenderloin thrown in like a log.

After dinner, Mark and I slide into the shadows a little way up the hill. We send the first Whistling Buster mortar straight up. Multicolored blooms fill the black night sky. The campfire crowd roars. Anyone who loves fireworks knows that good is never good enough. We tilt the launch tube on its side. The next shell rockets directly through a circle of space among the tree branches.

This time the payoff bangs low, directly over the group. Floating, glowing dreadlocks illuminate the circle. It could be the beer, but I blink and the men, who will be sore tomorrow, change into little boys, with a whole night ahead to howl at the moon.

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