Mark Cavanagh, from Rhode Island USA, contacted us and told us......
"I used to enjoy the game of "Conkers," or "Kingers," as we called it.
The following story happened around 1964 in Rhode Island, USA.
We didn’t have much in the way of toys to play with as kids. We had homemade go-carts built of two-by-fours and plywood with bent nails to hold the axles in place. We had rusty, hand-me-down bikes with chains that were more off than on. We had the occasional good TV, which got three channels. There was little in the way of organized sports so pretty much anything could amuse us. We twanged the springy branch on a cedar tree for days on end. We sifted sand down ant holes, dug worms, and collected cigarette butts on the side of the road just for something to do. I had a hangnail once which occupied me the better part of Winter. But in the absence of toys and entertainment, our imagination soared. We made up games or played the ones that captivated kids for generations before us. One of those games was Kingers.
Kingers was played with the fruit of the horse chestnut tree. The nuts were magical things to us, hard, brown, half-dollar sized orbs which split out of spiny, green husks when they were ripe. We would chose ours carefully, drill a hole through their center, hang them on a knotted shoelacs, and bring them to the schoolyard with pride. Two players took alternating whacks at the other’s chestnut until one shattered and the other was declared, “A kinger." Some nuts survived many battles and went on to become multiple kingers, the sum of which was added to yours if you demolished their nut. It was a serious game and you were not supposed to cheat by soaking your chestnut in vinegar or baking it in the oven to harden the shell. But the competition was fierce and most of us tried to cheat in one way or another.
My brother, Brian, lost a 29 kinger to a plumber’s son he didn’t trust and decided to abandon the rules. He hollowed out a chestnut with a lobster pick, filled the cavity with Weldwood Glue, and the resulting nut was indestructible. Brian racked up a 200 kinger before the shell cracked off and the rock of glue was exposed. It pretty much ended his career, but Brian didn’t care because he was embarking on a new game with a set of rules that would take a lifetime to master: girls. But this story is set before that time, when chestnuts fascinated us and we would do just about anything to get our hands on the biggest and best. That was part of the game.
“That damn Danny Paquin. I am going to kill him, I am going to rip the snots out of his head and stuff it down his throat.”
Brian was fuming. We were standing at the base of the chestnut tree where we always got our nuts. At our feet were piles of empty green husks. Danny and his buddies had made a pre-emptive strike and the tree was bare except for a few clusters at the top. My brother, Steve, threw a stick at them and it bounced back and nearly hit me in the head.
"I have got an idea", Pete said. Pete was full of reckless ideas when Brian was around. "We go to Paquin’s house, rob the chestnuts, and if he says anything, you rip the snots out of his head."
"No good", Tommy Weaver said. He was a year younger than Brian, a year older than Steve, and the coolest head among us. "His mother will tell our mother and then we’ll have to go apologize and give the chestnuts back."
"Let’s just forget chestnuts and collect cigarette butts", I said. I was the youngest in the group and had no interest in apologizing, robbery, fighting or all that snot business.
Steve stepped away from our group and looked up the road towards Sinkneeahbunkneeah Hill. Translated from the Indian, it meant, “Place of Great Cow shit.” The look of an explorer shone in his eyes as he said, "There’s another tree.”
Brian stepped towards him, hating the idea that his younger brother knew something that he did not. "Where?" he asked, barely masking his contempt.
Tommy flanked Steve and gazed towards the fabled hill. They had ranged far in their friendship and discovered the tree together. "On the hill, but there’s a problem."
"No problem," Pete said, thrusting his jaw out.
"There’s a bull.”
Spread over the top of Sinkneeahbunkneeah Hill was a farm right out of an Andrew Wyatt painting. We had seen it from afar many times when we carried our Flexible Fliers up the snow-plowed road. We had permission to sled, but we didn’t want to get too close to the farm because the farmer scared us. Pete and I had gone to his son’s birthday party the year before. It was just the three of us and we bobbed for apples and played pin-the-tail on the donkey. As the night dragged on, the farmer got drunk and he took out his shotgun. He wanted us to fire off a couple of rounds but we asked to go home instead. He muttered something, hung his shotgun over the fireplace, and poured himself a shot at the kitchen table. His wife drove us home and we never made friends with the farm boy. We regretted it now because the chestnut tree was on his land.
Yankees are notoriously protective of their land. I think it goes back to the days when they took it from the Indians and they didn’t want the same thing to happen to them. Trespassing was a serious offense, and yes, the farm was posted. It seemed like every other tree on the perimeter screamed, “Don’t,” but we did. We reasoned that forgiveness would be easier to obtain than permission.
The dirt road up Bunky Hill, as we called it for short, wound past the bright yellow cottage with a matching picket fence. However cheery and welcoming it looked, we feared it because the residents were related to the farmer. Brian wanted to sneak past it through the woods, but Tommy thought it would require too much bush-whacking. Steve suggested that we amble up the road like we were going to see the farmer’s boy, but Pete said everyone knew we were not friends. I wanted to turn back but they wouldn’t hear of it. We approached with caution, white sheets billowed on the clothes line, we got spooked and ran through the pine grove to the family cemetery.
The gravestones dated back to the founding of this country, all the farmers forebears tucked away and put to rest. Granite pillars encased the lot and rusted pipes ran between them as rails. We crept from stone to stone, taking momentary cover, moving on like soldiers across enemy lines. A cow-patty field ran up to the horizon line which was broken by the weathered farmhouse and a distant red barn. To the eyes of an 8-year-old, they looked miles away and the cow patties were enormous. It looked a cluster bomb had fallen from the sky.
"There it is", Steve said, pointing across the lower field to a lone tree standing beside a stone wall.
"Holy shit," Brian exclaimed. He vaulted over the railing and threaded his way through the cow-patty minefield. Pete followed Brian’s lead, caught up to him, danced along side, and then cantered ahead like in excitement. Tom and Steve held back to see what would happen. When no bull came charging out of the upper field, they proceeded with caution. I waited to see what would happen to them, but then I started to feel and ran to catch up only to find myself in midair with a patty staring me in the face. Luckily, it was a dry one, or the guys never would have boosted me up into the tree.
The tree was a virgin as far as we could tell. The nuts had never been plucked, never mind molested, shaken, or pounced upon once they hit the ground. The branches topped off at over 100 feet and spread out nearly twice as wide, roughly the size of the great dinosaur. Brian stuffed his pockets until they bulged, and Pete used his shirt as a hopper until he they spilled out every time he stooped down to pick up another nut. Tommy Weaver pulled out a couple of paper bags and surveyed the tree. Steve polished an enormous nut to a deep mahogany luster and held it up to the sun like a precious gem. They were objects of power to us, and we beleived that the best nuts were the hardest to get.
As sturdy as a branch might be at the trunk, it thinned out to a twig at the ends where the hand-like leaves guarded the nuts. Pete and I were sent to the extremes of the limbs because we were the lightest. We shimmied out, a leg on either side of the branch, or tight-roped along, holding onto the branch above. I gave the branch a mild shake while Pete jumped up and down. Suddenly, the limb snapped under Pete’s weight, but he caught hold of the end and swung him safely to earth.
"Show off," Brian said, helping him to his feet. Pete was white from the maneuver but he scrambled right back into the tree. He was brave like that whereas I was not.
"Careful now", Tommy called up to me. He could see my knees knocking and held up the limb that Pete broke off the tree. With that, I swiped at the nuts and they fell in satisfying clusters. Steve split them open with rocks and Tommy bagged the nuts. We worked fast, pumped with adrenalin, feeling the excitement and thrill of chestnuts at its best.
“Bull!" Pete yelled, from the top of the tree.
We looked up to the barn and cows were coming our way. No stampede for sure, but they all looked like bulls to us. Pete skittered down and dropped out of the tree before I could even respond. They all took off for the graveyard and I sat there frozen, caught between the fear of falling and fear of being tree-d by a bull.
"Come on!" Tommy yelled. "Jump!"
Tommy was the oldest of seven in his family. He had a mentally challenged younger brother who slurped and drooled when he talked. I don’t know what he saw in my, but he thought I was worth saving. He came back to the tree, stretched out his arms, and I more or less fell on him. We landed in a pile of barbed husks which pierced our skin. Tommy brushed me off and we ran for the graveyard. The cows were upon us and Tommy leaped the graveyard rail like it was a high hurdle. I dove headfirst between the rails and hit the ground. At that moment, one of the cows let go with what they were famous for, and it was not milk.
We moved through the graveyard with a swagger now and talked abou how we were going to treat our chestnuts for combat. Brian was leaning towards putting his in a shoe box to that they would harden. Steve was going to shellac his and buff them with resin to hide the sheen. Pete was going to do whatever Brian did, and Tommy didn’t know what he was going to do, but he would probably play it straight up.
"Hey, hey you. Stop!"
It was the farmer, striding out of the upper field, mopping his forehead with a red handkerchief. He had been driving the cows but now he was after us. Through the pine grove we ran and down the dirt road, our sneakers pounding on the paved street. Pete’s pockets were so full of nuts that he had to hold on to his pants lest they fall down. We made it home to the safety of the back yard and then the laughter set in.
"Boys", my mother said, stepping out of the back door, drying her hands on her apron. "Did you go to the farm?"
"No,” Brian lied, putting his bag of chestnuts behind him.
"Then where did you get those?" she asked.
"Up the street, same as always."
"Brian, is that any kind of example to set? The farmer just called. He said he saw you, all of you, in the graveyard."
It was bad enough to be caught in a lie, but what we were truly feared was losing the chestnuts. We felt like we had risked our lives to get them and were not about to give them back. That threat passed when our mother said, "He said you can go to the cemetery anytime you want, as long as you respect the stones and ask permission.”
There it was, permission. Something kids hate to ask for because it could lead to “No.” And then what, direct disobedience? That was a rocky road, so we kept it simple. We had enough chestnuts to last a couple of years and we never went back to the farm.
Out of that batch came Brian’s 29 Kinger and his experiment with Weldwood glue. Chestnuts lost some of their interest after that. If guys were going to cheat then maybe it wasn't worth playing. But we never forgot our favorite part, the game within the game, which was getting a hold of the chestnuts in the first place. "
Back to our Conkers page