HANOVER — They are standing in the yard, hitting circular balls made of a mix of concrete and plastic.
With snow on the ground, the group has snowshoes on, shuffling around the course of 11 wickets trying to knock each other out. Blues music crackles out of the speakers arranged around the playing surface.
Using mallets made of lignum vitae, one of the strongest woods in the world, the group cracks a few jokes. Welcome to yardball, a version of croquet created by four men who play the game on a weekly, year-round basis in Hanover.
“Croquet is the closest I think it comes to, but with the change in rules it makes it unique,” said Gene Hilll, who hosts the game. “We don’t play on a flat surface; we have hills all over. We had to come up with something else.”
Hill, Bart MacNamee, Ray LaBombard and Chris Klinck all attended Hanover High School. Hill spent some time at the school after he returned home from Vietnam in 1971, and the other three went about their schooling when Hill was taking post-graduate courses to complete his degree.
In the years after, the group started to get to know each other more through games of darts at Hill’s house, along with fishing trips around the Upper Valley.
Hill grew up playing croquet with his aunt, but Klinck, who is a carpenter, would bring back good lumber from his carpeting job. The mix of friends, wood and croquet experience gave way for the group to start to playing yardball together over 20 years ago.
They play their games at Hill’s house at 161 Lyme Road, but they previously played at the house above, which featured more obstacles such as tree roots.
Matches can take place from anywhere between 20 to 55 minutes, depending on the weather conditions.
Back in the earlier years, the four would play night games with floodlights on after work. These days, the group plays at least twice a week.
“I don’t care if I win or not,” said LaBombard, who lives in Hanover and is 62. “It’s all about the shot to me, to get it through the wicket. There’s days when I’m out there where I hate the game. It just ain’t working for me. Then you come back another time and it’s unbelievable pleasure because you make some long shots or you get a bump in your favor.
“It can be really aggravating. I think that’s why we don’t get that many people to play.”
The game has been tinkered to fit the wants of the four. Possibly the biggest takeaway from yardball is that it can be played year-round. Snow, ice, heat — you name it, the group has played in it.
The rules follow some similar rules to croquet. Playing off an alternative ending to the original game, the foursome chooses to use poison as an endgame. In this variant, the player who has hit the ball through the last wicket first then has the opportunity to eliminate other players by knocking them out. The last person remaining is the winner.
It also has complete changes, such as the course isn’t on a flat surface but on a hill. Sometimes when it’s too icy, the ball can roll back down. The group plays in unpredictable conditions, which they have come to love.
If they’ve learned anything, trying to read the terrain can be the difference between a win or loss.
“It’s quite fun in the winter,” said Klinck, who lives in Wilder. “When you get a fresh snow, the ball goes fairly well. It travels fairly straight. You can have problems, too, if there’s ice, playing a long game. The ball will roll around, bounce around. We’ve had times when we start taking a shot, and we’ll tap it and hope it sticks there.”
Some memories have stuck out over the years.
Back when most of the group was working, they would hold night games using floodlights to light up the course.
One night, an owl was up in a nearby tree and thought one of the balls on the course was prey, swooping down and almost trying to pick up the object.
Another time, Hill hit a hard ball toward MacNamee, who was holding a beer bottle. The ball crashed with the beer before he could lift it up, resulting in the head of a beer bottle in his hand with shattered glass near his feet.
“Some people are a little bit more competitive than others,” said MacNamee, who is 62 and lives in West Lebanon. “There are some who choose to play and hit a cool shot, and others who play to put them in the best position to win the game. There’s definitely something to making a nice shot, taking a chance. You might hurt yourself, but it’s really cool.
“We just have smack talking. We used to keep track of games, and a couple of years we had yardball men of the year. Chris wins more consistently because he focuses a little more. I can get really competitive; I’m an ex-jock more so than the other guys.”
Lately, the opportunity to get outside and just be together has been much-needed. The group’s been making an effort to keep their possible contact in public to a minimum.
Standing outside for a few hours has provided some conversation.
“I think this helps us out a lot, having something to do,” Klinck said of the games.
“Mostly these days, I’m working by myself, for myself. I don’t get a lot of social action. This all helps us out a lot.”
Pete Nakos can be reached at email@example.com.