By Sam Weller
Evenings in Hiawatha Park have a rhythm all their own. The setting sun blankets the area in a warm ember-glow that belies the early May chill. The crowd of bocce-ball regulars arrive from the surrounding neighborhood and adjacent ‘burbs, piling out of cars and appearing from quiet side streets, cowboys approaching a gunfight. Even greater in numbers are the spectators who gather here each evening from roughly 7 to 10pm. Some nights, it is said, the games roll on much later.
“You need to come out on a warmer night,” enthuses one gentleman in a throaty Italian dialect. “There’ll be fifty or sixty people here just to watch!” The park itself, at 8029 West Forest Preserve Avenue, is small and quiet, nestled cozily into a Northwest Side pocket where time has stood completely still in the very best way. You get the vibe that only after the dishes have been washed is it time to play bocce.
There are two bocce courts (called “campos”) in Hiawatha Park, ninety-by-ten-foot plywood parameters painted a deep moss green with a roadway of clay held within. The pre-game ritual is not complete without the raking of the courts, baseball groundskeeper style. Only when the sandy strip is as level as a Nebraska interstate can the games begin.
Make no bones about it—the players tonight, as with most nights at Hiawatha, are pure Italian. And they welcome onlookers with a wave and a smile. The participants, with few exceptions, are retired. Many emigrated to Chicago at the end of World War II. Very few words this evening are actually spoken in English.
“The secret to bocce,” offers one man, “is you must have a set of good, heavy balls.” Only after the words are spoken is the Freudianism readily apparent, and then there is only a thin smile.
Bocce dates back a long, long ways. Some argue that ancient hieroglyphics portray Egyptians tossing wooden balls on flat courts. One story even finds Sir Francis Drake refusing to interrupt his game to address a threatening military advance: “First we finish the game, then we’ll deal with the Armada!” it is believed he proclaimed. The rules of bocce are simple: players or teams throw four balls (each four to five inches in diameter) down the court, aiming for a small ball known as the “pallino” that was tossed at the onset of the competition. The goal is to come closest to the small “pallino” and knock competitor’s balls out of the way in the process. At the end of a round, a side receives a point for each ball nearest the pint-sized “pallino.” The first player or team with twelve points wins.
Although the players deny gambling, it is suspected that there might be a little friendly wagering going on. One thing is certain: Spectators will hear a lot of Italian expletives from the players, but more often than not, laughter will also fill the air.