By Harry Anderson
[Author’s note: Generally thought to have originated in Persia about 6th century BC, polo came to Glen Farm in Portsmouth twenty-six years ago (that was Dan Keating’s doing, who revivified the dormant Newport Polo Association and who continues to lead it as well as captain its team). For maybe eighteen of those twenty-six years Pauline and I have taken in Saturday summer matches, often with our grandchildren and their families. Following is an account of our latest visit to Glen Farm.
How tall are these trees? Maybe thirty or forty feet? And how many? At least about fifty. That’s what I was thinking as we turned off Route 138 at the crudely-lettered smallish sign that read POLO TODAY. Linden trees flanked the narrow lane that bisected large soccer fields buzzing with kids. Ahead the sun highlighted the newly restored Leonard Brown House.
“Isn’t this beautiful?” Pauline’s paean broke the hush in the car.
Yellow-vested volunteers waved traffic into the parking area and collected the entrance fee ($12.00 per person). Customarily we arrived at Glen Farm a couple of hours before game time, not only to avoid the rush but also to set up our favored place on the northern perimeter of the playing field where the chalk line curves toward the score board. The three of us toted a cooler, a picnic basket, folding chairs, a collapsible table and a two-gallon vacuum jug of ice water; in a jiffy we claimed a spot of grass.
“Grandpa, didn’t we used to sit over there where the flags are?” Laura was remembering the earlier days when she and her cousins skirmished with a beach ball beneath the flags. Then, there were fewer flags. As more countries travel to Portsmouth to compete with the Newport team, their national colors are added to the array, the most recent being Morocco and Peru. Including the USA’s Old Glory, a total of thirty-five flags line the southern edge of the 300- x 160-yard playing field.
“You’re right, Laura, we did. But now only people with reservations may tailgate over there.”
Pauline passed a glass of Riesling—legally—to our granddaughter. When we had emptied the cooler of grapes and cherries, Monterey cheese, shrimp salad and Key lime pie and finished off the bottle of wine, it was nearing the start time of five o’clock, and the players on their sleek ponies were warming up.
Throngs of spectators filled the pavilion and the grassy edges of the field. Those who had been rolling bocce balls or tossing Frisbees or showing off their summer fashions heeded the announcer’s plea to clear the field. The eight players (four to a team) aligned themselves front and center, then trotted to the sideline after the announcer introduced them. Realigning, they faced the flags; the spectators arose and the national anthems resonated from speakers—first the visitors’ and then The Star Spangled Banner.
Polo is a bruising sport, not as genteel as an outlier may think. Strength and skill and sharp intelligence keep a player—man or woman—in a game (for that matter, a horse as well). Whether bunching up or galloping, the rider holds to a horse solely with the legs, wielding a 5’ bamboo mallet with which to thwack a hard ball up to 110 mph between the goal posts. I have seen both a horse and a player tumble to the ground, and although a horse has a substitute, a player stays in the game for all six 7-minute chukkers.
At the intermission after three chukkers, tradition calls for spectators to spread out over the field to tamp divots back into place. We used this as an opportunity to walk the entire perimeter to gawk at how polo-goers were having fun. We saw a fellow with bow tie and straw hat basting a rack of ribs sizzling on a grill; middle aged folk at a laced-covered table with a lit candelabra upon it; young parents chasing after toddlers, great grandparents snoozing beneath a lawn umbrella and dogs – lots of dogs of many breeds.
We dodged other ramblers—mostly young men and women wanting to be seen—and heard the play-by-play announcer’s wry statement, “That goal by the visitors narrows the gap.” The scoreboard showed the Newport team ahead by eight goals. In less than an hour the match ended and spectators darted to the sidelines as the eight horses cantered around the field, their riders stretching to receive congratulatory taps from the crowd.
Cars crept up the lane beneath the linden trees and turned onto Route 138. From the back seat Laura sleepily said, “I’m glad I came. Thank you, Grandpa.”
“Now that you’re older, what is there about polo that you like?”
“As I was watching the game, I was thinking. Sure, the players are trying hard to score, but I felt that no one really cared about who was winning. It was like . . . I don’t know . . . like they just wanted to have fun.”
She said that as we were at the high point of the Pell Bridge, heading due west into a spectacular sunset. How apt, I thought, her insight into all that we had witnessed today at Glen Farm.