The Last Days of Knights
THE COMEBACK SEASON OF THE KNIGHT OF LITTLE WOODS WAS NEARLY OVER. It had been a risky return, and, to some observers, a bit of a surprise and even a puzzle. As he waited on horseback in a sliver of shade cast by a tall hedge, Leon Enfield took a clean bandanna from the pocket of his blue jeans and wiped the sweat that dripped from under his battered plastic hard hat. As was often the case at a joust, he was surrounded by his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Many of them were competing today. Others, such as Shirley, his wife of 52 years, waded through a sea of aluminum lawn chairs and horse trailers, visiting old friends.
Enfield raised an arm gnarled and sunburned from years of dairy farming and aimed his lance at the sky. He squeezed his good eye and squinted up the shaft, focusing on an orange tip no bigger than a bird's eye. It had been four years since his horse at the time, a black mare named Beauty, had stopped short on the practice track and launched him skyward. He'd heard a popping sound as he hit the ground. The horse had raced off, smashing through two gates to get back to the safety of the barn. A neighbor found Enfield curled in a fetal position in the grass and leaking blood, his leg bone sheared in two above the ankle. "Leon, it don't look purty," Leon recalled the neighbor saying. On the heels of his quadruple bypass five years earlier, and, before that, a blocked artery that left him nearly blind in one eye, this latest setback, many thought, would persuade Enfield to hang up his lance.
Beauty was retired to a field, but Enfield stayed in the game. He attended jousts as a spectator while his leg healed, and he searched for a new horse. He and Montana, an 8-year-old Tennessee walker cross, had been working together for almost a year, and now they were a few weeks from the 2006 state and national championships and the climax of Enfield's 73rd year.
The jousting track at Christ Church in Calvert County was about 40 miles southeast of Washington, but a world away from the city. Ring jousts have been held at country churches in the Mid-Atlantic for nearly 200 years, the centerpiece and main attraction at annual church fairs and fundraisers. In recent decades, however, many congregations have dwindled. Nowadays, the busloads of country people who once flocked to tournaments are just as likely to be headed for slot machines in Delaware. But the Christ Church tournament was still going strong in its 140th year, still the most anticipated event of Maryland's jousting season, its members still serving up their famous fried chicken and crab cake supper at the end of the day. Spectator numbers were down this summer; gasoline prices and 100-degree temperatures were blamed. But there were several hundred spectators on hand that day. They sat in the shade of ancient oak trees or under two large tents, fanning themselves with commemorative fans decorated with silk black-eyed Susans (the state flower) and the silhouette of a jouster holding a lance made of a red, plastic swizzle stick.
Enfield watched as riders galloped horses up the narrow dirt track. He was a multiple state and national champion, one of five people who had dominated jousting from the 1950s through '70s. His once-black hair was gray, but you could still see the fellow who'd earned $20 a day as a double for Warren Beatty back in the 1960s, when Hollywood had come to Frederick to shoot a feature called "Lilith." Beatty's co-star, Jean Seberg, a farm girl herself, had gotten Enfield double pay, enough to buy his family a secondhand car.
The announcer's voice crackled from the loudspeaker in the familiar singsong of the baseball diamond and thoroughbred track. "Awlllll riiiight, ladies and gentlemen, the rings are hung, and the track is clear . . ." Volunteer ring-hangers reached up to fasten small circles of cotton-wrapped copper wire to metal straps hanging from three wooden arches, placed at equal distance along the 80-yard track.
There were five levels of competition at this joust: lead line, novice, amateur, semi-pro and professional. Every rider got three trips up the track -- three chances to spear three rings, for a perfect score of nine, which won the day unless more than one rider managed that feat, in which case the riding continued and the ring size dropped. Depending on the class, ring diameter ranged from 1 3/4 inches (an "okay" sign made with thumb and forefinger) to a quarter-inch, a ring the size of a LifeSaver. There was a time limit for each ride -- nine seconds in most of the state of Maryland, and eight seconds on the Eastern Shore and in Virginia and West Virginia. There was no competitive advantage to speed. In fact, taking the track at a speed of faster than seven seconds made it hard to see a ring until it was too late to aim.
Enfield rested his jousting lance on his leg. The lance weighed 11 pounds, with a shaft made from a wooden closet dowel. Other riders carried lances made from pool sticks and lightning rods. Riding clothes varied, too. Some people wore English riding clothes, but most were dressed in jeans, T-shirts, trucker caps. And they were mounted on every kind of humble and not-so-humble backyard horse -- pintos, paints, shaggy Chincoteague ponies, rangy quarter horses. Leon Enfield wore his customary competition shirt -- maroon, short-sleeved, with the words "Knight of Little Woods" stitched in white thread across the back, the name a reference to a copse where his jousting career began.
"Knight of Little Woods, prepare to charge," the announcer called. "Ladies and gentlemen, this rider started jousting the same year Jackie Robinson started with the Brooklyn Dodgers!"
Enfield nudged Montana forward. His stirrups were shortened, and daylight poked through between the saddle and his knees. In his gum-soled work boots and helmet, lance forward, he looked not unlike Cervantes' fabled knight. But there was nothing quixotic about this quest.
As Enfield rode up the track, the tip of his lance listed upward. From the sidelines, his youngest son, Ken Enfield, watched intently. At 47, Kenny, a contractor and motorcycle aficionado, was the stickler of the Enfield clan. His 19 years as president of the Western Maryland Jousting Club had won him the nickname "General Enfield."
The Knight of Little Woods caught no rings on his first ride, and flinched as a strap iron banged his shoulder. The next two rides were similarly disappointing. "A time of 8.9 seconds for the Knight of Little Woods, but I don't think he got that last one, did he?" the announcer asked. "No," he said a moment later. "No rings."