Charge, Sir Knight!

The Knight of Cold Harbor, mounted on a dark horse, dashes down the 80 yard course spearing three iron rings with his lance.

Next comes the Maid of Cold Harbor, her blond hair flying as her pony gallops down the course. She aims her lance, but alas, the rings are too high for a 14-year old on a pony. Undaunted, the Maid of Cold Harbor rides back to the horse trailer for a coke.

The year is not 1066, when jousting was reportedly invented by one Baron de Pruelli. It is 1979, but jousting is in full flower -- at least in the Maryland and Virginia countryside.

"Some prominent jousters have retired, but we're growing a new crop," says Father Bill Plummer, gesturing toward Kevin and Cheryl Bowlby who will ride as the Knight of Cold Harbor and the Maid of Cold Harbor in the 112th Annual Calvert County Josting Tournament at Christ Church in Port Republic, Maryland, on August 25.

'we know it's at least the 112th year because we found a program dated 1867," says Plummer. Jousting was imported into Maryland by the Calverts, in the 17th century, and then enjoyed a revival with the vogue for knightly things created by Sir Walter Scott's "Ivanhoe" in the 19th century. In the 20th century, in 1962 to be precise, jousting became Maryland's official state sport, due to the legislative efforts of state senator Henry J. Fowler, now retired. Fowler, the Knight of Mechanicsville, will preside over the 33rd Annual Jousting Tournament at his Horse Range Farm in Mechanicsvile this Sunday.

"This lacrosse fans tried to change the state sport," says Fowler, "but I beat them three times in the legislature . . . Jousting is the true state sport, the oldest. When you think of lacrosse, you think of Canada. And it's a great family sport. My three children joust, and my father did before me. He rode as the Knight of Fifty Years Ago. Jousting takes a keen eye, a steady horse and training."

"It takes a lot of practice," confirms 16-year-old Kevin Bowlby, who took two trophies in last year's Calvert County tournament. Kevin and Cheryl have been riding for several years but had no formal training in jousting.

"We just went out and tried it," says Kevin. "A close friend gave us pointers. We're planning on making a jousting course on our farm."

A jousting course consists of three square wooden arches, 30 yards apart, from which metal rings are hung. The arches in back of Christ Church, a few miles from the Bowlby home, are left up year round, but the rings are kept in the parish house. Father Plummer is rigging the arches so the kids can practice and demonstrate the art to a visitor. For Cheryl, who rides a pony named Midget, "a strawberry roan when she's brushed real well," the rings have to be lowered a few notches. Midget has not seen the arches for almost a year, so Cheryl rides her through a few times without the lance.

"A lot of horses are scared of arches," says Kevin, watching from the sidelines. "Midget threw Cheryl once -- she shied away from the arches. Some horses wear blinders on tournament day so they don't get excited by the crowds and the band playing."

Midget shows no sign of skittishness, so Cheryl begins practicing in earnest, racing against a stopwatch. The novice class, in which Cheryl will compete, has no time limit. Riders in the other three classes -- amateur, semi-professional -- must gallop the 80 year course three times, trying to spear each ring each time. A perfect score is nine rings.

"When you get all three rings, the band plays," sayd Kevin. "Last year when I got all three and the band played Mocha got all excited and sort of danced to the music.

Mocha, a "mostly Morgan" horse, is getting into the spirit of things again and wants to compete with Midget. Kevin, too, wants to beat Cheryl's time. When he gets the time down to 5 1/2 seconds, he grabs his lance to get Mocha used to it again.

"It's kind of weird for them to have something sticking right by their head," he explains.With his lance tucked under his armpit, Kevin charges at the rings.

"The blacksmith who used to make lances doesn't do it anymore," says Cheryl. "So my father made mine out of pipe."

Lances end in narrow steel tips, the better to spear narrow rings with. The rings look like shade pulls but are really iron circles wrapped with string. Novices try to spear rings 1 3/4 inches in diameter, while professionals tilt at one inch rings. In case of a tie, the rings get smaller and smaller, down to 1/4 inch. This form of jousting, not surprisingly, was originally called the Ring Tournament, and is a refinement of the kind of jousting that went on around 1066.

Jousting was originally a form of warfare," says Fowler. "If you killed another knight in a joust, you got his horse and all his land. When gunpowder came along, it changed the mode of warfare."

Both the Calvert County and the Mechanicsville tournaments pay homage to the more combative form of jousting with a mock battle in which knights in mock mesh armor battle with papier-mache lances. But the serious competition is the ring spearing. This form of the sport came into its own in the 16th century. Although less bloody, it was considered more challenging. After all, a ring is smaller target than a knight. Since the ring tournament was the prevalent form of jousting when Europeans came to American, it became the prevalent form here. But another version of the sport, the quintain, in which knights jousted at a dummy on a wooden horse, also made the crossing. There is evidence that a quintain took place in Anne Arundel County in the 1680s.

A ring joust held annually at Mount Solom, Virginia, claims to be the oldest "continuously held" tournament in the New World -- continuous, that is, except when everybody was too busy with the Civil War. The Mount Solon joust, which takes place this Saturday, has romantic origins. Back in 1821, a Virginia belle couldn't decide between two swains. She staged a joust between the two suitors and married the winner.

None but the Brave Deserves the Fair.