Outside, the country fair shouts with its ride-flung kids, moans with its tethered cows, howls from its rooster cages and grunts the grunt of the slop-happy pig. But at the center of it all, in a roped-off stretch of ground where the narrow, hoof-beaten jousting track runs its 80 yards beneath the three arches, a certain peace and order prevails.
Jousting is a sport of simplicity and precision. From the tops of arches, the little rings hang, fixed in thin air. The rider, lance poised, gallops through each of the arches, cooly aiming for the ring's hole. Either he threads it with a neat clip! -- or he fails.
All sports are defined by their practitioners: the lumbering tackle somehow embodies football's brute force; the wily pitcher incarnates baseball's numberless strategems. Jousting, that modernized relic, has practitioners who are also a subculture, but one that has a dual personality. It was hard to see when the season was in full swing. But now that autumn is in its final colors and jousting's culminating moments -- the Maryland state championships and the nationals -- are done with, a picture of the sport's doubleness emerges. It hovers around two figures: the courtly Henry J. Fowler and the nimble Don Don Reed.
As the state senator who in 1962 sponsored the bill that made jousting Maryland's state sport, Fowler is jousting's unofficial impresario. At tournaments, he presides as King Henry the Fowler, ceaselessly intoning, "Charge, Sir Knight!" and conferring prizes at the end. Dapper in his white britches, regal in his King Henry garb, brandishing nicely his rich tidewater drawl, wearing with comfort a lineage that goes back to Leonard Calvert and 1634, knowing everybody, greeting everybody, inviting everbody to his grandiose Lincoln Continental for post-tournament drinks, Fowler seems to embody jousting's heritage: the war-game of a martial elite become a civilized sport and transplanted among the new land's gentry.
The gentry never reckoned on a kid like Don Don Reed.Don Don, who is "tway-yulve," hasn't been around the jousting scene quite as long as Fowler, who is 71. But for the last two or three years, the kid has made a bit of a mark in King Henry's realm.
Don Don usually arrives at a jousting meet in a caravan of pickup trucks pulling horse trailers. The trucks park a ways from the Fowler Lincoln and disgorge a slew of Higginses and Kershners. This is the Western Maryland contingent, the Whitey Higgins clan and the Dick Kershner clan and Don Don's family, down from the wilds of Clear Spring, where jousting means blue jeans and the heraldic emblems on the riders' hats are of farm machinery -- a tractor rampant on an ear of corn, for example.
Even upon his horse, Don Don's style is his alone. He gallops with a loose-limbed relish, holding the reins with one hand and letting his free arm flap, cowboy style. Cavorting and sprinting, he handles the horse the way other 12-year-olds handle their dirt bikes. He likes to swagger, and he likes to speed.
"Track! Track!" Henry Fowler cries as Don Don thunders down the course toward an oblivious jouster's wife.
Don Don pulls up, smiling. "I wouldn't run over ya', Ethel," he tells the woman, who is perhaps 40 years his senior.
Don Don is like that -- at ease with adults, dealing with the world on a first-name basis. The woman hands him a copy of a Calvert County newspaper featuring a picture of him at a local jousting tournament. At the tournament, his name had been announced at first as "Dondon," as if he were a polo player or a member of the fox hunt set. But the picture has captured the quintessential Don Don: limber, poised, his arm twined around the homemade lance, his hair flying, his eyes absorbed by the ring ahead, and his mouth pulled over to one side and strangely bulging at the cheek. A similar bulge ripens a rear pocket of his jeans.
To know Don Don is to get used to these juicy bulges. Don Don chews Workhorse Tobacco.
Juvenile plug-stuffers don't fit very comfortably into the world of jousting as Henry J. Fowler sees it. Neither do blue jeans. Flowler sniffs a little at the chosen garb of the Higgins-Kershner band. "For more than 20 years, up until two or three years ago, we had absolutely required the English attire," said he. "But that western group -- you cannot get them into the proper clothing. Of course, we just abhor it. But what can we do? We need riders."
The abiding image of jousting, especially in retrospect at the end of the season, is this -- the rapport between rider and horse. Jousters of all sartorial persuasions know this. When you come right down to it, nobody in jousting much cares whether you show up in a Lincoln Continental or a pickup truck. The blue jeans rankle Henry J. Fowler, but since jousting is the province of such a small circle, and since the sport's survival depends on the willingness of folks like the Higginses to make long treks most every summer and fall weekend. Fowler doesn't let the jeans rankle too much.
As Whitey Higgins put it, when a jouster, any jouster, wheels his horse and heads for the arches, all thoughts fly away but one: "Get them rings."