Merlin invited me to join him on a blustery day when the wind whipped the white foam off the waves in horizontal sheets of spray. The harbor bar was open, but we were the only patrons this early in the morning. I wondered how he managed to find these sleazy places where cigarette smoke competed with the smell of vomit-stained rugs and urine-soaked washrooms for the most-offensive smell. I knew I’d get used to it in a few minutes but the initial smell as I walked through the door was almost enough to make me gag and turn around. If it hadn’t been Merlin, I would have.
We perched on old wood stools at the bar as far to one end as we could get. The barman disappeared as soon as he’d filled our glasses. I don’t know if Merlin paid him to disappear, or he was doing it on his own. No matter, I decided. I’m sure we’ll both value the privacy.
I stared at the glass before taking a sip. It was the cleanest thing in the room. Giant blackboards full of witty quotes and prices for various shots of alcohol filled the space behind the bar. Televisions, bolted to the wall, in every corner showed a repeating soundless montage of sporting news and instant replays. The sound was muted but the ticker tape of text ran under each with the program host’s opinionated chatter.
The smell of the place forced its way back to the front of my mind. Shoving growing nausea down to, I wanted to get this interview started, so I launched into my first question before Merlin took a second sip.
“Merlin, you were a child once, you must have played games but I’m guessing there weren’t too many video games or footballs around. Tell me about one of your childhood games,” I said. We had covered many tough and emotional subjects for both of us and I wanted to inject a note of levity into the conversation.
What was I thinking? This is Merlin.
A soft smile crept over his entire face. I describe it that way because his entire face softened, his eyes warmed, and a grin threatened to appear under his moustache. Even his eyebrows seemed to relax. Perhaps I’m exaggerating but this question seemed to get to his earliest memories and those made him a different looking person. He was no longer the ravaging warrior, he was a man with a past and childhood.
“We did indeed play games, but they weren’t the kinds of games you’d see on an average playground today. I believe if somebody tried to teach this game today, they’d wind up in court,” said Merlin laughing from somewhere deep in his belly.
Editorial note: We do not recommend playing this game. Serious injury may result.
“We called it ‘Duck The Rock.'”
I watched his entire body shake with laughter as he enjoyed the thought of today’s protected children taking on a game called “Duck the Rock.”
“Ok,” I said, “How do you play it? You’re not really ducking rocks.”
That set the old man off again. His laughter was deep, full and without a care in the world. He was enjoying my confusion about playing a game that sounded very much like warfare on a small scale.
“Would you get a grip,” I said. It wasn’t a question but more a command and it was the first time I’d tried talking to him in that tone of voice. The damn fool laughed even louder. This time I let him run free with the humour until he ran down to the smallest of giggles.
He let out a “Harrumph,” sound that defies the written word. But he stopped laughing and looked me in the eye. “Duck the rock,” he said and giggled.
The old fool started up again with his out-of-control laugh but this time wound down under his own control within a minute.
“OK,” he said. “I’ve got this under control.” He snickered. “Mostly,” he added.
His face grew serious.
“I haven’t thought about that for centuries and it’s a great childhood memory. I have to smile,” he said and hesitated. “OK, I have to laugh at myself for remembering it in that way. There were so many things we learned playing that game, it’s hard to explain.”
“Try,” I said. I confess my voice didn’t share his amusement.
He looked at me, stifled another bout of giggling, took a deep breath and explained the rules of the game.
“It’s simple. You have two rocks – a largish, flat one that’s the base – about six to eight inches across – and you balance a smaller rock – about four inches across on top. That’s called ‘home’,” he said.
“Steady,” I warned him as his grin threatened to break into more gales of insane laughter.
He took a deep breath. “Right, boss,” he said. “Under control now, boss.” The grin on his face was contagious and I confess I returned it.
“OK, where was I before I was so rudely interrupted? Oh yes, a home rock perched on another,” he said. “One player is “it” and the others get a fist-sized rock. “
I interrupted saying, “Right and they will toss their rocks at whoever is “it”.” I confess my tone of voice was sarcastic.
“Close, but no prize,” said Merlin. “The person who’s it has to catch and tag one of the other players. It’s a basic game of “tag.” But he or she can only tag somebody else while the home rocks are one on top of the other. If somebody throws their rock and knocks the home rock down, the ‘it’ person must stop chasing and set the rocks back up.”
“You’re serious,” I said. “The players whip rocks around while they’re chasing each other and playing tag?”
“Hello, Ms. Reporter,” he said with a massive grin and pretending to pick up a telephone. “We called the game ‘Duck The Rock.” His joyous laugh filled the room.
I raised an eyebrow at him, tried not to laugh, and remained silent.
“It’s a strategy game and one of agility,” said Merlin. “You have to know when to run and when to stay home. Also, know your target and lure them closer by feinting a run at another player. It’s a basic battle training game.”
I confess I couldn’t think of a single thing to say. Well, almost. “What happens if somebody gets hit by a rock?” I asked.
“They hurt and maybe bleed,” he said without a second’s hesitation and continued, “And they tend not to be hit more than once or twice.” That old man chuckled, and it was one of the most human sounds I’d ever heard come out of his mouth.
“Seriously,” was all I could add to the conversation.
“Yes, I am,” said Merlin looking me straight in the eye as if to emphasize his honesty.
“That was sarcasm,” I said raising an eyebrow of my own.
And that got him laughing again and I confess this time I joined him. It felt so good to laugh with him, so natural. I felt better than I had in weeks.
And then to top it off, a stein of beer appeared in front of me. I reached for it as quickly as I could, in a most unladylike way, and that too added to Merlin’s merriment.
“We’ll finish it this time,” he said.
I raised my mug to him and said, “Here’s to ducking rocks.”
Author note: As a child, my grandmother. taught me this game (Yes, seriously. My grandmother.) She played it as a child in Aberdeen, Scotland. (My grandmother – born Christina Kidd Duncan – was the kind of woman who was born a hundred years too early but that’s another story all by itself.)
I believe the game caused my mother to age significantly when she saw all the neighborhood kids whipping rocks around our driveway. But to her credit, she didn’t stop us.
We lived in the country so there was a good selection of rocks and tons of space to throw them. The game never stopped all one summer. The only damages incurred were minor scrapes or bruises and those were from falling down on the gravel driveway while trying to escape being “it”.