Conkering heroes

I nearly trod on it. The wind had been vigorous the night before: There were chestnuts littering the path -- ripe horse chestnuts. They were so ripe that when the tarmac broke their fall, the soft nobbly cases had split into quarters and the large brown nuts jumped out. Now you might think that a horse chestnut (like Gertrude Stein's repetitive rose) is a horse chestnut is a horse chestnut. Let me assure you, it isn't. I'm an old hand. I know.

The one my foot almost descended on was big -- the prize of the collection. I picked it up, handling its hard, irregular globularity. Could be a winner, that. . . . I turned it over in my palm. Its whitish face formed a patch like felt on one side; the rest was glabrous, red-brown, and as shiny as a French-polished desktop.

I slipped it into my anorak pocket with a childish sense of found treasure that I am glad to discover I have not lost. At home, though, it is merely sitting on the hall table ornamentally. Already its varnish has gone matte. In the next day or two it will probably be tidied into a wastebasket, thus illustrating the difference between the decorative and the functional. At one period of my life this fine specimen of chestnuthood would never have languished aesthetically like a fading object in a still life. It would have been a valiant armament, an offensive weapon, a symbol and tool of Might and Right. . . .

My wife has a class of nine-year-olds. Giving them a history lesson the other day, she was describing that period in Britain's annals when Julius Caesar sent his legions over here to conquer us.

``What,'' she asked, ``is another word for `conquer'? . . . Well? . . . Yes, Mark?''

``Chestnut,'' said Mark, wearing his most serious thinking-expression.

I do think that the class should not have laughed at Mark's eager -- if absent-minded -- attempt at a synonym. His association of ideas (particularly since the difference between a verb and a noun has apparently not yet troubled his young mind) did, if a little unexpectedly, express the natural interests of a boy of nine. If he is anything like us at his age, he gives a sizable portion of his time to the ``conker.''

For the uninitiated, an explanation: ``Conker'' is British schoolboy slang for the horse chestnut. The derivation of the word is certainly obscure. Webster's is of no help. And even my Oxford Dictionary only talks of noses and ``a coarse form of Indian limestone'' more usually called ``kunkur.'' The nasal connection is with ``conk,'' also slang: A quotation from Punch in 1859 explains its usage: ``Lord Lyndhurst let fly and caught him . . . an extremely neat one on the conk.'' In short, it is a Wodehouse kind of word.

I, however, believe that the schoolboy ``conker'' is onomatopoeic. It comes directly from the sound of chestnuts clashing.

Possibly there are local variations to the game of ``conkers,'' but the version we played at school consisted of two boys, each with a chestnut hanging on a string that was threaded through a hole in its center and knotted very importantly underneath.

Boy 1 dangles his in midair. Boy 2 takes aim, and then, with deadly swing, attempts, with his conker, to smash Boy 1's conker to smithereens and flinders and general oblivion. He has three goes at it, and then it is Boy 1's turn to swing. When the two nuts meet head on, a very satisfactory sound occurs: CONK!

Various things may happen in a game of Conkers, not always expected. A conker may fly off its string because the knot has worked its way through the hole unnoticed. Conker-wielders may miss their opponents' conker altogether; accuracy of aim is as telling as sturdiness of conker. And the active, swinging conker is not inevitably in a winning position. Many a granite-hard, passive old campaigner has put paid to its contenders by simply hanging there, unmoved.

I'm not sure that I ever actually owned an old campaigner. I think that most of my conkers met an early end. But Sharples had one. Or was it Fawcus? It could have been either. Both were tremendously confident and organized in my younger eyes. One of them -- I forget which -- could peel and eat an orange with a proficiency and relish that I still wish I could imitate: soundlessly, juicelessly, geometrically. And he would, of course, also have to be the owner of the school's Champion Conker.

We'll say it was Sharples. Sharples's conker (I'm sure I don't exaggerate) was the size of a small apple and as tough as old clogs. Each lesser conker it demolished (and it demolished them all) was added arithmetically to its prestige. It started out as promising as it was large: Very soon it was a fiver, a twelver, a twenty-sixer. It came unscathed through a whole season. It went into seclusion during the school holidays (it was rumored that Sharples soaked it in a secret formula, a chemical concoction of beetle-blood, turpentine, and cement) and returned to the fray the next term stronger and more mature than ever.

It lost some of its beauty, of course. Its outer skin gradually flaked off through endless pummeling. Its edges blurred somewhat. But every blow seemed merely to compact its all-enduring mass, its solid impregnability.

It reached its century. . . . It went from strength to strength. . . . When it became a ``hundred-and-fiftier'' Sharples began to think it might be time to retire it. He no longer deigned to take on conkers he felt unworthy of a contest. But slowly, undeterred, it increased its count until -- magnificently battered but superbly intact and triumphant -- it reached 200. In the summer of '51 it was, I swear it: This botanical paragon had become a myth, a household word, in its own lifetime.

So transcendent has Sharples's hoary old chestnut remained in my admiration that I have no recollection of its eventual fate. I suppose some young upstart, all fresh and sleek from the tree, brash and cocky, must finally have knocked it disrespectfully to bits. I very much hope not, though. It deserved to remain for all time on its pedestal, to be cast in bronze, to be honored no less than other unforgotten victors and warriors. Charlemagne, Attila the Hun, Julius Caesar -- it's up there among the greats, this adamantine lump of nutmeat. Truly can it be said on its behalf, veni, vidi, vici: ``I came, I saw, I conkered.''

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