Darts aren't just an English game

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When we arrived in England for my final tour of duty in the U.S. Navy as a Personnel Exchange Program Officer, we really didn’t know much about day-to-day life in the United Kingdom.

My experience consisted of the occasional meeting with Royal Navy personnel when both ships would come into the same port.

Sometimes, those first impressions can be very misleading.

We arrived at the U.S. Embassy in London in December 1972, and I reported to HMS Collingwood, near Fareham on the South Coast of England. At that time, the school was on holiday for the Christmas vacation and classes would resume after the first of the year. I would be the manager of the IBM Computer Centre, which was being used to train the ratings in digital theory and to learn computer programming in FORTRAN.

Dan, the Chief Petty Officer that worked with me, told us right from the beginning that he wanted us to see England as he saw it.

On weekends, he would send us off to small towns where a local fair was being held that was really unique to the country.

Nearly every week was that sort of thing.

My experience at darts — like many kids — was a cork board that was hung on the wall in the garage, or on a tree and we threw an inexpensive set of darts with plastic flights.

The boards were typically made with a round target area on one side (similar to a ‘standard’ dartboard today) and a ball field game on the other. I never pursued the game or attempted to find out if there were really rules of play.

As we began to look around Fareham, we found our local pub, The Crofton, just around the corner from our quarters. As we got to know a few locals and the landlord, we also found time to throw a few “house darts” at the board. We didn’t do too bad, but no match for the regulars who came in after dinner.

Essentially, you would “chalk” a game and then play the winner. It was pretty intimidating playing against players who had been playing since they were old enough to come into the pub.

Scoring was especially difficult for novice players. Start with 301, add the score of three darts and subtract it from the score to determine the remaining score to shoot for. Do it all in your head and just mark down the remaining score.

As we got more comfortable at the board, we went to the local dart shop and picked out a set of darts for each of us.

That, in itself, helped to improve our game.

There were literally hundreds of sizes, shapes, weights, and flight combinations to choose from.

Fortunately, in that shop, the owner was a big help in selecting a set and they had a couple of boards set up in the back of the shop so we could try them out before we took them home.

We finally got comfortable enough at the game to join the league and we played darts the rest of our tour there.

We carried our darts when we traveled and after dinner we would go down to the local pub, chalk a game and play the winner. By that time we were accepted into the group just as any local player would be. It was a great way to get to know people.

In those travels — and we traveled more than 30,000 miles in 2 1/2 years — we visited pubs that still had some of the games from much earlier times. We found one on Cornwall with a “bowling” game in a room in the back of the pub. It was about 30 inches wide and about 15 feet long with sheet metal gutters. The wooden pins were about the size of Duck Pins (more common on the U.S. East Coast) and a ball about the size and weight of a croquet ball. Played essentially the same as 10-pin bowling, and you had to set your own pins after your shot.

One evening, Dan and Jane took us to a pub not far from Fareham that had a “suspended skittles” game from many years past. Ten wooden pins, like the Duck Pins, with a ball suspended from the ceiling on a cord. You set up the pins and then take the ball in back of a line, where you stood to release the ball and try to knock all the pins down. Someone on the other side would catch the ball and then you try to make your “spare” on the second shot.

I visited that site in 1989 and that pub is now a local coffee shop and the “olde world” games are all gone. What a loss.

I left HMS Collingwood in August 1975, returned to the U.S. Naval Support Activity in Seattle and retired from there.

We have been back to England four times since I retired and we still keep in touch with about a dozen people we met during those years.

Dan went to NATO Headquarters in Brussels after he retired from the Royal Navy, and we visited him and Jane there in 2006.

He’s now moved back to England and we spent a week with them after the 2009 Rotary International Convention in Birmingham.

Robby Robbins is Statistician for the Milton-Freewater Darts Association 2012-13 Executive Board. He’ll write an occasional column on the game of darts and his experiences with darts for the Union-Bulletin.

For more information on the Milton-Freewater Darts Association, see website http://home.valint.net/robby/MFDarts/.

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