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Ah," said the man dressed in a tartan tam-o'-shanter, tweeds and an oatmeal-colored wool sweater, "it's a shame. Alex developed a twist up the line. He had a fine delivery once."
Alex, whose 40-pound curling stone was gliding snaillike down the ice, had left the safe purlieus of St. Andrews Golf Club rink in Yonkers, N. Y. and spent a vacation soaking up atmosphere and knowledge in Canada. The results were fatal, in the eyes of the man in the tam-o'-shanter, the skip, or captain. Alex twisted his wrist probably a sixteenth of an inch more than he once had, in his long, smooth lay of the stone. He would be a long time working it out. Of such delicate niceties is curling made.
The sport is a curious one, but slowly gaining in adherents who have fathomed its strange ways and learned to love it. The delivery is approximately that of bowling, the court is reminiscent of shuffleboard, the scoring is close to that of horseshoes and it is played on ice.
To most first-time observers, the oddest thing about it is the sweeping, that comically serious process in which two men with brooms precede the ponderously moving stone, alternately sweeping furiously and resting. It is typical of the murky nature of the game that nobody is quite sure what the sweeping does. Theories vary from the scientific—it creates a vacuum that sucks the stone along—to the humorous—it makes for rink (team) enthusiasm. Under the baleful eye of the skip, who directs every move, the sweepers respond readily to cries of "Soop it up" (sweep it up!) and "Ca Canny" (carefully) and appear pleased with the results.
The object of the game is simple enough. There are four men to a rink, each curls two stones during an "end" and there are 10, 12 or 14 ends to a match, the number depending on the local rules. The stone closest to the center of the bull's-eye (called the house) gets a point and each subsequent stone that is closer than any of the enemy's is worth a point. Stones have to be in the house in order to score. Thus a side can make up to 8 points in an end, but if it did it would come in for some pretty heavy backslapping. The nearest equivalent is a perfect no-hit, no-run baseball game. Most curlers play a lifetime without seeing one.
Modern curling is hoary with Scottish tradition, but according to some historians and etymologists its burr may have been superimposed on a game of even earlier, foreign origin. Sometime in the 16th century Scotsmen started keeping records of games on frosted tarns. The first stones were thrown a short distance on the ice. Handles came in later and with them stones of all kinds weighing up to 110 pounds. The Scottish rinks standardized their rules in 1838, bringing sanity and uniformity back to the stones. They now weigh between 39 and 43 pounds and the best still come from a polished granite found chiefly on the Scottish isle of Ailsa Craig. Today curling is a minor national sport in Canada (there are about 175,000 active participants) and is spreading in the colder sections of the United States, where 7,500 persons play in 72 clubs.
There's a song in Canada, Her Man's Awa' Wi' the Broom. The men would only like to think so. In the U.S. and Canada, women are playing the game too. Even so, the amenities of old are still observed. Scotland's national drink is an integral part of the game and when a bonspiel (literal translation: good talk), a match between two or more clubs, is over, there are hearty toasts aplenty to the international motto: "We're Brithers a'."