Thursday, April 2, 2009

Banned on the Run

In a small park tucked away in a southwest neighborhood of Portland, they meet. Before the fog has even had a chance to get burned away by the rising sun, before the mothers come pushing strollers, and before the swings are filled with laughing children, they arrive. They have to be there early, they need a spot away from curious eyes, they need to be finished before society judges them, or authority catches them. They are the Extreme Jarts League, or EJL.

Everyone knows about Jarts, the infamous lawn game, part horseshoes, part darts, all insanity. It now resides in the annals of Dangerous Banned Products, for obvious reasons. Yet, it's those reasons that draw the EJL. They're thrill seekers, danger lovers, adrenaline junkies...they're down-right crazy.

The traditional rules of Jarts are simple. Two teams of two players stand two on one end, and two on the other end, about 35 feet apart. They take turns tossing the Jart toward a yellow circle (with their teammates safely out of the way) on the other end. Scoring can vary, direct hits or closeness, but the idea is the same. A team gets points based on their accuracy. Both teams do this back and forth...basic stuff. There are variations but you get the idea.

Extreme Jarts takes this simple concept and twists it, perverts it. The two teams are there still, but now they face each other in the field of play, the danger in this is obvious, but if that isn't enough by itself, each team is also limited in movement by a roughly 10 x 15 foot box lined out on the ground...ramping up the danger even more. That isn't all though, the last aspect of Extreme Jarts takes the very reason they were banned in the first place, and spits in its eye and slaps its face. Each team has a third member, or "stooge", who stands in the yellow circle blindfolded. The stooge can only be told which direction to move by the verbal commands of his teammates (called callers), and only after the opposing team has released their Jarts into the air. Timing is everything, listening is everything, everything.

I'm not going to mince words here, this is only for the most extreme Jarts players, and people do get hurt...even die. That is why they gather so secretly, and leave before the parks get busy. They come from all walks of life, doctors, business men, students, and sometimes even women. The EJL decided to let women play in 2004, and the idea of forming their own WEJL is in the works as well. Right now though, it's mainly men, but still all kinds of crazy.

Players coordinate on the internet, gather quickly, wear bandannas over their faces to hide their identity, and after six rounds of play they leave just as quick. The teams meet afterwords in a secret location, tally the points, and adjust the brackets. The Northwest league has about 12 teams all across Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. The playoffs and Jartbowl take place in a different location each year, usually far from the eyes of the public, and more importantly, the Government. There are hard fast rules, referees, and an entire underground fan network. But the first rule of EJL, is don't talk about EJL.

There is no protection allowed, no helmets, no shoulder pads, no steel toed boots. If you need those things, don't even show up. Players make custom cases for their gear, but the Jarts themselves cannot be altered. The simple blue & red projectiles, and yellow plastic circles must remain all original. A referee stands outside each box (way outside after an incident in 1993) and makes sure all the rules are followed. I don't know the specifics about the verbal commands (calls), or any of the other rules really, but I do know they all take it very seriously.

I found out about this shadow sport about a month ago. It was my reputation as a guy that "finds the unfindable" that brought an old gent to my door. I've had my share of classic boxed Jarts, and lots of the knock-off lawn dart games as well. Word must have gotten out, and a Mr. Mean Right came looking me up with a firm knock.

I didn't have any Jarts at the time, but I did ask him why he wanted them. He told me he was going to a reunion for the old Jump Darts League being held in Dayton Ohio. He was a big player in the early 1900s and... What are Jump Darts you ask?

Well, I did too. Mr. Mean Right proceeded to tell me the REAL history of America's favorite banned lawn sport (and underground league).

Jump Darts has been around since...well as long as man has. Man's been flinging sharp objects at each other ever since sharp objects were invented, it was called "War". Jump Darts took this simple idea and turned it into a sport. It gained in popularity in the early 1900's and leagues started to form around 1908. Mr. Mean was just a young man when he started playing here in the Portland area for the new start-up team "The Flingers", around 1910. The Flingers went on to take the championship in 1911 with the talents of Mr. Mean. He started playing in the Stooge position but worked his way up to Left Caller right away. He was good. Here is an excerpt from his autobiography "Death from Above". He gave me a signed copy, his words tell it better than mine.

My real name isn't "Mean Right", of course. We all had nicknames back then, One Eyed Nickle, Lobotomy Joe, Limp Leg Lester...and I was Mean Right. I got the name because of something that happened, like how most nicknames are applied to a fella. It was my first day as Left Caller, and ol Jimmy Cowlick was playing Stooge. The San Francisco Limp Wrists (different reason for the name) just let fly and I was callin for Jimmy to get to a no-hit zone. I was going "...left, forward, left, left, LEFT! No God...I mean RIGHT!!" The jart stuck in em, and the new name to me. Incidentally, Jimmy was called "Jimmy Diminished Capacity" after that day.

We had some good times, everybody knew our names. I couldn't walk down the street without some kid asking me to sign a gum card or a hat with a hole in it. We were on top of the world. Hell, I even did a radio ad for Corn Flakes. It went something like this, "Don't get stuck buying some other vitamin corn flake. Buy Kellogg's All Corn Flakes, infused with Pep-ti-go G and jump Jump JUMP to a great day!". It was a good paycheck. Those sunny days didn't last long though, a guy by the name of Adolf almost put an end to Jump Darts.

WWII rounded up the boys in the league, their skills were particularly useful in Europe. Tossing Jarts turned into tossing grenades, and the league had to be halted in 1943. We thought that would be the end of the sport we all loved, but in the '50s it came back, but it was a bittersweet return.

Some Madison Avenue types got a hold of our beloved life-threatening sport, and re-packaged it for a post-war backyard suburban America. They sold it as a safe, fun, exciting, jet-age game, and made the colors bright and the rules simple. There was no risk for the players, and in my opinion, no fun for the players either. Stores across the country were sellin our game, but it wasn't our game. Us old timers used to talk about the new version, we called it Standing Still Darts or Sarts. We thought that our time was finally over, but rescue came from an unlikely source.

In 1988 the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the sale of Sarts, er...I mean Jarts. The lure of the "you can't have" proved to be too strong, and their reputation of danger turned into a forbidden desire. Black market Jarts were being traded and sold, underground games were being formed, and new life was being given to the old Jump Darts sport. You could say hipster scofflaws saved my sport...

Mean Right went on to tell me that he had been, in fact, the commissioner of the EJL for the last 18 years. He was retiring this year at a ceremony after Jartbowl. He was going to Dayton to meet with some of the other original old Jump Dart players to help him plan the ceremony. He stepped out of my front door after thanking me for my time, took off his hat in a "goodbye" gesture, and then he was gone. I noticed though, when he lifted his hat, with his gnarled fingers clinging to the tweed. His wisps of gray hair didn't even come close to hiding the scars on his scalp. I swear he did that to show me that they weren't just scars, but badges of honor from a bygone era of a dangerous sport.

Do Not Attempt Any Jart Game Playing: Dangerous

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