Certain sounds of summer are timeless: the crack of the bat at a baseball game, beach music drifting over the sand, the sizzle of burgers on a grill and kids splashing in the pool. All those sounds may conjure up good memories from our own experiences.

There was a horseshoe throwing contest at the recent Hell Hole Swamp Festival. It caused me to remember another sound of summer, the metal horseshoe sliding against the stake. It has a certain ring tone, if you will, that's been around almost 2,000 years.

Roman soldiers may have been the first to play this game or some variation of it. English settlers would bring it to the Colonies. Union soldiers popularized the game using discarded shoes from Army mules. It was after the Civil War that the game found its way to our backyards and picnics.

Whether at family reunions, church picnics or small-town festivals, the ringing of the shoe striking the stake forced you to take a step closer to the action.

The first national competition was held in 1910 in Bronson, Kan. A newspaper account from that time says that 1,000 people gathered from every direction and the winner received a first place prize of $2.50.

Close does count

In most backyard games, rules are established concerning the point designations and the game total. My best recall is that the Pepers generally agreed that a ringer was 5 points and a leaner was worth 3. I think we counted all points and didn't cancel an opponent's shoe if yours was closer. The game was 21 and had to be won by 2.

How can I remember all of this stuff but can't recall what I ate for supper last night?

The game starts by the opponents tossing to see who goes first. That's determined by who throws the horseshoe closer to the stake. So now you know where the adage "close only counts in horseshoes" comment comes from.

The game was so simple, yet competitively compelling. At family gatherings, my brothers and I would really hunker down. If you won, you took on the next relative.

I'm still not so sure one of my younger brothers didn't intentionally throw at your ankles just to keep everybody on their toes. It was always funny, until it wasn't.

Raising the stakes

Throwing horseshoes still is very popular in the United States and Canada. There's a national association that governs the rules and stages championships.

In the early 1900s, the stake was barely a couple of inches off the ground. In the 1950s, the current regulation stake height was established to be 14 or 15 inches. There you go, another everyday expression about "raising the stakes." We're learning all kinds of things here today.

Not nearly as much is known about when the horseshoe became a symbol of luck. When shoes were placed on horses, seven nails were used. That probably had something to do with it. When an old horseshoe is nailed to a barn, it must be hung with the open side turned up so that it can catch all the luck. If the shoe is turned downward, all the luck spills out.

I still enjoy hearing that iron shoe hit the metal stake. I especially enjoy it now that my brothers and I have passed this entertainment along to our kids. They, too, are drawn to the laughter, the competition, the story-telling and the occasional shoe that rolls closer than necessary to your ankle.

Close does count in horseshoes. It counts, if we let it, with family and friends as well.

Reach Warren Peper at 937-5577 or wpeper@postandcourier.com.