On a halcyon August evening in Portland's Park Blocks, a 97-year-old man and a 25-year-old woman face off in a sport that's periodically intense, usually friendly and always lovely.
It's bocce, a bowling game dating back to the ancient Romans, once banned by the church as a form of gambling and played by George Washington at Mount Vernon.
"It's pretty leisurely, a sport you can play until you're 100, and I'm living proof," says Roger Sheppard, a 97-year-old member of Cathedral Parish and roller on a Portland bocce team called Non Capiche.
Shepperd recalls his boyhood, watching Italian men play bocce in fields or beside the road in his hometown in northern Minnesota.
"It's competitive in a gentlemanly sort of way," he says.
On this evening, Sheppard and his teammates are in a tight match with Team Ballsagna, made up of 20-somethings who have discovered the ancient game. Bocce involves rolling a small ball (the pallino) and then trying to get larger balls close to it, knocking opponents' balls out of the zone if necessary.
Jenny Sorich, a 25-year-old training coordinator for a home energy company, thinks of bocce as a form of friendship. Wearing a green uniform of Team Ballsagna, she explains that friends from college got her involved in bocce four years ago and it comes as a nice change from her physically demanding pastimes, like ultimate frisbee.
Her teammate, 26-year-old digital consultant Brian Fiore, played bocce in Seattle as a boy and heard tales of his grandfather's exploits on the court. "It's a great time for community," Fiore says. "It's been the glue holding us together. And the sport itself is beautiful. You need to be patient; it's meditative."
Four days per week, matches take place in the North Park Blocks on courts built by volunteers in 2003, the flat surfaces lovingly made of crushed oyster shells.
Bocce has a long history in Portland. A century or so ago, Italian men would roll and smoke at Duniway Park on Sunday mornings, sometimes missing Mass.
"Anybody can play it," says Bill Marinelli, who leads the 32-team Portland bocce league.
Marinelli, 75, recalls setting up a bocce court at a Portland senior center where one of the standouts was a woman in a wheelchair breathing from an oxygen tank. He also knows of a 10-year-old boy on a family team.
Marinelli — a graduate of Holy Redeemer and Central Catholic — got involved in his cultural sport three decades ago when he became friends with Italian farmers in outer East Portland.
He is glad younger people play, getting to know elders and respecting them. He would not object if the formal structure faded away and the games became even more relaxed again.
Bocce is a part of the upcoming Festa Italiana, with an all-day tournament set for Sunday, Aug. 21, at Cedarville Park in Gresham. Food and drink are available and spectators are encouraged.