Onstage, the Seabees have volleyball and ping-pong. Offstage, some of the actors who portray the sailors join show leagues devoted to softball and bowling. But what ain't they got? Papaya hockey. According to Marge Smithson, 88, who served as a Navy nurse during the Second World War in the general area where South Pacific is set, papaya hockey - or "p-hock," as it was more familiarly called - was a game she and a friend hatched to stave off boredom.
Smithson, who after the Navy was a nurse in Michigan before retiring to Arizona, told me about her tropical pastime during the intermission of a recent performance of South Pacific. "We weren't officially allowed to fraternize much with the guys," she commented, "so we often had to invent our own fun. One day, my friend Nancy Miles and I watched one of the island locals pushing some papayas along the beach with a big palm branch. That got us to thinking: why couldn't we turn that activity into a sport?"
For this makeshift game, papayas, and occasionally mangoes, served as balls. The women found some solid tree branches and with a little carving turned them into hockey sticks. "I grew up on a farm, in Illinois," Smithson said, "and my father was a skilled carpenter. He taught me a thing or two and I never thought those skills would come in as handy as they did."
She acquired her more athletic skills at school. "I played softball, tennis, and field hockey," Smithson said. "Nancy had played field hockey, too, at some fancy prep school in Massachusetts. Honestly, I was a better player. She was too dainty on the field."
Smithson admitted that her aggressiveness could be a problem with the papayas. "I'm sure I broke more of them trying to score goals than anyone on our team." Her tough tactics also exerted an effect one day when the hockey matches, which were female-only, allowed a man into the action.
"We weakened for a moment," she confessed. "He was this Seabee who used to watch our matches all the time. I don't think his primary interest was in assessing our athletic aptitude, if you know what I mean. So Nancy and I decided to teach him a lesson."
Which was? "He was in the laundry services, like Billis, so we bet him that if our team beat his then he would have to do our washing for a month. We creamed him so bad he did it for two months!"
How does Smithson measure the potential field-hockey skills of the women who portray the nurses in Lincoln Center Theater's South Pacific? "They look as if they'd do real well," she replied. "I'd be a little worried about Nellie Forbush, though."
I protested that Kelli O'Hara, who plays Nellie, was an excellent athlete in high school. "I don't mean Kelli," Smithson fired back. "I mean Nellie. She's a little too fond of the champagne and the cognac. If she had showed up even the least bit wobbly on our p-hock playing field, she would have gotten her butt whipped."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Timesand the editor of lemonwade.com