It was the very cream of society, mostly, that flew into Schenectady last week for the women's national curling championships, the kind that is perfectly at home in St. Moritz or Nassau or Palm Beach. Everything elegant that is supposed to happen at a women's bonspiel went off without a hitch except—except the society matrons, who simply adore the sporting life, ran up against a cashier, a schoolteacher, the wife of an engineer and the wife of a minister. The four, all from St. Paul, would not know a Dior bonnet if it were to ride down the ice atop a curling stone. Worse, they came to Schenectady armed with an aggressive game and an improbable notion that you enter a national championship in order to beat the stretch pants off any team that gets on the ice with you. Such single-minded devotion rarely gets anybody top billing on the society pages but, sister, it wins bonspiels, and that is exactly the way it turned out when St. Paul defeated the Winchester, Mass. Country Club rink 7-2 in the final playdown.
The St. Paul victory came as an awful shock to the more genteel practitioners of the ancient sport, who were under the impression that good old Plymouth Rock stock, a membership in the best suburban country club, a marital affiliation with an Ivy League college and quite a bit of luck were enough to win any bonspiel. "Oh, my," said one chic Easterner, "they're so serious."
One of the very last things Merle Taylor had in mind when she began to build her St. Paul rink was the casual approach. She is slight and dark-haired, with enough bounce to give a Superball a massive inferiority complex, and raising seven children has done nothing to soften her idea that curling is an all-out affair, whether the situation calls for a draw game or the smash-'em-up approach. Her problem, however, was finding three more women who could handle a take-out game, in which a team blasts an opponent's stones out of scoring territory. She found them.
Her first choice was easy: Marilynn Post. Miss Post, who spends her working days as a cashier for a St. Paul power-and-light company, was a skip herself, had four years of the keenest kind of competition behind her and went at curling as if there was nothing to fear but fear, just right for a vice-skip. Mrs. Leonard Grant had had five years to perfect her game and, with her knack for putting a stone exactly where her skip wanted it, she became an ideal lead. It was Merle Taylor's choice for her second that was the shocker. Marsha Hultstrand is a tall blonde with the instincts of a superb athlete, but she had had exactly one year of curling experience before this season. In a sport that usually requires years to master, picking Miss Hultstrand was like deciding to perform a prefrontal lobotomy with a do-it-yourself kit. It takes a year just to learn how to hold the broom properly. Only a month ago Miss Hultstrand was sweeping the ice, with great vigor, through her legs. Hoo, boy! That's inexperience for you. But, as Merle Taylor said firmly, "In five years she will be the best."
Merle began vigorous, twice-a-week practice sessions, and the rink liked it that way. She was convinced that her young squad was good—very good—but the only real way to prove the point was at a good old-fashioned bloodletting. St. Paul found one in the 40-rink bonspiel at Chisholm, Minn., which is just about 10 miles from Hibbing, the absolute it of American curling. The girls slam-banged their way through five playdowns without even breathing hard.
The men of the St. Paul Curling Club were so proud of this achievement that they offered to teach the girls a thing or two more in a series of three matches. Great shades of blushing pink! Merle Taylor's rink won all three games. Then, the nationals in mind, they stepped up their practice sessions to three a week.
Fortunately, none of this was known to the doves waiting in Schenectady. "It's so wonderful to be able to see all your old friends again," said an unsuspecting New Englander, who was sipping a Bloody Mary before her 8 a.m. match. Not even the defeat of the defending champion, Indian Hill (Winnetka, Ill.) rink, spoiled the festive air.
By Friday it became quite evident which teams were the tough ones: both rinks from the Chicago Curling Club were winning impressively, the Skokie (Ill.) rink took two of its games by the improbable scores of 20-1 and 14-3 and, in the biggest surprise of all, not the first but the second-string Schenectady rink was piling up do-or-die wins. Allowed in only because they came from Schenectady, the local rinky-dinks won once by two points and twice by a single point to take on a distinct Cinderella aura.
And, of course, there was St. Paul, which was distinguishing itself not so much by the size of its scores as by the violence of its play. When opposing teams came off the ice they had the uncomfortable feeling they had been clobbered as never before. The St. Paul stones came faster, harder and with greater accuracy than anyone else's—like men's, for goodness sakes—and as for their sweeping, especially Marsha Hultstrand's, they each went at it like a housewife who had discovered a line of army ants crawling up the front hallway.
Among the better rinks, high-scoring Skokie was the first to run into St. Paul. "We planned to litter the house [circle]," said Skokie's lead, Peg Ohle. "You know, sort of surround them. Only every time we put a stone in the house, blam!, out it would go." And out went Skokie. Next, in the semifinals, it was the turn of the Schenectady second team. Blam! Pumpkins again.
In the other bracket it was all Winchester, Mass. but, like Schenectady, it was Winchester's second rink that was pulling off the big wins. "We hadn't even intended to come," said Skip Mayan Wilcox, a stately blonde, who went through the playdowns with a quizzical sort of smile that seemed to signify something like, "Well, you never know, do you?" Mrs. Wilcox remained icy calm in the face of the most hair-raising situations. Down 9-1 in an early-round match, for instance, she brought her rink back for a 12-9 win. And not a hair of her lovely head was amiss.
The final playdown was, in more ways than one, the perfect battle between classic styles. Preparation for the nationals was a now-and-then thing for Winchester. "We're all so busy," explained Mrs. Wilcox. "But we're awfully glad to come. The social end of all this is really more important than curling."
The St. Paul rink, by contrast, got its kicks on the eve of battle by taking a seven-block walk, dining at 5:30 and bunking in at 10:30. "Maybe I'll go out and live a little tonight," said Marilynn Post. "Oh, no you won't," said her skip, in the tone of a woman who has raised seven children.
The match similarly contrasted the eastern draw game with the western take-out, a not-quite-nifty boxer vs. a real puncher. The applause for one of Winchester's beautifully placed stones would hardly die down when St. Paul would knock it out of the house. Slowly but emphatically, St. Paul was beating Winchester's brains out with its thunder stones, especially the ones thrown by Merle Taylor. Ordinarily the St. Paul skip follows her stone with her nose practically on the ice, but when the shot is particularly crucial, as it was in the ninth end, she follows behind with an out-and-out belly whopper. As her stone closed in on the last bit of Ailsa Craig granite left in the house and it was obvious that St. Paul would win, she rose to one knee, smiled and said softly, "Blam."