The story behind the two bocce courts on Vince DePalmer's Manchester property is a slight variation on the familiar "Field of Dreams" theme.
It's not so much a matter of, "build it and they will come," but rather "build it and maybe somebody will show up and teach us how to play."
"The main reason I did it was to learn how to play bocce myself, and try to teach others how." said DePalmer, 77, a lifelong Manchester resident.
That philosophy has paid off — DePalmer has hosted benefit bocce tournaments on his private court for the past three years that have raised thousands of dollars for the nearby Charlotte's Quest Nature Center.
"I used to watch my uncle, who was born in Italy, play bocce in Little Italy when I was young," DePalmer said. "He had played on teams in Italy before coming to the United States. Even if I didn't understand the game, it was still fun to watch. The discussions the players had often became very loud."
It was four or five years ago when, after watching several bocce tournaments in Little Italy, DePalmer got interested in learning to play the game himself.
"But it was too far to drive all the way to Fells Point to play," he said.
"At the time, I had an old driveway here, and a friend said, 'Why don't we put up a court here on your place?' The next thing you know, we got a skid loader and we built the first of my two 90-foot-long courts where the old driveway had been."
At first, DePalmer invited relatives from Baltimore and Hanover, Pa., who were experienced in the game. Gradually, DePalmer and his wife, Pat Griffith, got the hang of bocce.
Bocce is played on a 90-foot by 13-foot court, and has vague similarities to bowling or shuffleboard — though the rules are more complicated. Essentially, it involves bowling a small ball, known as the "jack" or "pallino," then bowling larger balls to get as close as possible, to earn points.
But as with most sports, there's a lot more to it than that.
"My wife was completely lost on bocce when we got started," DePalmer said with a chuckle. "She didn't play it, and for that matter she hadn't even heard of it. Now she's one of the biggest fans of the game, and she's out there practicing all the time."
It wasn't long before more and more players began showing up, and before long, some of DePalmer's neighbors and volunteers at Charlotte's Quest organized their own hometown team, The Trailblazers.
About three years ago, DePalmer decided to organize a tournament as a fundraising vehicle for Charlotte's Quest. The nature center is adjacent to his own property, and he's been actively involved there as a board member and volunteer since Charlotte's Quest was created.
"Oh yeah, I was part of the beginning of it," he said. "I helped put in the trails, helped build the building we have out there now. And I still go to all the board meetings."
DePalmer says the challenge of organizing his annual slate of double-elimination tournaments, which draw as many as 20 teams from around Maryland and south-central Pennsylvania, was second nature to him.
"I've always been into tournaments," said DePalmer, who for years was active in the former Manchester Recreational Council (now the North Carroll Recreational Council). "I refereed 20, 30 tournaments and probably more.
"In our first bocce tournament about three years ago we only had six or eight teams and they were mostly relatives of mine," he said.
"But at our most recent tournament we have had 20 teams, including a lot of players and teams under 30 years old," he said of the teams, which have colorful names such as The Sausages, The Linguinis, The Meatballs and The Bohballers. "It's amazing how many young people are getting into bocce."
The tournaments are always festive affairs. The most recent one-day October Classic tournament, held Oct. 6, included gift certificate prizes donated by restaurants Brothers Pizza, Spargos and Greenmount Station — and two dozen chocolate eclairs donated by Dutch Corner; all of the tourneys include food, beverages and encouragement.
But the events also raise money. This month's tourney reaped $1,100, which will go toward buying picnic tables for the nature center's new pond pavilion, as well as classroom teaching materials that will be used by local school students and home schoolers who take field trips to the center.
Manchester resident Sharon Hughes, chair of Charlotte Quest's board of directors, said DePalmer's bocce-based fundraising has been invaluable to the nature center.
"The things we've been able to accomplish with what he donated have been tremendous," said Hughes, who recalls that it was DePalmer who first recruited her to serve on the board 17 years ago. "It's been wonderful that he's been able to do this for us."
Bill Skinner, a Manchester resident who serves as vice chair of the Charlotte's Quest board, agrees.
"It really has brought the community together," he said. "Vince and Pat open their house up to everybody and they give all the proceeds from the tournaments to help the community. And people have really gotten into the game when he exposed them to it."
For DePalmer, fundraising tournaments for Charlotte's Quest are a labor of love.
Then again, so is bocce, which he describes as a game based on a combination of skill, strategy and luck.
"In theory, bocce is probably closest to shuffleboard, but really nothing compares to it," said DePalmer, who is retired from the U.S. Air Force and the Social Security Administration. "There's lot of skill and technique and strategy involved."
"In some ways it's just like playing chess, except you can't always put the pieces where you want them to go. It's easy to play and it is easy to get the basic hang of it. Then you get more involved in it you realize it can get pretty challenging.
"But once you play, you're hooked."
For more information on DePalmer's annual slate of bocce tournaments to benefit Charlotte's Quest Nature Center, call 410-374-6193, or email email@example.com. The next dates will be in 2013, and information will be available at http://www.charlottesquestnaturecenter.com.
More information on bocce and rules of the game can be found of the Web site of the D.C. Bocce League, at http://www.dcbocce.com.