The power of polo ponies

In 1911, my grandfather, James Lawton Collins, was a Lieutenant in the United States Army assigned to a Cavalry Regiment fighting Moslem revolutionaries in the Southern Philippines called the Moros.

As was traditional in cavalry units, during a lull in the fighting, they held a polo tournament. The commander of the U.S. forces, Major General John “Black Jack” Pershing, attended the polo match and was impressed with the overall performance of my grandfather.

Not only did he score more goals than anyone else, but he also made some great defensive maneuvers with his polo pony. At the end of the tournament, General Pershing asked the Colonel, who was my grandfather’s Regimental Commander: “Who was the young Lieutenant who played so well on your team?”

The Colonel replied: “Sir, that’s Lieutenant Collins…Why do you ask?” Pershing replied: “Because I’d like to have him on my Headquarters Company polo team.”

The Colonel protested, but to no avail, after being reminded by General Pershing that he was outranked and Collins should report to his Headquarters Company the following day. The rest is history … my grandfather became Pershing’s aide and was like a son to him.

In 1916, while they were fighting Pancho Villa in Mexico, another polo tournament was held. This time Captain Collins team won the tournament on behalf of Headquarters Company. One of his teammates was Lieutenant George S. Patton, who would become a famous Tank Division Commander in World War II.

People generally think that Patton was the best polo player in the U.S. Army, but when I asked my grandfather about that he said: “No, George was the second best polo player, I was the best.”

They both went to France together on General Pershing’s staff in 1917, during World War I. By 1918, both Collins and Patton wanted to get into the action at the front, so Pershing allowed them to leave his staff subject to recall.

Collins commanded a Battery of French 75 mm field howitzers while Patton commanded a Company of French Renault Tanks. As my grandfather reminded me years later, during World War I the U.S. was using French artillery, tanks, and planes.

Both of them continued to play polo throughout their military careers and probably would never have achieved the success they did, had not General Pershing discovered their riding prowess on a polo pony.

Patton became a three star General and my grandfather, a two star General. He retired in 1946, and died in 1963, when I was 15. He had a profound influence on the way I have lived my life.

Fast forward to October 30, 2021. My best friend in law school, Winship, his wife Elizabeth, and I are on our way to the 45th Reunion of Mercer Law School in Macon, Ga.

Before we get there, we need to stop for his polo match at 1 p.m. just south of Atlanta. When we arrive, the grounds are crowded with large trucks attached to long silver trailers containing four polo ponies each. The field is huge, 300 feet long and 200 feet wide, with two blue goal posts at each end. Winship has been playing polo for over 50 years and his friend Antonio, who is unloading the ponies, for 10 years.

Despite my grandfather’s prowess in polo, I’ve never seen a live match and am in awe of the beauty and magnificence of the ponies as they come out of the trailers.

When the match begins, I am amazed at the ebb and flow of the action. Each team has four horsemen with Winship and Antonio being teammates.

They work together as one, blocking the opposing team’s shots, making backhanded defensive shots, flying down the field, passing back and forth, and scoring two goals each.

The opposing team has a former professional polo player and an excellent local player, so it’s a very close game. Winship’s team wins 5 to 4.

During the game, I happened to notice that Antonio’s six year old daughter was not really paying attention to the match. No, she was staring at her cell phone.

I asked her what she was doing and she laughed and did not answer me. Her mother said: “Oh, she’s watching a movie.” Later, I again asked her what she was doing and she laughed and said: “Facebook.”

I thought that it was a shame that she was missing such a classic game and the great play of her father and Winship. But then reality set in and I realized she was no different than millions of children in the U.S. who are glued to their cell phones and computers all day, every day.

By the time she grows up, the only polo being played will be on electronic games, and people like my grandfather and Winship will be a thing of the past.

During halftime, I was talking to another of Winship’s teammates who owns four restaurants in the Atlanta area. He told me that in 2020, because of mandatory closures of his businesses caused by COVID, he lost seven million dollars in revenue.

However, he sold stock, dipped into his personal savings, and borrowed money to make sure all of his laid off employees were paid. This year he was able to reopen and all of his employees returned.

Now his restaurants are doing great and he’s recovering from those losses. I was really impressed with the integrity of this man who could have walked away and let his employees fend for themselves, but he didn’t.

I told him the story of my polo playing grandfather and he was impressed. Hey Joe and Kamala, maybe you should take up polo in order to get some integrity and guts in your corner.

As we left the polo grounds and headed to the Reunion in Macon, I noticed numerous piles of horse dung in neat rows where the polo ponies had been tied up while waiting for their matches.

I was thinking that it would be great if the opposing politicians in Washington, D.C., could govern the country with the grace, class, and sportsmanship of the of the polo match I had just witnessed as our Founding Fathers intended.

But once again, reality set in and I realized that unfortunately for our country, the only thing we’ve seen coming out of our government in D.C. since Biden took ove,r is piles and rows of horse manure. My grandfather would strongly disapprove.

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