BRENT CHAMPACO; The News Tribune Published: July 5th, 2007 Walt Thomas has worked with his hands nearly all his life, from digging in Kentucky coal mines to building cedar furniture in his Olalla shed.But it was one of his most primitive creations – a 4-foot-high concoction of PVC pipe used to play a game fashioned after horseshoes – that became a hit with activity-starved soldiers in Iraq.
Thomas mailed the game to his grandson, Jesse Thomas, an Air Force radiology technologist who served a five-month stint in the desert before coming home in May.
The younger Thomas began playing the backyard game with a few friends to pass time. Some call it Hillbilly Horseshoes. Others call it Ladder Golf or Bolo Toss. He and his friends called it Hillbilly Golf.
Passers-by quickly took notice. His squadron began holding tournaments.
A few weeks later, the games expanded to include all of Kirkuk air base in Northern Iraq, where it became the installation’s version of March Madness.
The younger Thomas said his grandfather’s creation provided soldiers with something they badly needed: a distraction from the violence outside the base.
“Just for a little while, you get to play like you’re back at home,” he said in a phone interview this week from Illinois, where he’s a member of the 375th Medical Support Squadron at Scott Air Force Base.
Walt Thomas, 77, said he was trying to help his grandson stave off boredom with a simple handmade gift. He never realized it would entertain and boost morale for some of the airbase’s 5,000 or so troops.
He laminated the thank-you card and pictures the air base sent him after his creation became a hit. He shows it to customers when he’s selling his furniture along roadsides on the Peninsula.
“It kind of brought a tear to my eye, to know you’re sort of making a difference for those guys,” Thomas said in his Southern drawl.
Peninsula residents may recognize the grandfather of 14 and great-grandfather of five. He sells his cedar lawn furniture every weekend near the Gig Harbor Grange and near Lonning’s Saw on the Key Peninsula.
Thomas learned about Hillbilly Horseshoes last year during a family get-together in Texas. The game, which is sold on the Internet and stores such as Wal-Mart, is popular among college students, especially in the South and on the East Coast.
He joined the fun and spent hours trying to land pieces of rope on the ladder’s rungs.
Sheri Lewis, his daughter who lives on the Key Peninsula, said she wasn’t surprised when her father wanted to make his own version soon afterward.
He started selling it alongside his wood furniture every weekend for about $50 a set. So far, he’s sold 15 sets.
“Ever since I can remember, he’s someone who looks at something and says, ‘I can do that,'” Lewis said.
Jesse Thomas also played the game at his family’s party in Texas. After he deployed to Iraq in January, he asked his “Pops” to send him a set.
The 30-year-old airman said Kirkuk offers little recreation, so he and his friends set up the game near the base hospital.
Interest started to climb. His squadron of about 100 held a tournament, with the winner receiving a plaque.
As word spread, Kirkuk’s Army contingent wanted to play. Soldiers borrowed extra PVC pipes from one of the other squadrons and made about eight more sets.
The appreciation shows in the card the soldiers and airmen sent to Walt Thomas.
“Thank you so much for sharing such a FUN game with us here in the desert,” wrote someone named Carla.
Another person wrote, “It made the time here great.”
The retired handyman said he’ll remember one particular message scribbled in the middle of the card:
“I hope you realize how much it meant to everyone here. Thanks so much and I’ll see ya’ll real soon. Love, Jesse.”
Brent Champaco: 253-597-8653 email@example.com
How to play Bolo Toss, aka Hillbilly Horseshoes, aka Ladder Golf
. Place the ladders at least 30 feet apart.
. Each team gets a set of three bolos, or ropes with balls attached on both ends. One person tosses a bolo and tries to land it on one of the ladder’s three rungs. The top run is worth three points; the middle is worth two; the bottom is worth one.
. When that player tosses all three of his or her bolos, a player from the opposite team does the same. Throwers can cancel out their opponents’ points by landing on the same rung or by knocking the other player’s bolo to the ground.
. Scoring can differ, but the player or team with the most points gets to toss first in the next round. Most games are played up to 21.
For more information on the game, visit www. bolotoss.com.