A French lawn finds its champion in a state with deep Franco-American history.
By Jaed Coffin Photographed by Mark Fleming
One recent sunny morning, in a park overlooking the Kennebec River, retired barber Ray Fecteau demonstrated the tossing of a pétanque ball. “Think of a two-by-four,” he said, rocking his arm back and forth. “Nailed right here” — pointing to his shoulder. “Like a grandfather clock: tick, tock, tick, tock.”
Pétanque (pronounced pay-TONK) is a French variation on bowling-esque lawn games like bocce. Players have three balls, each about the size of a baseball and around 1½ pounds. One player throws a smaller ball, the cochonnet (“little pig”), 6 to 10 meters away. Then, the larger balls are lobbed as near the cochonnet as possible. One ball inside of your opponent’s closest, earn a point. Two inside, two points. Three, three points. First to 13 wins.
Fecteau, 76 years old, threw the cochonnet, then shook his head. “That’s only 5½ meters.” He paced off the distance: 5½ meters to the shoelace. He first experienced pétanque in 2009, while visiting friends in France. He arrived on a Thursday and by Saturday was in a local tournament, chatting up other players, using the French he grew up speaking in the Augusta area’s Franco-American community. When he returned home, it was with a championship trophy under his arm.
After that, Fecteau and his wife of 55 years, Lucette, played wherever they could. “At first, it was just here and there,” he said, pointing across the Kennebec. “Underneath Memorial Bridge, on the old sand pile, in the dooryard of Calumet Club.” Then, he asked city officials to let him build a proper court in little-used Mill Park, where the Edwards cotton mill, once employer of thousands of Franco-American immigrants, had burned down 20 years earlier. “At first they had no idea what I was even talking about,” Fecteau said, but they signed off anyway, and for the next year, Fecteau “knocked on so many doors I got calluses on my knuckles.”
As the town barber, he happened to know a few people: granite blocks lining the court are sidewalk scrap donated by public works, the lamppost that lights evening play was salvaged from the Sam’s Club lot after a plow hit it, and stone benches are cut from the mill foundation. “The mill’s still here,” Fecteau likes to say. “It’s just buried under our court.” Games were underway by 2011, and a plaque was installed showing the names of more than 120 donors, many of whom grew up on Sand Hill, the historically French-speaking neighborhood across the street. “But I’m not interested in whether the game is French or not,” he said. “I just want people playing.”
Fecteau sometimes sends box scores of Mill Park Pétanque Club tournaments to the Kennebec Journal. “As long as they spell pétanque right, it’s just one more way to get the word out.” He and Lucette will talk to anyone who will listen about the joys of pétanque, and they’ve spoken to school groups in Biddeford, Waterville, Monmouth, and elsewhere around the state. Though he has hooked a few younger players — current membership spans from age 13 to 92 — he worries that Maine’s youth aren’t interested in joining clubs like his. “Maybe we ought to put some buttons on here?” he joked, contemplating his carbon-steel ball engraved with “RAY.”
Playing against a newbie, Fecteau pulled a tape measure from a tool belt to measure between the cochonnet and two opposing balls. His was closer by an eighth of an inch. He took the first round 3–0. “This is the exercise part,” he said. “You throw the balls, now you pick ’em up!” With a bad back, he wears a magnet around his neck, which helps him lift the balls waist high. But bad back or no, he’s still a crackerjack player. Last fall, he and Lucette finished 47th in a field of 172 doubles teams at a tournament in Florida that draws players from around the world. “Don’t know how much longer I have to play,” Fecteau said, swinging his arm with the tick-tock rhythm of a grandfather clock. “But I’m going to keep playing till I can’t.”
Three places to start pétanque-ing.
Courts in Mill Park are free and open to the public. Fecteau’s club organizes all-levels matches Tuesday at 6 p.m. and Sunday at 9 a.m. Face masks are required during the COVID-19 pandemic. 1 Mill St. millparkpetanque.org
The Maine Boules Club normally meets Sunday at noon and Monday and Thursday at 2 p.m. in a private boatyard, although the COVID-19 pandemic has left the current season in limbo. Games are open to experienced players and newcomers alike. 13 East Blue Hill Rd. usapetanque.org/maine-boules-club
Old Orchard Beach
Municipal courts near the gazebo in Memorial Park are free and open to the public. 4 Heath St.