Come with me on a journey through time and I’ll tell you about the summer a set of golf clubs changed our lives. It was the summer of 1954, the summer after my brother was burned in a gruesome childhood incident, the target of a troubled neighborhood boy. It was the summer Dad came home with a hopeful spring in his step, something we hadn’t seen in a long time, if ever.
Dad tooted the horn three times to get attention when he pulled into the drive after working his holiday shift that Memorial Day. He slammed the driver’s side door (with gusto!) and we, the family, watched him scurry to the rear end of our Ford Fairlane that was so fresh off the assembly line, its roomy insides smelled like new shoes. The trunk was roomy, too. Big enough to hide Dad’s surprise, a red leather bag that held a set of golf clubs. He pulled them out for all to see. “They’re Sam Snead’s!” He announced, with fanfare. “It’s a full set of Signature Sam Snead’s.” The putter clanked against irons and made a tinny-sounding song as Dad hauled his bounty into the house and paraded through the kitchen into the dining room.
He propped the bag against a wall and stood back in admiration. “They’re the best set of golf clubs ever made,” he said, with a hint of reverence. We circled, as if viewing a lamp with the magic of a genie inside. “Ray willed them to me when he died,” Dad said. He grabbed the bag’s strap and looped it over my brother Jerry’s bony, eight-year-old shoulder, tilting him with the weight of the clubs. “They’re yours, If…” Dad said, striking a bargain. “If… you go out to the golf course and play. Every day. Get out and build your muscles. Get your strength back.”
Hobbled by burnt limbs, surgeries, skin grafts, hospital stays and legs that had withered, my brother had stayed out of school after the fire, withdrawing behind walls, missing third grade, fitting pieces into a jigsaw puzzle set up on a card table, staring out windows at a severe, cold-shouldered winter with its punishing snowstorms and blizzards.
The household that winter was a harbor for worry. Fear, though invisible, crept through the rooms. Mom focused on Jerry’s rehabilitation, helping him work weak muscles by piling sandbags on his toes and counting–One! Two! Three!–as, slowly, he raised and lowered the weights with his legs. Dad scribbled numbers and dollar signs on stacks of medical bills he struggled to pay. A feeling of helplessness invaded the house. If Dad felt hopeless, shouldn’t we all?
Then came the day Dad carted the Sam Snead’s into the dining room. “Bring the clubs,” he said, leading the family to the backyard. There in patches of grass he demonstrated the proper grip, fingers pointing down the shaft of the golf clubs, one thumb locking another. He told Jerry to play early in the mornings before the course got crowded. Mom would drop him off and pick him up until he was strong enough to ride his bike. Dad, who in his own youth had soldiered on through World War II, was determined that my brother would confront his own battle.
The challenge began with Dad’s non-negotiable advice: Learn the rules of the game.
• Be polite when you’re on the golf course
• Replace divots and clean up after yourself
• Don’t throw your clubs when you hit a bad shot
• Don’t lose your temper when you play and never, ever swear
• Keep your eye on the ball
• Never cheat on your score
• Practice and play to win
The clubs might have been a collection of crutches and canes, the way my brother learned to rely on them. From then until Labor Day, he committed to the game, playing daily, no matter the weather. Wisely, Dad didn’t join him. In the way the mythical caddy Bagger Vance decided his golfer didn’t need him anymore, Dad abandoned my brother to his own resources, granting him the grace of self-reliance. He laid down the rules and gave him the tools, then sent him off, the strap on his bag of Sam Snead’s biting into his shoulder.
At first, Jerry played two holes, then a confident three and four and, ultimately, full rounds. Retirees who whiled away the day at the golf course (old duffers, Dad called them) coached him. They shared a lifetime of sportsmanship and techniques to improve swings, putts and scores. My brother napped in the locker room after a game and, vigorous by the end of summer, took up hunting golf balls.
“You know how to make a sign?” he asked, inviting me to ride with him to the course one morning; “I need a sign that says: Golf Balls — Good as New — 25 cents.” In that way, we formed a quasi-friendship, friends by default, bonded by a circumstance. We rode bicycles along the lake’s north shore, past the boat house, up a hill to the club. I tagged along as he scoured corn fields and ditches along the road, finding balls that landed out of bounds. He rolled his pant legs up to his knees and waded in shallow lake water off #7 green, a watery grave for balls sacrificed to the Par 5 dogleg that was to my brother a nest of golden eggs. He bent to pluck balls out of the muddy sludge. “It feels like pudding squishin’ between my toes,” he hollered to me.
He scrubbed the rescued balls with a toothbrush–shining, polishing, recycling and selling balls by the bucket-full. With a salesman’s panache, he’d kiss the skin of a rejuvenated Spalding and offer it to a customer, saying, “Look at this little beauty!”
We bicycled home at dusk, my brother still waterlogged and smelling like wood rot, his pockets full of the profits, coins, dollar bills and five-spots (I wondered how to snag my share). At supper time, he bragged about his enterprise and talked about the palette of the golf course as if it were a painting by Monet. He told Dad he hit a shot between rows of Elms and Oaks, smack down the middle of #4 fairway.
“There’s no place better for a kid than a golf course,” Dad philosophized. “It’s a challenge, but if you work hard at it, you’ll get good. The game of golf is time consuming so it keeps a kid outta trouble,” Dad said. On and on they went, my brother and his mentor, swapping stories, singing the praises of the game, speaking the language of seasoned players–talking triumphantly, as if nothing bad had ever happened and never would again.
Bored by their sanctification of the game, I resumed my place as a mere observer, glad that Dad didn’t expect me (a poet, not an athlete) to get in the game. Revisiting this memory, I count my brother’s triumphs. Golf scholarships to pay his college tuition, then playing golf professionally and passing rules and tools on to his sons. No longer able to play because of ill health, he leans on a cane when he walks, though it’s not actually a cane. It’s a putter.
When Dad died so many years ago, he—an old soldier—left his legacy, the lessons of life:
Know the rules.
Play to win.
Learn by doing.
“This is for you, Dad,” I heard my brother whisper at Dad’s memorial as he tucked a golf club into the coffin, “Just in case the game’s not over.”
Year and years of writing newspapers, magazines, speeches and stage plays–and finally, Martha McCarthy accepted that she is a writer. Isak Dinesen wisely advised (and she agrees) “Write a little every day, without hope, without despair.”