Wednesday, September 11, 2013

This Actually Happened - A Golf Story

Sweat dripped off the tip of my nose and began free falling toward Mother Earth. It was like watching in slow motion as gravity took hold of the salty droplet, slowly hurtling it toward the Titleist golf ball perched between my feet. In a perfect collision of fate, the bead of sweat splashed on top of the ball at the exact same moment my putter sent it on its way toward the pin from just off the back fringe of the 18th green at Leslie Park Golf Course yesterday afternoon. The ball never left its line the entire 40-foot journey toward the cup, and when it plunked dead center into the hole for an unexpected par and a final score of 76, I could only chuckle to myself.

It had been that kind of day, so dropping a 40-footer for par on a hole I almost never par, seemed to be … well, for lack of a better term … “par for the course.” It was the topper on the strangest round of golf I have ever played in my entire life. Not the final score of 76, that’s pretty much the norm for me. It was the way I got to that number that was strange, so strange, I thought I might actually meet my maker and drop dead on the course. I was by myself, after all, in the one place I actually feel a connection to some higher power, so it had crossed my mind more than once that I was being sent several warning shots across the bow from the man upstairs that maybe this would be my final day on the planet.

First of all, it was 96 degrees on September 10th - a record high temperature for Ann Arbor – and it’s not like I’m in extraordinary shape or anything, and even if I was, most doctors would probably say if you’re going to go out in the heat in the middle of the day to play golf, it might be in your best interest to take a cart. Phooey on that. I always walk when I play golf, and yesterday was no exception.

To be honest, I was excited to play in the heat. I was excited to even play at all. At the fairly young age of 48, my body has been turning on me lately and I’m starting to sound like some grandmother rattling off a list of ailments anytime someone asks me how I’m doing.

“Me? Well, okay I guess, except for the arthritis in my big toe on my right foot, the tendinitis in my right elbow, the torn labrum in my left shoulder and lately, I can’t seem to grip anything in my left hand. I think I broke my hamate bone catching one of my son’s fastballs a couple weeks ago.”

So naturally, I thought a good 90+ degree day would make it a lot easier on all my aching joints, so why not give it a shot? Not only that, as with most of my golfing forays, I try and hit the course when I know it will be empty, and I was right on that count, the parking lot looked like a barren dessert when I pulled in just before 11 am. The thought of having the course all to myself only peaked my excitement. Then I opened the car door and the first wave of oven-like heat rolling off the blacktopped parking lot hit me square in the face.

“Holy shit, it’s hot.” Was all I could say.

I nearly climbed back in my air conditioned car and drove away, as I’m sure most sane folks would have, but then a gust of wind hit me, and I thought, “Hmm, as long as the wind blows, it won’t be that bad.” And with that, I grabbed my clubs and headed for the clubhouse where I bought a brand-new sleeve of Titleists and told the club house attendant I wanted to walk 18.

He looked at me as if I made some kind of mistake.

“I’m sorry, did you say you wanted to walk?”

“Yup.” I said, “Why not?”

He didn’t answer, but the look on his face definitely said, “Well, because I don’t particularly want to have to go out and search for your dumbass -scorched carcass somewhere on the hills of the back nine in about three hours.”

I smiled at him, took my change and my sleeve of balls and trudged out to the first tee to start loosening up. Right away I realized my “extreme-heat-equals-looser-body-parts” plan wasn’t exactly going to take effect with any sort of suddenness. Either that, or the 600 mg of naproxen I popped that morning wasn’t doing the trick, because the moment I started to warm up by swinging a couple clubs around my head like a batter in the on-deck circle, several parts of my body immediately began to take offense.

My left hand, mostly, was telling me, “WTF?” To which I replied, “WTF to you?” ‘How can you go and desert me like this – what the hell have I ever done to you? I wash you, trim your nails, even get married so I can put a nice gold band on one of your fingers, and this is how you repay me?”

My hand either didn’t care, or it wasn’t listening, because it still hurt like hell, and for the second time in less than 10 minutes, I contemplated getting back into my car and driving home before I even started. But it’s not like me to give up that easily, so I figured I would play the first three holes (#3 at Leslie comes right back to the clubhouse) and if it hurt too much, I’d abandon ship and head home after the third hole, but at least I would have given it the old college try.

With all the pain I was experiencing in my hand, I hadn’t really paid much attention to the fact that my body was suddenly moistening up at a fairly rapid rate. This was a little strange, given the fact I had only been outside for less than five minutes, and I wasn’t sure if it was the heat, me being out of shape, or simply condensation on my skin since I had been in air conditioning all morning (probably a combination of all three). I took the towel off my golf bag and realized I would be using it a lot more wiping off me than my clubs for most of the day.

I also realized that if I were to actually play all 18 holes on foot, I would have to seriously slow things down and pace myself – conserve as much energy as possible, swing easy, maybe 75% of max, walk slowly, drink a lot of water, and not worry about my score.

So I teed up the ball for my first drive of the day on the 543-yard par 5 first hole, took an easy swipe at it, and then cringed at impact as my left hand shot a stinger of pain up my arm. But the swing was a good one, sending a beautiful, high draw up the right center of the fairway that caught a tail wind and left the ball 285 yards away from where I was standing. 

“Hmm, where the hell did that come from?” I thought as I slowly and methodically made my way up the fairway to my ball. The ground was still wet with dew, even though it was 11 am, it was so humid, the dew wasn’t going anywhere soon, but the ground underneath the wet grass was firm and fast, and my tee shot benefitted from the firm terrain with an additional 30 yards of roll.

To stay with my saving-energy plan, I skipped any pre-shot routine for my second shot and just pulled out my 3-wood, walked up to the ball, and without so much as a waggle, sent my second shot on its way. Another beautiful, high draw that didn’t hurt as much as my tee shot, and once again rolled out a good 20-yards or so, coming to rest about 15-yards short of the green.

“Damn, two in a row - how bout that?” I muttered to myself.

I hadn’t planned on being that close to the green in two shots, didn’t really want to be, quite frankly. Normally I like to be out around 100-yards or so where I can hit some kind of full wedge to the hole since I never practice any touch shots (hell, I never practice any full shots either, come to think of it), but there I was, a tricky little pitch shot over a bunker to a front pin, and to make matters worse, I was sitting on a tight lie – a chilly-dip special to be sure. This time I figured I better take a few practice swings, and oddly enough, my practice swings felt really good; I was nipping the grass perfectly. When I hit my actual shot, it was even better. The ball clicked precisely off the face of my sand wedge, landed just over the bunker on the fringe of the green, took one hop, then began rolling toward the cup, before … plunk!  Eagle!

“Well, I’ll be damned.” 

I’d hit three perfect shots and now I was two-under par after one hole. Never one to look ahead, I already started thinking about the 64 I was about to shoot!

I walked to the second tee with a smile on my face. Already, sweat was starting to soak my golf glove. The second hole is a 190-yard par-3, and it was into the wind, but the wind felt really good in the heat and I was two-under par. The pin was back, so I hit my 16-degree hybrid club while promptly forgetting about my 75% motto. Instead, I tried to smoke one hard into the wind to get it back to the pin. What I got was a smoking duck hook that crashed headlong into the woods about 20-yards left of the green.

“You dumbass!”

I took out a 3-iron, teed up another ball, and this time hit it safely onto the middle of the green. Two putts later, I was back to reality with a double bogey 5.

Easy come. Easy go.

Normally, I would have been pissed about throwing away two shots like that, but for some reason I was pretty relaxed, and the wind was making the heat somewhat bearable, so I decided I would at least play the front nine instead of stopping after three, and If I did have any doubts about walking in early, the birdie I made on the third hole erased them.

Back to one under par – and this time I was thinking, “Maybe a 68?”

I quickly readjusted that number after I rolled in a 20-footer for birdie on #4. I was back to two under after four holes and I had yet to even make a par. On top of the that, the pain in my hand had been minimal because I was hitting the ball on the sweet spot nearly every shot, and I had just dropped two longish putts, something I never seem to do when I’m hitting the ball well.

 “Hmm, perhaps a 66?”  I thought.

After my drive on the fifth hole, I caught up to a threesome of women golfers who were putting on the green. This surprised me since I thought I was the only one on the course, but it also gave me a chance to think about my next shot. I was 130-yards from the uphill green, but stuck behind one of two giant oak trees that guard the left side of the fairway.

“Should I try and go over the tree with a 9-iron from a downhill lie?” I thought. “Or maybe punch-hook a 6-iron around the tree and run it up to the green? Or maybe I should just hit a high drawing 8-iron that does a little of both?”

I chose number three, and I chose poorly.

I bladed the shot and it really hurt my left hand. The ball went screaming under the tree and over the green. Luckily, it came to rest not far from the back pin placement and I easily chipped it up a foot from the hole and saved par – my first par of the day! On #6, I made it two pars in a row after another high, downwind draw off the tee, followed by a 7-iron approach that landed 20-feet from the pin for an easy two-putt.

The women in front of me let me play through on the seventh hole, a 149-yard par 3, that I bogeyed by missing a three-footer for par. Now I was back to one under, but I quickly erased my blemish on #7, by making another birdie on #8. Back to two under!

To keep up the theme of my Jekyll and Hide round, I severely hooked my tee shot into the woods on ninth hole and feared the worst, but I actually found the ball, punched out of the woods, and then hit my third shot 6-feet from the pin! The way things were going, I was confident I would make a great save for a par, so confident, in fact, that I three-putted the damn thing for another double bogey!

“Are you f****g kidding me?”

On the one hand, I was really pissed off at myself for tossing away what could have been a truly amazing round of golf … on the other hand, I had made only two pars on the front nine and somehow I still shot an even par 36!

At this point I was on the fence about continuing my round. I had plenty of work to do back home and I was dripping sweat from every pore of my body. So I did the only thing I could think of … I checked my pulse.

My heart rate seemed normal and I had to pee, so I knew I wasn’t dehydrated. Figuring I wasn’t going to die anytime soon, and, what the hell, the round had been pretty interesting so far and my hand was still hanging in there, I decided to keep playing.

I headed off for the long walk to the 10th tee.

The 10th hole at Leslie is a long par 4 with a narrow fairway and a second shot that must carry Traver Creek, which wraps around and cozies up to the front of the long, sloping green. I’ve made me some big numbers on this hole in the past, but it was playing straight downwind, and I shortened it even more by once again booming a high draw off into space to a spot where I had a very comfortable second shot - 145 yards, to be exact, my favorite distance. I struck a perfect 8-iron 6-feet from the pin for birdie, but with thoughts of the three-putt on the ninth hole still fresh in my head, I never gave my birdie putt a chance, wimping out and leaving it short.

It was an easy par, only my third for the round, but it was the biggest disappointment of the day. It was golf how I always play, safe and cautious, and up to that point, I hadn’t really engaged my brain for anything other than trying to stay hydrated and not die before the kids got home from school. The results on the scorecard were a total roller coaster, but it was fun not giving a shit, and the one time I did, I totally blew it, even more than any of my screw ups on the front nine. I had a birdie by the throat and I had wussed out!

For the first time all day, I started feeling tired - my legs mostly, but also mentally.  Thoughts of anything other than golf started taking over as I teed up the ball on the 11th hole, a winding, hilly par-5 that snakes its way through the woods. The 11th hole was once a pushover, easily reachable in two for long hitters, and even for short hitters like me if I really got ahold of one. But those days were gone for me. A new tee box had been built adding another 40-yards to the hole, and the left side of the fairway, once nothing but rough, now had a wide expanse of an overgrown natural area with Traver Creek running through it. And that’s exactly where I sent my next duck-hook of a drive!

I looked for the ball for a while among the prickers and brush, but it was really hot in the tall thistle and weeds, and I didn’t want to waste any more time than necessary (or leave my rotting corpse somewhere where it might take more than a day or two to find me) so I climbed the banks of the overgrown creek bed, pulled the last ball from my new sleeve of Titleists, and took a penalty drop.

As penalty drops go, it wasn’t a good one. I sulked when I saw it nestle deep into the rough. A normal person would just bump the ball and improve their lie (what the hell, it’s not like we’re playing in the US. Open or anything, right?) but I always play it by the book, so I left the ball as it was and tried to slash it out of the rough, knowing full well it was going to hurt my hand like hell. I was right, but the pain was only half as bad as the shot, which I skulled thirty yards deeper into the rough behind a bunch of trees. From there; I punched out sideways, and then hit the worst approach shot of my day into even deeper rough, left and short of the green.

Because the 11th hole runs through the woods, there is little to no circulation of fresh air, and now the sweat was really poring out of me. My glove had become useless as I tried my best to gouge one onto the putting surface. Instead, I bladed the ball over the green, off the cart path and deep into the woods. I had to stop for a second and figure out what the hell I was going to do. I had just spent my last bullet from that new sleeve of Titleists, and I didn’t even know if I had any more balls in my bag. Turns out I did, a few Titleist Pro V-1’s left over from a some scramble I played in over a year ago. I prepared to take my second penalty drop on the hole, but before I did, I had to figure out, just exactly, how many strokes I had taken up to that point!

“Let’s see, one in the shit … drop … hit three into the trees … chopped four into the fairway … crapped five up to here … bladed six into the Deep Woods Off … another drop … hitting eight! Holy crap, I’m already on a snowman and I’m not even on the fricking green yet?”

I wasn’t mad, just slightly amused at how quickly my once-promising round had evaporated into the September heat.

Not that it could get much worse, but I chopped my eighth shot on the green and then three-putted from 12 feet for an 11!!! They don’t even have word for that kind of score in golf. Quadruple bogey is as high as they go, after that they just call it “other.”

That pretty much sealed the deal for me. My round was gone … shot to hell in less than five minutes. The 12th hole, a 174-yard par 3 would be the last hole I would play. Like #3, it also finished by the clubhouse, so I would play #12, and then walk in and get out of the heat.

The sweat was stinging my eyes now, and no amount of toweling off seemed to do anything other than spread more sweat all over my wet hands and arms. Luckily, after walking off the 11th green, I also was walking out of the woods and into the wind once again. It was a welcome relief. I looked at the green before walking back to the tee. Normally I pull a few clubs out of the bag and then decide which one to hit once I get to the tee box and size up the pin location and the tee placement, but after making an 11, I really didn’t much give a shit about either, so I pulled a 4-iron out of my bag, right club or not, and starting digging in my pocket for a tee.

At that point that I realized I could no longer continue playing with the golf glove I had been wearing, it was a nothing more than a leather dishrag now, so I dug deep into my bag to see if I could find a suitable substitute. And find one I did - a tattered, old specimen that must have been in my bag for 10-years and was crispy as a potato chip, but at least it was dry! The glove was toasty warm, like I had just pulled it out of an oven, but it felt good to have something dry on my hand.

I walked back to the tee knowing this would be my last full shot of the day.  The 12th hole is one of my favorites, the tee shot must carry both a pond and that nasty old Traver Creek, but it’s framed really well and it always seems to suit my eye … even after a sextuple bogey!

 I teed up my ball and told myself to just “stand tall and put one more good swing on it,” which I did. The ball came off the club like butter and sailed high into the air about 20 feet right of the pin with a slight draw. When the ball was halfway to the hole I bent down, picked up my tee and started walking toward my bag, but the flight of the ball was so pure, I stopped and watched as it landed just short of the pin in the back of the green and I thought, “That should be pretty tight.”

I kept watching as the ball rolled closer and then … plop... it disappeared!

I just made a hole-in-one.

“Are you f****g kidding me?” Was all I could say.

All sorts of things ran through my head, but none of it was what I would call excitement. It was more like, “Shit, now I have to finish this round.” Or “Shit, where did that threesome of ladies go? (I needed some witnesses, after all).

For a minute, I didn’t do anything. I looked around. No one was anywhere in sight. Sure I made a hole-in-one, but I made it right after I made a fricking 11! Who does that? And just think of the damn scorecard. Even in Putt Putt you rarely see the number one three times in a row.

I’ve played Leslie Park for 17-years, and made damn near every number you could think of on every single hole on the course, but in one smoking-hot September afternoon, I’d just made my third score on a hole that I had never, ever, made before.
An eagle 3 on #1, an 11 on #11, and now an ace on #12! What the hell was next?

I looked at the sky to see if any thunderclouds were on the horizon. On this day, it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that I might get struck by lightning, after all.

The sky was a clear, if not hazy shade of blue - as clear as can be. The only witness to my improbable feet was God, a memorial plaque for Don Yost just off the tee box, and me. (I’d played with Don many times before he died several years ago. He was a great guy. I was glad he got to see it too).

“Did you see that shit?” I asked Don, as I walked by his plaque. “And I’m not even talking about the ace … I'm talking about the 11 on 11!”

As I walked toward the green, I instinctively reached for my putter until I realized I didn’t actually need it. And then it dawned on me that maybe someone from the clubhouse could meet me down at the green and verify my ace before I got there. I called up the clubhouse and a girl named Leah answered. She agreed to drive a cart down to the green where she did, indeed, wait for me and verify my ace, even though she didn’t actually see it go in the hole. (I guess my word and the ball mark on the green were proof enough.)

Now things got really interesting. I was still hotter than fire, but I couldn’t just quit now. Not like I had planned on doing before I dunked my tee shot into the cup. The problem was, I didn’t really want to tell people I made a hole in one and then hope they didn’t ask what I shot for the round. How embarrassing would it be to have to tell them I shot about 100 with two eagles and three birdies? So I trudged off to the 13th tee and tried to figure out where I actually stood score-wise. Did I even have a chance at breaking 80? Maybe the heat was warping my brain, because I wrongly figured I was 5 over par at that point, (I had counted the ace as a birdie and not an eagle) when in reality I was only four over par, but I still knew I better bear down if I wanted to post a halfway decent score, if for nothing else, at least for my pride.

With that in mind, I did the only thing I could do; I sent a drive screaming toward Traver Creek for like the 20th time on the back nine. Luckily, I heard it hit a big willow tree by the water, so I thought I might have a fighting chance to find it. Walking up the fairway, I was never so relieved to see a bright, white shining golf ball in the sun 50-yards from the tree. “Wow, that was one hell of a carom.” I thought. Then I got to the ball and realized it wasn’t my ball at all … or was it? It was a Titleist all right, a Titleist NXT Tour #1 … the same ball I hit off the 11th tee. The damn thing must have hit some rocks in the bed of Traver Creek and bounced into the adjacent 13th fairway.

For the second time in less than 10 minutes, all I could say was, “Are you f*****g kidding me?”

Once again I looked to the sky for thunderclouds.

Still clear.

I threw down a tee to mark the ball and continued to look for my actual drive. If nothing else, at least I got one of my new balls back. I did find my tee shot at the base of the willow tree, it wasn’t sitting pretty, but at least it was dry. I bogeyed the hole and then marched on, trying to make pars and trying even harder to stay hydrated.

As luck would have it, I managed to do a good job at both. Despite only making three pars in the 13 previous holes, I rattled off two in a row on numbers 14 and 15, and then I birdied #16.  It was after the birdie when I realized I had been adding up my score wrong I actually was only 4 four over par instead of 5 over.

That was when it dawned on me that I could still post a palatable score despite my “other.”

“Wow, if I par in I’ll safely avoid looking like an idiot.” I thought to myself as I pegged the tee in the ground on # 17, a par three over the huge pond that feeds, you guessed it, Traver Creek.

I hit a good tee shot safely over the water onto the green for a routine two putt for par, but #18 has always been anything but routine for me, a real ass-kicker if ever there was one. At 436-yards and bone straight, it’s not much to look at. It’s a long hole for me if I don’t hit the ball in the fairway, and the strong headwind I was facing made it play even longer. When I hit a complete piece of crap off the tee well into the deep rough 20-yards right of the fairway, it got longer even still.

After the tee shot, I safely conceded the fact that making par was out of the question. I just wanted to avoid something much higher. I wasn’t even going to try to hit the ball out of the 8-inch rough with anything other than a short iron to try and save my aching left hand further aggravation.

I chopped an 8-iron 100 yards out of the rough, but over the fairway and into the deep rough on the left side of the fairway, still 100 yards short of the green. From there I gouged the ball out of the deep grass with a wedge and watched with delight as it rolled just off the back of the green.

“Good,” I said to myself. “I shouldn’t be able to screw this up too badly from there.”

For whatever reason, I was feeling a bit fresher now. It was my third straight hole walking into the wind, so the sweat that had been running off my body like a faucet; slowed to a trickle as I lined up what would be my last putt of the day. As I sent that sweat-coated Titleist on its 40-foot journey to the bottom of the cup for an improbable par to conclude the most memorable … hell, the greatest round of my entire life … all I could do was chuckle and say.

“Are you f*****g kidding me?”

Then I looked up to see if there were any thunderclouds overhead. 

The sky was still clear.

(P.S. Just for fun, I went back to where I found my original tee shot from #11 in the 13th fairway and played it out to see if I could have done better than the 11 I made the first time around. I made a bogey 6 for what should have been a 71 – a better score, but nowhere near as memorable.)

Thursday, November 1, 2012

End of Days

The heat of summer was gone. It slipped away without much fanfare or notice. It drifted off sandy beaches and gravel-dirt ball diamonds without so much as a word. It stopped burning my face and neck. It even left pool decks and sidewalks behind. It was gone all right, just like that - another wrinkle in time, another wrinkle in the mirror.

Summer had slipped into fall almost overnight, and now fall is hanging by a thread. It is the end of days for me. Days I’ll never get back. Days when I became a kid again, a 12-year-old, to be exact, the best age there is in a life full of ages. An age unaffected by real life, draped in innocence and ignorance, maybe with a ding or two in the armor, but innocent nonetheless.

It took me 35-years to make the journey. Thirty-five years filled with good and bad, highs and the lows. All of that is behind me now. None of it matters. No award, no achievement, no death of a parent, nor loss of a job could make any difference.

It was a summer I know I’ll never get back, but it also was a summer I’ll never forget. A 90-day journey carved out of red clay infields, dandelion pastures and bubblegum-stained benches. A journey taken on base path roads with sunburned noses, bloody knees and dirt-filled socks.

I had a dozen kids take the journey with me. They had no idea I was really one of them; they just called me "Coach." My son was one of them too. He turned 12 in February, but he'd been growing like a weed since his birthday, three inches in 90 days, in fact. His voice had dropped an octave or two as well, and his body was starting to sprout muscles where kid parts once stood. This was it for him, his last, first chance at being a kid. It would be gone for him as well once the summer was over, and now he’ll have to wait, just like I did, for his second chance.

Maybe he’ll never get a second chance. Maybe this was the last chance for both of us. I think about that all the time. I was lucky enough to have a son who loves the same things as me. I could just as easily have missed out on my second childhood had that not have been the case. I might have cruised straight into middle age without one solitary thought about what I was missing, and that would have been a shame. 

I never would have felt the aches and pains of my 47-year-old body dissolve into dust with every cleat I put in the dirt. I wouldn’t have discovered my aching right arm suddenly becoming strong again as I reached back into time and space, gripping down hard on the laces of 1977, before slinging a fastball into 2012.

Age melted away like blacktop chewing gum every time the ball left my hand. I was transported back to a time when girls didn’t matter, I had no bills, my bicycle was my best friend and my heroes came in packs of 2.5” x 3.5” cardboard rectangles.

Baseball this summer, was, in a word, medicinal.

I was smart enough to put my real life on hold for 90-days. I tried hard to soak it all in as I trudged my way through a Michigan summer heat wave watching my team snaring liners and cracking out hits along the way.

My team loved to play and they were good. We played nearly 50 games this season, and we always had fun, even when we didn’t. It was magical and amazing. Time seemed to stand still as it zipped below our feet.

Before we knew it, it was over. Nothing ever ends the way it should, but on a ball diamond in Cooperstown, N.Y. during the second week of August, our season did. It was the perfect place for an imperfect ending. With one swing of the bat, the birthplace of baseball turned into a graveyard for lost youth as my childhood came crashing down. My son’s landed right along with it.

Neither one of us knew it at the time, but the moment his arm reared back and got ready to fire one, last, fateful fastball, we both would step into adulthood. Him for the first time, me, for the last.

The ball spun into a blur as he snapped it hard off his fingertips toward the plate. This was it, do or die for him ... for me ... for the team. It was a scoreless tie at the end of the game - a full-blown pitching duel in our biggest tournament of the year. If we lost, we were done. The boys in the dugout across the field looked no different than us. They were kids from Jersey, but they were carbon copies of my boys in the field - a bunch of nervous 12-year-olds on the verge of elimination.

The batter, who was littler than most and looked plenty scared, swung as hard as he could at the incoming pitch. He connected. The sound of the rawhide baseball hitting the sweetspot was unmistakable. The trajectory of a ball well hit was equally unmistakeable. I didn't have to watch, didn't really want to in fact, but still, I did. I watched the entire flight of the ball, tracing its arc against the blue August sky until it disappeared over the centerfield fence.

My son looked at me as the batter circled the bases. There were no tears in his eyes. He was just mad.

I knew right then and there it was over - over for him, and over for me. My son was no longer a kid - a kid would have cried, but he didn’t. 

I did.

My son will go on to play baseball at a higher level now, I'm sure of that. But girls soon will make a difference in his life, cars will be more important than bikes, and his cardboard heroes will most likely fade away in some shoebox in a closet. Maybe someday he’ll pull them out again and give them a look, relive the old days, just like I did this summer, maybe not. Who knows, maybe someday, he’ll even have his picture on one.

But me? I am done.

My arm is aching again and the wrinkles in the mirror have returned. My summer is done. My childhood is over once more  ... this time forever.

It is the end of days. 

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Summer of Blowin' Shit Up! (part 1)

Hot fun in the summertime!

My father spent most of my childhood making poor decisions when it came to textbook parenting, but the worst of those decisions had to be the day he came home from work beaming from ear to ear, with a five-gallon drum of pure, black gunpowder in his mitts.

His plan, which seemed brilliant at the time, not only to him, but also his three young sons, was to save oodles of money every Fourth of July by making his very own homemade fireworks.

I guess the countless strings of 200-count firecrackers he'd light with the ever-present Pall Mall dangling from his mouth, and toss in the yard, the trashcan, or out the car window (or wherever he felt needed the snap, crackle and pop of an instant pyrotechnics display) wasn’t enough to satiate his destructive desire. Apparently, the only way to truly fulfill his lust for high explosives was to create his own.

He never really told me or my brothers where he got the gunpowder, or for that matter, the large coil of what must have been about 100-feet of fuse and a huge bag full of thick cardboard tubes about the size of toilet paper rolls. He only told us that if ever caught any of us messing with any of it, he would “break off every one of our Goddamned fingers!”

My brothers and I had heard that threat from our father about a million times before, and yet, there we stood in the doorway of the garage, all ten digits in tact – not a one of them broken or missing as we gazed with lustful eyes at the bucket of mayhem my father was trying to put up out of our reach.

Why my dad thought a 6-foot shelf above the toolbox was “safely out of reach” from three young, limber lads like his sons was anybody’s guess, so the very next morning, when he was safely away at work, the three of us ambled into the garage to begin exploring our good fortune.

“Go get the stepladder so I can get this stuff down.” I told my brother Lance.

Within minutes, we’d worked out a very intricate assembly line from the garage floor to the shelf of high explosives. First, I handed the bag of cardboard tubes and the coiled fuse to Lance, who then handed it to my youngest brother Duke, who began to systematically sort out the tubes by size on my dad’s work bench. The five-gallon drum of gunpowder presented a bit more of a problem because it was quite heavy.

“I can’t get this thing down Lance – what are we gonna do?”

My brother Lance, although three years younger, was far more brilliant than I was, especially when it pertained to anything horrifically stupid or potentially life threatening.

“I think we’re going to have to be patient.” He said. Which seemed like a pretty cool-headed thing for 10-year-old to say.

“We gotta let the old man make the first move.” He continued. “Dad knows were dying to get into that stuff, so we gotta trick him and make him think we don’t care. Sooner or later he’s gonna bring that drum of gunpowder down off that shelf, and he ain’t gonna want to put it back up there over and over again.”

Lance smiled. I smiled too.

He was right. We couldn’t do anything until our old man made the first move. He’d know for sure we were messing with his gunpowder if we dipped into it before he did. We had to let him have his fun first, maybe take the level of the gunpowder down an inch or two before we started screwing around with it.

As luck would have it, we didn’t have to wait long. That afternoon, the old man got home from work about two hours earlier than normal. His eagerness to start blowing up everything in site was so strong he’d skipped his usual routine of stopping at the bar after work until it was time for dinner.

This surprised all of us, but mostly my mother, who was none too pleased to see his rusty old Cadillac pulling in the driveway at 4 o’clock. She didn’t mind his forays at the bar after work because she didn’t mind anything that kept him out of the house. But she didn’t have to worry, at least not this day, because my old man headed straight for the garage when he got home. He didn’t even stop in the house to grab a beer or use the bathroom; he just parked his car in the driveway and raced into the garage with a focused gleam in his eye that can only be described as maniacal.

My brothers and I quietly followed. He didn’t seem to mind as long as we kept our mouths shut and stayed out of his way. Once inside the garage, he pulled off his necktie and threw it on the floor. Then he rolled up his sleeves and got to work.

I looked over at Lance and nodded. He looked back at me and winked. We both knew why we were there - it was a recon mission and nothing more. We needed to take mental notes as our old man toiled with the step-by-step process of making high explosives. My brother Duke took it one step further - he’d brought a note pad and a pencil in case our mental notes failed.

We knew from previous experience that our father wasn’t exactly the type to do anything by the book, so we had to be sharp and only focus on the steps that might actually produce a positive result.

The first thing we noted was it was probably in our old man’s best interest, and ours, that maybe he should think about taking the fully-lit Pall Mall out of his mouth before he started playing around with a 5-gallon drum of black gun powder. Since I was his oldest son, it was always my job to try and talk some common sense into him.

“Hey Dad, you think maybe you should put out your cigarette? … you know, just in case Mom walks out here or something.” (I wasn’t stupid. I knew he’d be pissed off at me if I pointed out something that obvious, so I used the threat of my mother laying into him as my safety net).

My dad glared at me, but didn’t say a word. Instead, he slowly took the Pall Mall from between his lips and flicked it on the garage floor before turning back to his task at hand. First, he pulled down the bag of coiled fuse and cardboard tubes and poured them all helter skelter on his workbench. The scattered tubes made my brother Duke cringe. All his hard sorting work had been laid to waste in a matter of a few careless seconds. The 5-gallon drum of gunpowder proved a bigger challenge. The old man grunted and groaned as he pulled it off the shelf, being careful not to spill any of it as he tried to get it down.

It was then that I looked down at his still smoldering Pall Mall on the floor of the garage and suddenly I pictured a cartoon scene where my old man would tip the drum and spill a trail of gunpowder all over the floor. His not-quite-dead cigarette would ignite the trail of gunpowder until it reached the 5-gallon drum still in his hands and then … KABOOM!! After the explosion we’d all be standing in the burned out frame of what used to be our garage, with our faces charred and black and our hair smoking.

Funny as it seemed in my head, I knew reality may not be as kind, so as my dad struggled with the drum of gunpowder, I casually walked over to his Pall Mall and smooshed it into the floor with my shoe, just to be safe.

Before long, he had wrestled his black bounty off the shelf and onto the picnic table in the middle of the garage. Now it was time to get down to business. Like magic, the old man produced a pair of wire snips seemingly out of nowhere. With incredible precision and seamless effort, the likes we’d never seen from him before, he quickly snipped off a three inch fuse for his first homemade explosive.

Next, he took a small awl from his toolbox and punched a neat, little hole in one of the cardboard tubes where he placed the fuse. He then took a block of wax and walked out of the garage away from the gunpowder. He pulled out his lighter and carefully melted a small bit of the wax onto the hole in the tube where he'd inserted the fuse. My brothers and I both noted that this step was very important, because if done out of sequence, or in the proximity of any stray gunpowder, the consequences might cost us a finger or two.

My old man then reached into the bucket of gunpowder and produced a scooper and a funnel. "How clever." I thought to myself as I watched him proceed to fill the open end of the cardboard tube (the tubes came with one closed end) with the gunpowder. He added a little at a time, making sure to pack it in nice and tight with his finger. This, we figured, was another very important step, one that guaranteed he could get as much gunpowder into the tube as possible to create a more dynamic explosion. When my old man seemed satisfied that he had crammed enough gunpowder into the tube, he placed a cardboard plug in the open end and smacked it into place with a rubber mallet.


Over the years we’d seen the old man blow up all kinds of firecrackers and even fireworks, but we’d never seen him look as proud as he did at that moment. I think his eyes even began to tear up as he gazed at his creation. He called it his "M1000" which I guess was about right since it was roughly 20 times the size of the M80’s he routinely brought home from work.

The only thing left to do now was try it out. He shoved his way past the three of us and walked into the back yard. Deep down we knew the reason our dad didn’t mind us watching him make the explosive in the garage was because he wanted an audience around when he was ready to blow something up, and we were always more than eager to watch our old man destroy things - intentional or not.

The old man scanned the back yard looking for the perfect place to detonate homemade explosive #0001, as he pulled a fresh Pall Mall out of the pack of smokes he kept in the breast pocket of his work shirt and lit it up.

As potential detonation sites went, our backyard didn’t offer much aside from our above-ground swimming pool, a swing set and a sand box. We knew, or at least we hoped, that these things were off limits, but you never knew with my dad. He went crazy one year at my grandpa’s house with a bag full of M80’s on the Fourth of July - pretty much made a 72-hole golf course out of Grandpa’s property that day. Nothing was off limits. He was throwing them everywhere - the fruit orchard, Grandpa's pond, even Grandpa's swimming pool. My grandpa got super pissed at my dad that day, but not as pissed as my mom would be if the old man blew up our swing set!

My brothers and I quietly trailed behind him as he looked for the perfect spot. We got a little nervous when he paused near the swing set, but he kept moving further out into the yard until he neared our property line.

We weren’t sure what the attraction was where he stopped because there was nothing there except a stand of old maple and pear trees. Slowly, he wheeled around to see where we were. The old man had a glint in his eye when he turned to find us - a madness really, the kind of look that let us know it was about to be "show time." He motioned for us to back up, which we did, but not much. Then he pulled the toilet paper-sized tube of homemade dynamite from his front pants pocket and placed it in the crotch of an old pear tree.

I looked at Lance, puzzled. He shrugged his shoulders, equally puzzled.

“What is he doing?” I asked him under my breath.

“I guess he’s going to try to blow up that tree.” Lance answered.

“That branch is a foot in diameter. " I said. "There’s no way in hell he'll be able to …”

Before I could finish my sentence, the old man lit the fuse on his cardboard bomb and hustled away from the tree in our direction. His run from a pending explosion was almost as enjoyable to watch as the explosion itself. It was truly his, and his alone. A strange gait that was half squat, half shuffle, always executed with his head sunk deep into his shoulders and a shit-eatin’ grin on his face. Sometimes he'd put his hands over his ears - sometimes he wouldn't.

Like a countdown to a rocket launch, we waited with equal parts excitement and anticipation. Within seconds, the fuse disappeared into the cardboard tube, and for one brief moment we thought it was a dud, but then a brilliant flash enveloped the back yard, followed a second later by the loudest sound I’d ever heard in my short life. In that moment of brevity my brothers and I were rendered blind, deaf and dumb. Soon, our sight would be restored by normal light levels. Our hearing also returned, albeit, accompanied by a permanent ringing ... but none of us could speak. We just stood there with our jaws hanging open until the silence was broken by the sound of my mother’s voice screaming from the kitchen.


There was no hiding from this one. The smell of sulfur hung heavy in the air as we waited for the smoke to clear. My mother was now standing in the yard with us demanding answers from the old man, but he looked at her as if he was just as surprised as she was by the recent string of events in our back yard. Our father was the worst liar in the world, or at least in the family. My mom turned to her three sons looking for an explanation. That proved equally useless. We just stood there shrugging our shoulders as if we had no clue why we suddenly found ourselves partially deaf.

When the smoke in the back yard finally cleared, it was hard not to notice that a giant pear tree limb, oddly enough, about a foot in diameter, lay fatally wounded about 20-feet from its original location. My mother caught site of the dismembered tree, and smoke once again reappeared, only this time it was rolling out from underneath her collar.

“Goddammit Tom, what the hell did you do you?”

“What?" My dad said defensively. "That tree was dead anyhow.”

I looked over at the fallen limb. It was still nice and green where it had been ripped from the rest of the tree by my dad's M1000 - ripe pears dangled from its branches. I’m not sure what my dad’s definition of dead was, but it must have differed from the conventional one. Either way,one thing was certain, that tree was well on its way to being dead now, and my old man was too if he walked anywhere near my mother!