My old pal, Viking Bob, rolled into town from his home in Florida a couple of weeks ago lugging some heavy baggage. Dee, his wife of 40-odd years, had suffered a fatal heart attack in March. VB was on the road looking for ways to assuage his grief.
I heard about this on Facebook. We were best friends as teenagers — so close that we enlisted in the Air Force together in 1970 — but we eventually went our separate ways. Due to the distance — both geographic and cultural — between us, VB and I hadn’t spoken for several years. And, if the memes populating his social-media feed were any indication, I wondered whether we’d have much to talk about.
He’s a retired master sergeant with an obsessive interest in Minnesota sports (hence the moniker) and a strong distaste for pacifists, “ragheads,” and weak-kneed liberal elites. I parlayed my four years of military service into a free college education and morphed into a lefty journalist who seriously considered leaving the country after George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004. (Don’t even get me started about The Donald.) And, while I reach for the sports section when the morning paper arrives, I tend to spend more time with The New York Review of Books.
So, I didn’t quite know what to think when I saw VB’s text announcing his arrival and wondering if we could get together. I imagined an awkward coffee-shop encounter (“Oh, I see you’re having a latté. . . .”) or a disconnected dialogue in some TV-drenched suburban sports bar with a limited wine list. Then it came to me: “Did you bring your golf clubs?”
I was nursing a Grain Belt when VB showed up in the clubhouse last Tuesday, a half-hour before our tee time. He grabbed a Miller Lite and sat down. Noticing the tall boy in front of me — my dad’s favorite brew — he raised his can. “To Mel!” he said with a wan smile.
“And to Dee,” I replied.
“Thanks.” He removed his wire-rimmed glasses, rubbing his eyes to squash the sudden tears, and gave me the short version of what I figured was a long story. She’d been sick for a while and simply collapsed one morning and that was it. He’d spent the intervening months figuring out what was next and finally just climbed into his car and started driving north and west, hoping family and old friends — and a few rounds of golf — would provide a suitable distraction.
It’s no secret that personal tragedy has a way of blurring the cultural and political lines that divide folks, but I’d argue that an afternoon on the links can have the same effect. It’s a humbling game, for one thing: No one is immune to the occasional quadruple bogey, so it’s best to leave your ego in the clubhouse. And when it welcomes you and your aging pals outdoors on a lovely summer afternoon, everyone seems to understand how lucky they are to be alive.
Frank Fitzpatrick, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer who, like me, took up the game late in life, explains it more eloquently than I can: “Because of the nature of the sport, the length of a round, and the intimacy of the shared experience, your golfing buddies come to understand you in a way few others can,” he noted in a recent piece. “They see you stressed, excited, angry, ecstatic. There are no facades possible in mid-swing.”
And there’s little inclination during those quiet moments in the golf cart to open old wounds or ignite fresh controversies, so VB and I chatted amiably between shots, catching up on family and friends as we moved from tee to green. He told me he was going to hang out up north until it gets cold. In December, he would travel to Thailand and visit what remains of Dee’s family, then head to Cambodia and Vietnam, where he spent a year during the war. Maybe even Okinawa and the Philippines. “It would be good to get back there now,” he said.
He showed me some of the black-and-white photos he carries in his phone that recall his years in Southeast Asia. In one, he’s lanky and shirtless, admiring a bomb perched on the tarmac. In another, he stands behind an impossibly young Dee, his arms encircling her waist. “We were just kids,” he said, shaking his head.
Our children are all grown now, out on their own and dealing with their own challenges. He wanted to know how it felt, knowing my politics, when my son enlisted in the Marines. “We raised our kids to be independent thinkers,” I told him.
“We did too,” he replied. “They’ll figure things out.”
“Ya sure hope so,” I said.
In the midst of this fuzzy reunion, we addressed the little white ball, swung our clubs, and hoped for the best. On the final hole, a par 3, I lofted my tee shot to within 3 feet of the cup. Tap it in from there and I’d finish with an even 100 — my best round ever.
I lined up the putt and tapped it . . . a little too far left. Then I missed it again, before finally holing out with a bogey, amid much raucous laughter from VB and the rest of our foursome. “I can’t believe it!” I wailed, slouching back to the cart.
“It’s just golf,” VB reminded me as we drove to the clubhouse. “It’s supposed to be fun.”
I had to admit he was right. It was a beautiful afternoon and we were all glad to be alive.
We parted, but he texted me the next day: “Thanks for the great time, old buddy. I had a blast.”
I couldn’t disagree. It was the best round ever.