Dad Again: Golf Gets Me Home

[This is the fourteenth installment of my memoir, The Long Walk Home. Click here for a complete table of contents.]

At a parents’ night at my daughters’ school, I noticed the tallest fellow father across the room and went over to shake his hand. He resembled Washington Irving’s Ichabod Crane or maybe Newman Noggs, the kindly, disheveled sidekick in Nicholas Nickleby. Because he looked as out of place as I felt, crowded aside by more clubbable men, Chaz looked like someone I could be comfortable with. He remarked that he was taking up golf after years away from the game. When he invited me out for nine holes at dawn the next Saturday—at the rinky-dinkiest nine-holer around—I said, sure, that might be fun.

The year must have been 1991, on the cusp of the decade in which my dissatisfaction with the Gurdjieff Work mounted; the decade of my forties; the decade in which I built one publishing business (Memoirs Unlimited) and started a second (Commonwealth Editions); the decade in which I would make a trial of daily Catholic mass.

In the middle of that decade of the 1990s, I read Vita Sackville-West’s biography Saint Joan of Arc. It described a holy, richly documented Catholic life that stung me unaccountably. Like Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, Joan of Arc was a person of action. Like Thomas she was martyred for her faith. Such witnesses (martyr means witness) had begun wearing me down. Their message had pierced my heart but took time to penetrate my brain.

Their message was, If Catholicism worked for such men and women, how the hell am I so smart that it can’t work for me?

Inspired by Vita’s Joan, I went to mass for a month of weekdays at a parish church in my Massachusetts town. I stopped going, however, after the first time I received communion “the Episcopalian way” and saw myself for a sacrilegious impostor. I didn’t know the proper verbal response when the priest offered me the Body of Christ. Instead of answering “Amen,” I grunted assent.

Instead of Catholicism, then, I took up golf with greater passion. I played every Saturday morning with Chaz, then on Friday afternoons with another local guy. In stolen hours, I practiced at a driving range behind an ice cream stand. I figured I was just wasting time, taking up a void-filling midlife pastime that wouldn’t lead me anywhere. To my surprise, golf led me back to my father. Golf was the pathway of this prodigal son to his dad’s door.

My parents spent their summers in Peru, Vermont, at an old farmhouse on a back road, and Dad played his golf at Ekwanok Country Club in nearby Manchester. One of the oldest, grandest links courses in America, Ekwanok is laid out in a bowl, the sides formed by Green Mountains. Somewhere on one of those peaks is the only Carthusian monastery in the United States, home to the Navy Seals of the cloistered life. But I didn’t know that then. I had eyes only for Ekwanok’s lush fairways and heart for my father’s company.

In the summer of 2003, for the only summer of my life, I joined a golf club. It was, as one of my snootier friends observed, not the sort of club where you had to know anyone; you needed only a check. I wasn’t anybody, at least as the world usually measures somebodies. So I played golf at “my club” and spent extra time at Ekwanok with my father.

The following summer, and for three summers after that, I took trips with Dad. Leaving the Gurdjieff Work once and for all, as I did by that time, made room inside me for humbler company: my father. I realized that he had been waiting for this moment all my adult life, treasuring our friendship as much as I did. After thirty-three years of a false father, I had my true one back.

In 2004, Dad and I spent three days in Florida with my brother. In 2005, my father and I took Amtrak cross-country to visit a sister in LA. I slept in the upper bunk like an adult corpse in a child-size coffin, while Dad laughed at me from his comfort bed below. In 2006, we made our Midwest roots swing, with stops at my uncle’s place in Wayzata MN, a second uncle’s retirement home in Great Falls MT, and the birthplaces of Dad’s father and mother, in Grand Forks SD and Wells MN, respectively.

Then, in 2007 we rambled through the south on a Civil War battlefields odyssey. Flying into Jackson MS, we watched barges wheel through the big turn in front of Vicksburg, stepped silently through the pristine splendor of Shiloh, and spent two days in Chattanooga TN and Chickamauga GA. We passed over the Blue Ridge to Chapel Hill NC to visit my younger daughter at UNC before turning north through Virginia en route to Gettysburg, completing the ambitious itinerary I had drawn up. It was then that I woke up in a motel at 4 A.M. to hear my father stirring in the next bed.

“Web?” he asked.

“Yeah, Dad.”

“You awake, Web?”

“Yeah, Dad, I’m awake.”

“You know,” my father said, “if I see just one more Civil War battlefield, that will be enough.” I understood that Dad was homesick for Mom and his favorite cat, Dickens. So we elided Grant’s blood-soaked Virginia campaign and headed straight to Gettysburg, leaving 1864 for another year. That year never came.

By the time Dad died of melanoma in the fall of 2008, I had developed Bull’s Rule of Golf: Never play the game with someone you wouldn’t otherwise spend four quiet hours with. Since Dad was just about the only person I knew who qualified under that strict commandment, I stopped playing golf after his death.

By then I didn’t need it anymore.

NOTE: This is a brief excerpt from my book-length memoir The Long Walk Home, copyright © 2015 by Webster L. Bull. All rights reserved.

To read the next excerpt, “The Book that Changed My Life,” click here.

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