Home on the Range


My life is marked by a marching line of unlikely saints, my grandfather among them. He is a man who revels in quiet beguilements—chess, fishing, and golf. We went on frequent outings during family visits to my mother’s home ground. My grandfather would procure a cup of magma-hot coffee from a gas station, guzzling it as if it were lemonade. He would drive us in his gray pickup truck, the back smelling permanently of gasoline, to the lengthy field where entrepreneurial locals had set up a pro shop and driving range. A small bucket of golf balls cost ten bucks, and he would buy two and leave me to my own devices, especially after his lesson about the interlocking grip.

I was seven or so the first time we went, and he leaned over me, weaving my pinky and forefinger together and patiently placing one of my thumbs over the other. The nine iron was a bit large, but it felt solid and capable in my hands, like it wanted nothing so much as motion and force. It was a living, Newtonian thing, and its bright metal surface gleamed with silver depth even through the film of polish and the small, angular scars on its face. It longed to be swung. My grandfather stood up behind me, satisfied with the unschooled contortions of my small fingers. He told me to swing the club, and I reared back hard, with grand purpose in my arms.

I had seen it done before. An endless film in my head showed reruns of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as I had watched them on television. The oddly pensive golf tournaments played their cathartic buzz into the afternoons of my grandparents’ home. I often sought to escape their willful lethargy by listening to Pink Floyd or the Counting Crows in my aunt’s bedroom, but in that moment—in the midst of that swing—I recalled with perfect clarity the arch of the back, the obligatory polo, the thousand-yard squint of the serious golfer. I swung that day for all I was worth.

The tiny white ball skidded off to the left with anarchic jumps and spins. My shot looked nothing like the mighty arcs of Jack Nicklaus and his friends. Underwhelmed, I turned around to see what my grandfather had to say.

He leaned over to his right, holding the side of his head with his hand, silent and wearing a pained expression. When he pulled his hand away to look at it, blood streamed from the top of his ear and down the side of his neck.

“I think we need to go home,” was all he said.

I stood with mouth agape, the implement of violence hanging from my limp hand. I couldn’t find anything to say. I nodded in agreement. Home was the answer.

The rest of that fateful afternoon is a blur. I can only imagine the looks of shock—not to say strained humor—on the faces of the pro shop employees as my grandfather returned his unhit golf balls like a survivor of Antietam. I don’t remember the drive home, but the family legend holds that he made my aunt patch him up. Supposedly, a sewing needle and household thread were involved. Thankfully, my golf teacher didn’t quit after that first day, though he did make sure to stand at a respectful distance. I never used the interlocking grip in my small forays into the sport, but I didn’t get beyond the driving range anyway. Instead, I took up judo in college as a less violent option. We all wore pajamas, and there were no clubs.

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