In A Time Of Global Crisis, Golf Gave My Father—And Our Family—A Sense Of Security
The year I turned nine, I didn’t think there was anything outside my dad’s control. He seemed curiously incapable of bowing to fear. Dad always said fear was everywhere you looked. It was boundless in its reach. You could let it run your life or, as Dad, a 10-handicapper, liked to say, you could learn to play through it.
These days, we seem to be playing through a lot of hazards. The dust has barely settled in New York City as we find ourselves facing down two irrational despots: Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and North Korea’s Kim Jong Il. Angry, cornered men with very dangerous toys aren’t the kind of leaders who help us drift peacefully off to sleep at night. The current climate takes me back to another time when we were in the grip of a similar terror. It was 1962, toward the end of my first summer playing golf, and President Fidel Castro—an avid golfer himself—was busy bulldozing courses in Cuba. In my father’s eyes, this was the worst kind of killjoy: a man who was stockpiling nuclear missiles and wiping golf off the map besides.
I was vaguely aware of Fidel’s passion for golf because of a newspaper photo that Dad had clipped, a black-and-white image of Fidel putting with revolutionary Che Guevara. Wearing military fatigues and combat boots, the two men made an impressive pair on the green at the Country Club of Havana. Fidel’s stance was wide, as if he were intent on protecting the ball, his head, topped by a beret, tucked down into his neck like a hunched turtle. Though it was said that Che let him win that day, a short while later Fidel plowed under that course—and every other course in Cuba but one—as part of his crusade against the evils of capitalism. Golf, after all, was played by the bourgeois villains who were out to exploit his poor country for rum, sugar and cigars. If they got their chance, they’d overthrow Fidel’s regime as well.
I was never certain to what extent fear motivated his decision. Not long ago I read that there have been at least 637 assassination attempts on Fidel’s life, and I could imagine no more vulnerable a place than standing over a putt or driving from an elevated tee. A fairway bunker was nothing compared to the hazards of a sniper in the rough. Of course, Fidel prided himself on keeping a steady head under pressure, along with possessing a certain uncanny invincibility. A Cuban museum is devoted to those failed assassination attempts and plots. So perhaps his wanton destruction of courses stemmed only from too many mis-hits and scores in the mid-100s.
Whatever the case, Dad stuffed that photo in a drawer. Mom wondered if the world had another Napoleon on its hands. What was it about men in hats bent on big destruction? She and Dad felt that all golfers should be ambassadors of goodwill and that every problem of the world could be resolved on the fairways, not the fields of war.
In the fall of 1962, about the time Mom returned from a trip to Egypt and my sister, brothers and I headed back to elementary school, we learned that Fidel was now aiming his weapons across the water at us. As Fidel and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev pressed their historic confrontation with President Kennedy to the brink of apocalypse, spy planes captured photos of missiles stacked on empty Cuban fields—some of which had once been fairways, I thought.
Dad, a former WWII Navy man, heard through the military grapevine that California was one of the main targets, specifically our neighborhood in Long Beach, a stone’s throw from Douglas Aircraft Company and the Naval Weapons Station at Seal Beach. With the threat so close to home, Mom loudly damned-all-wars-to-hell while stocking up on great supplies of Campbell’s soup, Bumble Bee tuna and Vienna sausages for our makeshift bomb shelter in the stairwell. Dinner talk turned from birdies and bogeys to bombs and radiation. My siblings and I feared there were sneaky Red infiltrators lurking in our neighborhood, so we kept our eyes open—yet how would we identify them?
Once a week in school, when the emergency-drill bells sounded, we filed out to the hallway, dropped to our knees and covered the back of our necks with our hands. “Don’t look up or you’ll lose your eyes,” said my teacher, Mrs. Bobbin. Nights, I’d pull the covers over my head, listening for the low buzz of a missile approaching our house, waiting for my body to vaporize into ash. My brothers set up a crow’s watch on the roof, hoping to catch sight of the squiggly contrails of enemy missiles lighting up the sky.
Sometimes, when the Santa Ana winds shifted and blew out to sea from the desert, a pink haze—a trickle of fallout—filled the horizon where another nuclear test bomb had been detonated near Las Vegas. Those days, Dad’s face, usually round and bright-eyed, turned fretful and long. Mention Fidel and Dad would shake his head in frustration and despair. He would rather be out golfing with his family late in the afternoons. Instead, we huddled in front of the TV, listening to Walter Cronkite’s latest updates on The Scare. President Kennedy announced to the world that we were on the brink of destruction; we listened in disbelief as the enemy responded with a doomsday message: They planned to bury us.
That’s when Dad took charge. Fed up with living under bullies’ threats, he and Mom agreed that it would do no one any good to wait around for the end of the world. So our family of six headed to the golf course—with a game plan. At Dad’s command, sometimes in the middle of a swing, we were to drop our clubs and see how fast we could run across acres of fairways and four city blocks to Grandpa Wallace’s house. Grandpa Wallace was an official Civil Defense Block Warden. Should the city be bombed, his job was to direct neighbors into his basement.
Dad supplied us with a stopwatch to time ourselves. Every day that week of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we’d run as fast as we could to try and improve our time. The clock couldn’t be stopped until all four of us kids arrived at Grandpa’s house. On these “dry runs” we’d holler a code word at the side door near his black box that electrocuted flies, mosquitoes and any other bugs that touched the hot wires. Then Grandpa Wallace, wearing his official white steel Army hat with the red civil defense logo, would lead us down the steep wood stairs, past the wine cellar to the basement. There, we’d collapse among a maze of shortwave radios and battery-powered lights, sipping water stored in Welch’s grape juice jars and nibbling oatmeal cookies baked by Grandma Wallace. Grandpa had us practice taking shallow breaths so as not to use up too much oxygen. Then he’d shoo us back to the course, where we’d resume our game—panting and swinging on wobbly legs and adrenaline.
Then, one day on the course, we were caught off guard. Up ahead, suspended behind the 16th green, we saw a massive, billowing cloud—ominous, gray and top-heavy. As I ran toward my ball, it dawned on me that I was seeing The Big One. It was the same dreaded mushroom shape that my eldest brother, Alex, had depicted in a poster at school, and for which he’d earned a reprimand from the principal. As the cloud shadowed the fairway, and soon our faces, I scowled at the wicked forces that had cut short my life. Would I ever get to hit a golf ball again?
I doubted that Dad had a secret strategy to bail us out this time. Fidel had beaten us all. Dad walked over to his next shot. He stared grimly at the sky while I glowered at the earth, terrified of his prognosis, awaiting his command. He bent over and picked up his ball. He tapped it against his forehead, as if trying to pound out the pain, and nodded to Mom.
“Rain,” I heard him say.
A deep breath of relief emptied through my body as tears filled my eyes and drowned my words. I reached for a club from my bag and felt for the familiar rubber grip between my fingers and palms. Then I marveled that such a thing as hitting a small ball off the ground and into the air had the power to make me burst with hope.
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