My son, who is now 35 and a strapping six feet three inches tall; belongs to the local golf club and he’s a pretty fair golfer. As for me, I am not 6’3” nor am I anywhere close. I tried to hit a golf ball when I was younger, but I soon realized it was not my game; I am more of a sit- down poker player. I was having dinner with him at his club one evening and he introduced me to a few of his golfing friends, including one youngish dude (as my son would say), who really stuck in my mind. This young man was disabled, but that had not stopped him from becoming an instructor at the club. I enjoyed the conversation immensely as he told me one of the saddest stories I believe I have ever heard. I asked him if it would be O.K. to pass his story along to you and he gave me his permission. Please remember, this is his story as he told it to me.
I have been in love with the game of golf beginning at age nine, when I first held a club in my hands. At sixteen I was a member of my high school golf team and at twenty I was next to the top on my university team. Like many young golfers before me, I had visions of turning “Pro” and joining, “The Tour,” after graduating. I knew I would have to work my butt off in order to get there, but I was pretty confident I could achieve that goal. I was, after all, a scratch golfer and my father, as well as some of my father’s friends, had agreed to sponsor me when I felt I was ready.
I won the next amateur tournament I entered and decided if I was ever going to do it, this was my time. Unfortunately, about this same time, the trouble in Afghanistan had come up and I made the decision to put golf on the back burner and join the Marines.
I was sent to a military vacation spot called, “boot camp” at Paris Island, South Carolina. This was one of the places where they turned ordinary young men and women into U.S. Marines. My years of lugging a heavy golf bag around did absolutely nothing to prepare me for what we were put through at Paris Island. I went from my first week there feeling as if I was not going to make it; all the way to the end of my training feeling that I was invincible. It is where they remove your civilian layers as if they were husking corn and they inject you with 238 years of pride and Marine Corps history, until you are no longer a civilian; ever. You are either a Marine or a former Marine until the day you leave this mortal coil.
I came out of this human hardening fire a Pfc, and inasmuch as I had become known for talking golf non-stop, my squad classmates had hung the nickname “Birdie” on me. My next stop on this road to becoming a Marine was to a Weapons Training Battalion at MCB Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. I made Corporal there and four months later, I was on my way to Afghanistan. It took me a little over seven more months to illustrate what leadership qualities I had, and I was made a Marine Sergeant. About six months after this promotion, my Company Commander, Lt. Franklin, was killed by a sniper. A quick three days after that, our Battalion Commander paid us a visit, asked for me, asked me an almost unending list of questions whose answers I guessed were not in my record book, and out of the blue, said to me, “Birdie, you are now Lt. Birdie, report back to your company immediately!”
Three weeks to the day after becoming Lt. Birdie, we were third in line in a fifteen-vehicle caravan, moving slowly down the road on a re-supply mission. The first two vehicles went through a notorious crossing highway without a problem and then we ran out of luck. Our vehicle almost went through, but we had obviously triggered an IED which went off, seemingly turning off the sun and causing our vehicle to do two flips, sprinkling guys out every which way! I have never, in my life, heard a sound as loud as that nor have I felt heat as hot as that over my entire body; and that is when I must have lost my arm. I came to in a stinking water-filled ditch and was alive enough to remember somebody removing my belt and tying it around my upper arm, screaming, “Corpsman, Corpsman!” Just before passing out again, I remember thinking, “Jesus God, there goes a hell of a golf career.”
When I regained consciousness, I found myself on a medevac ‘copter, where they must have doped me to hell and gone because I didn’t feel a thing, nothing; good, bad, right, wrong or indifferent! I grabbed one of the crew (with the arm that was left) as he was passing and asked if they know what happened to the other guys in my vehicle. He told me all the guys had survived with some kinds of wounds, but I was the lucky worst.
After an amazingly short time that seemed like endless flying, I found myself in Bethesda, MD at the Walter Reed Medical Center, in a ward with a bunch of other guys who had something missing and it was easy to convince myself I wasn’t so bad off. My family came to see me and of course there were a lot of tears but I used a big smile as an antidote, and everyone found it easier to pretend I was almost as good as new. I was treated with respect and concern by the hospital staff and it doesn’t make sense to go into the time it took or the pain involved until they ultimately fitted me with an unreal substitute arm. I am not going to tell you it was as good as the original, but it was better than nothing, and as I got used to managing it, I was amazed at what I could do.
After what seemed like a millennium, I was sent home—believe me, there is really nothing like being home with family. My brothers with their families, all of the kids wanting to know if my new arm hurt; as well as nieces and nephews plus all of the cousins and relatives I didn’t know I had, as well as neighbors. My mom, bless her, appointed herself my “Guardian Angel” and when she saw me looking tired she shooed everyone away and sent me upstairs to my room, as if I were a little kid. I sat down on my bed as my thoughts turned to the guys I had left behind. It was more difficult than I had expected, to get those men I had been so close to, for so long, out of my mind; so, manly or not, I cried. I took my clothes off, removed my so-called marine issue arm, took a good, hot shower, put on real pajamas and got into my bed; I was home. It took a while to fall asleep and I had some dreams but no nightmares.
The foregoing is just a window into my life before I met the young boy whose story begins now. It happened this way:
As soon as I felt well enough, I went to the golf club I have belonged to since I was a kid, where I received an emotional reception, but the best thing that happened was when, “Red,” the club manager, asked if I would like an instructing job. I was struggling to hold back tears when he put his arm around my shoulders and said, “James, this is not charity man, this is a job we feel you can do and we need an instructor. I am almost certain we can get you some kind of special circumstance card from the PGA, and be sure, if we ever feel you aren’t doing a professional job, believe me, you will be out.”
I thanked him, perhaps too profusely, and told him I could start right then and there, but with a smile, he suggested the weekend instead. I went to the car, got my clubs, and walked over to the driving range. After hitting a few balls “left armed,” I realized I had a hell of a lot of work to do and it didn’t look as if it was going to be a walk in the park.
As I continued hitting balls, I noticed a skinny little kid watching me. He looked about eleven or twelve years old and had on what I guessed little kids wore these days, but he looked as if he had lost his best friend. I didn’t think much of it at the time, and I packed up my clubs and left. The following day I tried the putting practice green and found putting one hell of a lot easier for me than driving.
I was giving myself a mental pat on the back when I noticed the skinny kid again. I called him over and asked, “How come you’re not in school?” He looked at me as if I was light-headed and said “there is no school, its summer vacation,” and I thought to myself, “Oh yeah, dummy, right.”
“Do you come here every day?” I asked.
“Mostly,” he answers.
“How come, don’t you have other friends?”
“Oh, sure,” he answers, “but my dad is in the landscape department of the club and he is the one who helps keep all the greens, green,” he tells me in the clipped way some kids have of speaking.
“I just like watching the golfers play; how they fixed their feet, how they do their practice swings and how they hit the ball”
“What’s your name?” I ask him.
“Well,” he answers, “My dad calls me Pedro, my mom calls me Pepito, and my friends call me Pete. What’s your name?” He sure wasn’t afraid to communicate.
“My name is James,” I told him, “but you may call me Mr. Jim and I’ll call you Pete. How old are you Pete?”
“I’m eleven but I’m going to be twelve soon,” he answered. “And how soon is soon?” I asked, and he replied, “In eight months!” that brought a smile.
It didn’t take long for me to get into the swing (no pun intended) of instructing. My “students” seemed to like the way I taught as well as the results they were getting.
It became much easier for me when they no longer seemed to pay much attention to my arm problem which, incidentally, turned out to be not such an insurmountable problem after all.
As usual, Pete (the kid), was watching the players and instructors and that is when, “the idea,” came to me. That evening, when I got home, I went into the kitchen where my mom was preparing dinner and asked, “Mom, do you know if my old kids’ golf clubs are around anymore?”
She thought for a moment and replied, “If they are anywhere, son, they would be in the attic; get yourself cleaned up for dinner, please.” As I was climbing the stairs to our attic, I heard my Mom shout from the kitchen, “Light the light when you get up there” Classic Mom.
It took me awhile, mostly because of running across the remains of another life. My first trike, my first skateboard, an electric train, an archery set, and of all things, a photo album of me and my first car! The entire attic was surprisingly clean, I guess my dad took care of that, but it still had the musty smell I remembered as a kid. I sat down on my little stool and went through some of the cartons that held so many of my childhood toys, and darned if I didn’t find those kid golf clubs. As you might expect, they were somewhat dusty but they weren’t as rusted as I thought they might be. I took an old piece of paper, placed it on the floor and tapped each one of them on the paper to get the dust off, but I didn’t clean them; I had other plans.
I had to take four days off to go to a tournament as a coach for one of my “students,” but when I returned to the club I went looking for Pete’s father. I felt I needed his O.K. for what I had in mind for his son. When I finally found him, I could not believe what I was looking at. He looked more like a weight lifter than a gardener. He was little over six feet tall with a gray, flowing mustache, and appeared as if he were someone’s sidekick in a western movie.
I asked if he knew who I was, and he replied, “I know who you are, Mr. Jim. You are very well known at our house.” I laughed, and told him what I wanted to do with Pedro. His face lit up and he told me, “You’re a good man Mr. Jim; of course I give you my permission.”
A couple of days later, I snagged Pete when I saw him at the range and said to him, “Follow me buddy, I have something to ask you.” He had a somewhat crestfallen look on his face until we sat down in the clubroom and I ordered a couple of cokes for us.
“Pete,” I started, “When I was as old as you are now, my dad bought me a set of my own golf clubs and I was thinking; if you wanted to learn to play golf, really learn the game, I would let you borrow those clubs. If you took care of them properly and if you prove to me you really love the game of golf, they would be yours!” Well, do I have to tell you; I thought the kid was going to jump out of his shorts.
“Mr. Jim,” he says, “Do you really mean it?” I told him I really meant it, and I had even asked his father if it was O.K. The kid flew out of his seat, grabbed me and gave me a hug, just about knocking me over. “Whoa, whoa,” I shouted, “Easy does it pal! Remember, it takes a lot of work to become a really good golfer, but if I didn’t think you could handle it, I wouldn’t have asked you. Tell you what, on Monday, you meet me here; I’ll bring the clubs and you tell me what you think.”
When Monday came I got to the club at about 7:30 in the morning and Pete was already there pacing up and down. I opened my car trunk and lifted out the bag of clubs. I thought the kid was going to faint. There were two woods, three irons and a putter, all for kids from perhaps 11 to 13 years old. I took the clubs out of the bag and laid them on the grass.
“Pete,” I said. “If you want to be a golfer, these are the kind of tools you’ll need. All tools need to be taken care of and these are no different. So, you’re going to take them home and you are going to clean them until they shine. Ask your dad to help you with the bag; he’ll know what to use on it, but you have to do the work. When you think you have everything in good shape, you come back and I’ll check everything out to see what kind of a job you did.”
The kid thanked me four more times and then he asked, “When are you going to teach me how to play golf?” I laughed and told him we’ll take it one step at a time. “Bring the clubs back first, and if they look O.K. to me, we’ll take the next step.” I have to tell you, this kid was walking on air when he left, and I remembered having that same feeling when I was a kid.
That week I had to go all the way to Florida for a series of mini-tournaments again, not as a player, of course, but as a coach. When I returned, Pete was waiting for me. He had the bag slung over his shoulder and a smile that split his face in two, from side to side. From what I could see, he and his dad did a lot of work on the bag. It didn’t look new, but the term; “almost new condition” suited it perfectly.
“O.K. Pete,” I said, “the bag looks great, now let’s take a look at the clubs. Lay ‘em there on the carpet. Well, need I tell you? The irons shone and the two woods had the metal polished and the wood varnished. They all looked almost new. There was not much doubt as to who did most of the work on them, but I told the kid, “Great job Pete, now these clubs look like you really mean business.”
He took two steps, pumped his fist in the air and yelled, “Yessss!” But I was the one with the smile.
“Tell you what,” I said, “I have instructing to do all weekend, but you go in the gift shop and tell Joey that I would like him to fit you with a logo cap and put it on my tab.”
“You mean it?” he asked, his eyes as big as saucers.
“Absolutely,” I replied, “After all, you’re my favorite student. See you on Monday. Oh, by the way, no blue jeans, tell your mom.”
Monday came, and we met in the restaurant where I picked up donuts and milk for both of us and suggested that we find a seat near the first tee, where we could watch the players tee off while we talk.
“Pete,” I said after we got settled; “There are a few things you need to know and understand about golf before you begin practicing. You’re going to have a lot of fun, but golf is a game of rules and you MUST know the rules. I’ve made a little list here of some rules that will be important to you as a beginning golfer.” With that, I handed him a list of ten rules.
“There is one rule not on there, Pete,’ I told him, “but it is a very important one. You must remember to be FAIR; fair to other people, fair to yourself and fair to the course. Remember, cheating is not fair, ever! Another thing you have to remember is the word etiquette. Look it up in the dictionary and remember it.” I hoped this wasn’t too much for an eleven, almost twelve-year-old kid to remember.
“O.K.,” I said, “Let’s get started.” With that, we walked over to the range, where I picked up a bucket of balls and we waited for a spot.
When a spot finally opened, I picked out a seven iron from his bag, handed it to him, rearranged his hands a bit, and showed him what to do with his feet.
“O.K. pal, let’s see what your swing looks like.” Pete swung and hit the ball and it dribbled out ten feet from the tee. He looked back at me, devastated. I told him not to be upset, as this was just a learning phase; try again.
This time he placed the ball on the tee, rearranged his hands, moved his body a bit closer to the ball, with the ball more to the center of his stance, drew the club back and swung. His backswing was amazing for a kid and his follow-through went around his neck and he wound up facing ahead with his right foot mostly off the ground, looking all-the-world like a golfer who had been doing this all his life. I have no idea how far the ball went, but wherever it went, it went straight. I realized my mouth was hanging open, so I snapped it shut.
“Not bad, Pete,” I said, “could you do it again?”
“Sure,” he said and proceeded to whack another ball; same result.
“Pete,” I said, “Where did you learn to swing like that?”
“Oh, you know, Mr. Jim,” he said, “I watch and listen to all you instructors and I try to do what you do.” I asked if he thought he could do the same with a wood. With a great deal of confidence, he said he sure could; and he did! I asked him if he ever practiced before and his answer was, “No, not really. Just pretend practice!” By this time everyone on the range was leaning on their clubs, watching. One dude comes up to me and asks if I am the kid’s teacher and how many tournaments has he won. I told him I wasn’t exactly his teacher and the guy laughs and asks if Pete would work with him.
By now, Pete had worked his way through the bucket of balls and I was running out of gas. I ask Pete if he’s tired and he answers with a definite no and says, “I’m havin’ fun Mr. Jim!” I told him yeah, so am I, but it’s time for him to head home and we’ll pick it up again in a few days and don’t forget to read the rules I gave you.
Those few days came around like lightening and after our usual donut and milk, Pete got up and he is really rarin’ to go. “Wait a minute, buddy,” I told him, “You’re going to have a rules test first, sit down.”
He sat back down and waited expectantly for me to continue. “I’m going to give you a number and you tell me the rule it refers to, O.K.?” He nods his head and we begin. I didn’t expect much, but I forgot whom I was dealing with. I gave him the number 4 and he came back with, “Accidentally played wrong ball – penalty = 2 strokes.”
“How about #1,” I say.
“You must play ball where it lies” . Then comes #8! “If you lose the ball out of bounds, you can take a penalty stroke and replay the shot.”
“What about #10” I asked him.
“You are allowed 14 clubs in your bag, tops.”
“Wait a minute, Pete. Do you know all of these now?”
“Sorry Mr. Jim, my dad gave me this test yesterday and I got 100%!”
Pete was progressing at an amazing pace, better even than I did at his age and I was pretty good. He even had his own cheering section at the club. His birthday was around the corner (#12), but I was unable to attend the party his mom and dad had for him. Unfortunately, I had an out of town coaching job again but I went to the gift shop and asked Joey to pick out a pair of golf shoes for Pete, wrap them real nice and put a card in for me.
There was a local kid’s tournament in February and I registered Pete. The day finally arrived and he was jumping out of his socks with excitement. He had worked hard at the range and studied the rules and he was ready to go. He came in fifth and was sort of down that he had not done better. I told him it just meant he had to work a little harder and naturally he did.
“I’ll tell you what, Pete,” I told him, “About twice a week, after school, you and I will go nine holes if you’re not too beat from your school work.”
“No kidding Mr. Jim?”
“No kidding, Pete.”
Our nine-hole games lasted until about April and I have to tell you, playing with the kid helped improve my one-armed game; enough so that I joined a one-arm golf group. Pete showed improvement as well, and the next tournament I entered him in, he moved up to third and looked real good doing it. Tournaments did not seem to scare him much any more, so I took a quantum leap and registered him in a kid tournament in Arizona.
When I told him, he went ape and screamed, “Arizona? Are you kidding me?”
“No,” I answered, “I’m not kidding you Pete and I hope I see you on the range and it wouldn’t hurt for us to continue the 9-hole stuff.”
One of my concerns was whether his school work would suffer because of this golf regimen, but I should have known. I checked with Pete’s mom and she told me his school work had improved and he was near the top of his class.
Not only did Pete win that Arizona tournament, but he walked away with it; and the next tournament as well. The kid was a phenom!
I was sitting in the lounge with some of the guys, having a cold beer and Jerry McKnight pops up and says, “Hey Birdie” (they all call me that now), it looks like you have a real winner on your hands.”
“He is unreal,” I answered, “I tell you guys, if he maintains the desire he has now, he could be the next Tiger, I would bet on it!”
At this point, Phil Austin stands up and in a rich trial attorney’s voice says, “Hold on a minute there Birdie, now you’re getting into my territory; exactly how much are you willing to lose on your bet?”
“Not so fast Phil,” I say, “I was just speaking figuratively.” All hands got a laugh at my expense.
Al Burton was next with, “Listen gentlemen, if the kid wins a couple of more tournaments, why not have a little gathering and make him an honorary club member, certificate and all?”
He got a round of applause and Al said, “I make a motion Pete Gonzalez be made an honorary member of this club upon fulfilling the necessary requirements.” Bernie Owens slowly rises and states, “I second the motion y’all. All in favor say aye.” There were eight ayes, Bernie stands up again and says, “THE AYES HAVE IT! We hereby appoint Jim Birdie to make damn sure the kid hangs in there with it.” This brought high fives from all hands.
I registered Pete for two more out of state tournaments, after checking with his parents, of course. They were with us as long as his school grades didn’t suffer. I passed this info along to Pete and he did his, by now famous, air punch and said, “Don’t worry Birdie, I can handle it.”
“Oh,” I said, “and when did I become Birdie instead of Mr. Jim?”
“When I beat you two out of three on our nine-hole tournaments!” he says. No argument from me.
I passed this little remark of his on to our group and they had a hell of a laugh out of it. I told them I had something on my mind that I wanted to run past them and see what they think. I mentioned Pete’s thirteenth birthday was not far away and the kid is beginning to grow. How about we all chip in 15 – 20 bucks apiece, and ask the club to come up with the balance, for a set of Junior-clubs. Bernie raises his rather copious fanny up and says, “I like it; I’ll take it from here.” There is a round of applause for Bernie and I kiss him on the cheek which gets a round of applause for me.
The following Saturday, Pete and I are at the restaurant having our usual donut and milk, shooting the breeze and I ask him, “Pete, what do you like best about the game of golf?” He gave it some thought and then says, “I guess maybe this is sort of funny, but I like the rules best.”
“Really,” I replied, “why do you think that is?”
“It’s sort of hard for me to tell you. The rules make everything go. There is right and there is wrong. If something is right, you go ahead with where you’re going. If it’s wrong you know what the penalty is going to be and it never changes, everything is the same for everyone. If you’re wrong and you know it, you’re supposed to tell someone or everyone, and if you don’t tell, that’s cheating and you’re not a real golfer. Sometimes I think, wouldn’t it be great if there were rules for real.” I thought briefly about the Ten Commandments, but I didn’t mention it; I have no idea why.
Pete won the next kid tournament he was in and I registered him in one being held in Las Vegas. It seemed that everyone in the club was excited about this one, and of course my group, (his fan club) wanted to see him play and Las Vegas was the ideal place, according to them.
It was late afternoon and the Vegas tournament was about a week away. I told Pete he ought to go home and get a rest from golf. We didn’t want him to get over-trained for Vegas. Most of the group had come in from playing and waved him off as he started for the bus stop.
Bernie was in the middle of reporting that our club manager had told him they would come up with any amount we were short, on the deal to get Pete a set of junior clubs, when we heard, Pop, Pop, Pop, and the squeal of tires.
Bernie says, “What the hell was that?” I knew what it was; I had heard it all before. I jumped up, turning the table over, breaking my chair and my glass, and as I started running toward the street with Phil and Al behind, so help me, I saw and heard Lt. Franklin again!
As I was running, I was screaming to no one or to everyone, “Call 911 and get an ambulance, NOW!” I could feel the fear in my eyes and in my lungs.
“No, please God no, please no,” I repeated over, and over until I came out on the street, looked toward the bus stop and saw what appeared to be a small bundle of clothes lying on the sidewalk, near our fence. Phil helped me get him up in my arms and I rocked back and forth, but I knew, I knew. But my God, this is a child! For a brief few seconds, I was taken back to Afghanistan and the things I had seen there. How could this happen to an innocent child in my country?
I heard shouting and when I looked around I saw Pete’s dad running toward me; and with tears running down my cheeks, I handed him his son. He held Pete close to his breast and crooned; “Pedro, Pedro, Dios Mio, Dios Mio, Dios Mio.”
The ambulance arrived with sirens screaming accompanied by a fire truck, a motorcycle officer and two police cars. Two paramedics, with med cases in hand, practically flew out of the red and white vehicle and took Pete from his father, who, with hope and fear written all over his face; reluctantly relinquished his son to them. They used all their skills and their equipment as well, but in the end, his small body was placed on a gurney and covered with a white sheet.
As the ambulance screamed away, more police officers showed up and a few began placing yellow tape around the shooting area and taking names as well as information from possible witnesses, while others placed their little markers where brass shell casings were located.
I was sitting on the curb, trying not to cry, but it wasn’t working and I wound up crying my eyes out for the little boy who thought it would be great if there were rules for everyone.
Pete’s funeral was a few days later and the crowd was huge. After the service, I stopped Mrs. Gonzalez, Pete’s mother, and told her how sorry I was. I couldn’t see her face through the black veil she was wearing, but she placed her hand on my arm and said,
“Mr. Jim, I want to thank you. You taught my Pepito so much that made him so very happy.”
“Mrs. Gonzalez,” I replied, “I think your Pepito taught me more than I taught him, but thank you.”
Pete’s dad came over and I could see the little marks his tears had made on his cheeks. He took my hand in his and said, “Mr. Jim, you are a good man, thank you. We will never forget you.”
There is a glass case in the clubhouse now; in it are Pete’s golf clubs, his tournament trophies, a booklet of golf rules and a brass plaque which reads as follows:
IN MEMORY OF MEMBER PEDRO “PETE” GONZALEZ 12 YEARS OLD
I now instruct a kids golf class twice a month and the club has organized two kid tournaments named, “The Pete Gonzalez Kid Tournaments”
Well, that is Birdie’s (Mr. Jim’s) story as I promised you. I hope you found it as compelling as I did. It is a sad commentary that things like this do happen to anyone, especially young children, in a country such as ours, which is supposed to be based upon. “ . .life, liberty and the pursuit 0f happiness for all!”
Mr. Jim, “Birdie,” has won a few tournaments himself and is active in one-arm golf organizations. He has told me that he will never, ever forget Pete Gonzalez.
“When an individual comes into this world, they come in with a life script that very seldom, if ever, may be changed.” Those are the Rules.