My father always told me that there is a right way and a wrong way to do everything. I tried to apply this maxim to all my endeavors, regardless of what they were. When “ball hawking” became the rage, my grade school friends and I developed techniques that would prove most effective.
“Ball hawking” referred to the practice of searching golf courses for lost golf balls. My friends and I perfected methods to recover the balls and then sell them back to the golfers at discount rates. No sooner had we sold a dozen balls to a foursome of luckless buffoons, than they were hitting them back into the pond or into the forest. As soon as they departed we would retrieve the balls from the water and the woods and resell them. This was capitalism in its most refined manner.
The Meadowlark Golf Course provided us with the perfect setting to perform our activities. Once we had conquered it, I figured we could head down to Augusta, Georgia and drain all the balls from the “Masters” home course.
Meadowlark was a public nine hole course managed by the Cook County Forest Preserve. Hole number seven offered a par four from which the golfers would tee off over a large pond and then approach a dog leg right. The dog leg was protected by a forest on the right and we soon discovered that if these hackers did not drown the ball, they would slice it right into our workshop. Three out of four of them would slice the ball right into the group of oak trees where we took cover. Often we would need to dodge the misguided spheres by diving into the musty mass of dead oak leaves that covered the forest floor, while attempting to muffle the resulting spontaneous laughter.
When the sun went down and the golfers returned home, we would jump into the pond and search the muddy bottom for golf balls. We did this by feeling the slop with the bottoms of our feet. The technique involved feeling for the golf ball with the ball of the foot and then curling the toes around the ball and scooping it from the muck. After much practice we had perfected the technique and became professionals at golf ball retrieval.
The art of golf ball recovery proved to have hazards in the same manner as the game of golf itself. During one memorable work shift, I curled my toes around a ball and lifted it up to my hand in neck deep water. As I stretched my hand under the water with my face nearly submerged I caught a bird’s eye view of the head of a curious water moccasin. The shock of the encounter sucked all the air from my lungs as I froze into paralysis. The snake stared at me with lifeless eyes and then disappeared into the murky water beneath me. At that time, I knew my days as a ball hawker were numbered. I swam to the side of the pond and jumped out of the water, all the while trying to catch my breath. I sat on the fairway of hole number seven and watched my brother and my friends go about their golf ball retrieval activities and considered the near death experience I had just encountered.
Without warning a yellow Cook County forest ranger car pulled up to fairway seven and a uniformed ranger jumped out of the car and shouted, “Freeze!” My cohorts stood in the water and observed a Barney Fife-like character with a ranger hat. “Raise your hands,” he demanded with weapon drawn. They lifted their hands to the sky, with muddy golf balls dripping from their fingers. “Slowly get out of the water, and keep your hands up. So what do we have here?” he asked, as he stared at the bulging pockets full of golf balls. “Empty your pockets boys. You’re busted.”
We felt like the Dillinger gang. He confiscated our stash of balls, a cardboard box containing perhaps five hundred golf balls.
“Get into the car. You’re going to jail,” he said.
We entered the forest ranger’s car and wondered when we would be cuffed. As he closed the door I nearly broke into tears when I thought of all the new Titleist, Top Flites, and Pro Staffs that had been confiscated. He started the car and turned to me and said, “Where do you live?”
“I live in the forest by hole number seven,” I told him.
“I’m real glad you’re a smart ass, because your new home is going to be Alcatraz,” he said.
I was terrified. “I live at 2417 Mayfair.”
“Let’s stop there before I bring you to the island.” he replied.
The ranger pulled in front of our house and found my mother standing in the doorway with my five-year old sister. He turned on his flashing lights for special effects. “Ma’am, your two boys have broken the law and I believe they are headed for a life of crime.”
She stared at him with amazement. “What are you talking about?” she said.
“These two boys are golf ball embezzlers, but I’m going to give them a break.” he said. “I will leave them in your custody if you promise to rehabilitate these boys from their golf ball thieving habits.”
“Of course.” she declared in an incredulous tone.
After my brother and I had been admonished by my mother for this embarrassing scene, we were delivered the standard threat. “Just wait until your father gets home.” Little did I know I was in for an enlightening lesson in Cook County, Illinois civics.
My father arrived home at five o’clock driving his Cook County EPA vehicle. Upon entering the house, he was informed in detail of the day’s activities by my mother. My brother and I waited for the punishment to be dished out. I could sense my father was becoming angry as the color of his face turned red.
“Where are the golf balls?” he asked.
” The ranger took them as evidence.” I replied.
” How many balls did you have?”
“About five hundred.” I said.
“Get in the car.” he demanded.
My brother and I jumped into the backseat of the EPA vehicle and my father made a beeline to the Meadowlark Golf Course. He parked the car and told us to wait for him. We could see him approach the clerk in the office and flash his badge. Within ten minutes the ranger pulled up with the box of golf balls and apologized for the incident. I could not believe my eyes. Apparently my father’s badge was bigger than the forest ranger’s in the Cook County hierarchy. I figured the ranger must have been lower in the food chain than environmental agents. My first lesson in Chicagoland civics was somewhat traumatic, but first light was shed on how the bureaucracy worked.
Excerpt from “Bustin’ Chops”