More Lessons in the Key of Life
The time, 1953. The place, the Hollywood Golf and Country Club in Deal, New Jersey, a prestigious, iconic golf layout about 60 miles south of New York City. The members were almost exclusively Jewish because at that time Jews were subtly and sometimes not so subtly restricted from other country clubs in that area.
Hollywood has been acknowledged as one of the finest courses in the New York/New Jersey area. The members were prominent in the business and professional communities. Every player had to have a caddy, and most of the caddies were professionals who worked the circuit in Miami and North Carolina and then came north for the spring and summer golf season. Some had a hard life in struggles with alcoholism.
Funny how after all these years I remember Little Louie, about fifty, who was the only human being as wide as he was tall at 5 feet 2. Moaning Pete (everybody had a nickname), also about fifty, had some sort of developmental disability, but he was treated with kindness by the other caddies. And a character named Tilt who was probably in his forties, a chronic alcoholic, who always leaned to the right from a head injury.
I know these guys because I was a caddy too.
I was in my midteens during this heyday of Don Draper–type golf at the club, and since I was quiet and learned to be respectful, and was obviously not an alcoholic, I had the privilege of being “on the bag” for the athletes, the celebrities, and other persons of notoriety. In other words, I became a caddy to the rich, famous, and infamous.
For the nongolfer, by way of explanation, I was the kid who carried the golfer’s bag of typically 14 golf clubs. In addition to being the Sherpa, I knew the course and could be a tremendous asset in estimating yardage for club selection by the golfer.
One such prominent member and golfer was Judge Irving Saypol. He had been the Assistant US Attorney for the Southern District of New York and prosecutor during one of the most notorious trials in American history: the conviction of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were sentenced to death as spies for giving atomic bomb secrets to the Soviets. They were executed in Sing Sing Prison in 1953.
The trial in 1951 had all the trappings of a John le Carre novel: The intrigue of the Cold War, the good guys, the Americans, versus the bad guys, the Russians, and throw in some spies, secrets, and Communists. And mounting anti-Russian sentiments throughout the country.
Those of us who lived on the East Coast feared the Russians would sail up the Hudson River and invade America. How many of us remember hiding under our grade-school desks because atomic bombs might devastate us and the planet? In my Catholic school we recited the rosary while doing the duck and cover drills and prayed for the conversion of Russia and the Communists.
Even though it has been many decades, I still remember the judge. Because he had prosecuted many high-profile cases, including the Rosenbergs, he was elevated to the New York Supreme Court where he served until 1968. Later in his career, he was alleged to have been involved in bribery, but never prosecuted.
So there I was, his caddy, a skinny teenager, weighted down with his golf bag (no carts in those days). I had no concept of who he was or his role in history. But I do know that he was kind, and he was polite and generous.
He often played alone and had a peculiar habit of smacking his lips before every shot. I still recall in him a sadness, a heaviness, the absence of joy and little celebration even when he hit the shot of a lifetime! He was sallow of complexion and never really looked well.
Yet he was fit, he was stern, intimidating. But there was a kindness much like that uncle or grandfather who was a curmudgeon but you still felt cared for. He’d often ask me which club to use.
“Hey, kid, whatta ya think? A seven iron?”
“No, I’d use the eight.”
“Eight, it is.”
Considering how primitive golf clubs were at that time (and heavy), he was an excellent golfer, and I vaguely recall him shooting in the high 70s.
A caddy at that time typically lugged that bag for 18 holes for a dollar tip on top of the four-dollar regular fee, but the judge always counted out six one-dollar bills. A two-dollar tip. Unheard of. I was grateful for his kindness. And when we reach the concession stand at the halfway point after nine holes, he’d say, “Get a Coke and a bag of potato chips. You know the bag with the owl on it.” (The potato chips were made by the Wise company.)
He never talked specifically about the trial, but he did talk about what I now view as stress, responsibility, and being center stage in one of the greatest criminal cases in American history. The eyes of the world were glued to his trials as America watched on small black-and-white TVs.
So what did I learn from that experience, what are some lessons for us?
1. We meet someone, we become acquainted with someone, yet we often have absolutely no concept of their pressures and responsibility. I remember hearing about the trial, but the concept of Communists and the Red scare and spies for Russia were not concepts I could identify with. I was more interested in the game of golf and the characters on the course where I caddied.
2. If we are in positions of responsibility and power, be respectful and kind to other individuals “below” us in the gene pool (the judge respected me, a lowly caddy). I went on to become a cancer doctor. He died of cancer. Life’s little ironies.
3. I had no idea that the judge had been indicted on bribery and racketeering charges and he was crushed by these allegations even though he was later exonerated. Again, I was present at history but, like Forrest Gump, I paid no attention.
Everyone we meet is struggling with something about which we know nothing. Be kind, always.
For the past year or more, I have been blogging exclusively about COVID, and I will continue to keep you up to date on medical developments. For now, please continue to wear your mask in high-risk situations, even after being fully vaccinated. But I am happy to be back reflecting on life and lessons learned in my tenure as a cancer doctor, an end-of-life specialist, and an amateur piano player.
Image from Unsplash.