Never as good as his father was, Liam Day hasn’t played golf in 5 years. But last week his father turned 76.
Lesson: When I was 11, I sliced a drive off the fifth tee of the private course where, though he was not a member, my uncle Sean had a summer home. Daylight fading, my cousin and I snuck on to play a few holes.
My drive went screaming through the sliding plate-glass door on the deck of the home across the fairway. Panicked, I ran, the bag of clubs slung across my back. Of course, my father and uncle, who were out on his deck, heard the glass breaking and immediately knew what happened. When I appeared in the gap in the trees through which we passed from my uncle’s house to the course, my father grabbed me, turned me around and marched me across the fairway to the house whose door I’d just shattered.
A man handed me back the errant ball and explained we needn’t worry. The door was covered by insurance. He then made some allusion to his wife screaming like a banshee when she got home, a comment he offered with a slight chuckle. I wasn’t sure what was funny. Neither was my father.
Intransigence: During the years I played golf, I had only a set of hand-me-down clubs my father bought used in 1962. The irons were Hogan blades that felt, compared to newer titanium and hollow-backed clubs, like I was swinging a wooden baseball bat. With a sweet spot no bigger than the head of a pin, they also weren’t very accurate. They left me at a competitive disadvantage. It was as if, in the age of cloud computing, I was pounding out my blog posts on a Smith-Corona.
I never entertained the thought of buying a new set, though. For one, I was cheap and didn’t care to spend hundreds of dollars on golf clubs. I was also stubborn. I clung to the belief that, if I could learn to play with a set of 40-year old blades, how much better would I be when I finally made the switch to hollow-backs. And, though the sweet spot was frustratingly small, when you did hit it, and the ball traced a perfect arc against a summer evening’s soft blue sky, you could be sure that, for perhaps only this one shot, it was your skill and not modern technology that had conquered the course.
Genealogy: In 1998 I moved to Ireland. Like so many Gen Xers, I spent the first three or four years out of college slacking. I lived in a rodent-infested apartment on the top floor of a three-decker in Dorchester, a working class neighborhood of Boston. The rent was $900 a month for three bedrooms. Over the course of three years, I’d say I had a total of ten roommates. We’d play golf with the mice we caught in the glue traps.
My reasons for moving were many. I needed to do something to get out of the personal and professional rut I was then in. It was also a chance to explore the country where my mother was born, to spend time with the uncles, aunts and cousins who stayed behind, and to visit the family farm where, one of 13 children, my mother was raised in a three-room house.
I was also following in my father’s footsteps. At an age only slightly older than I was, my father first visited the farm in 1966. Borrowing a bike and a set of clubs, he’d ride into the town of Clairemorris, about two miles distant, to play.
To hear my father tell it, my mother’s family was never very welcome at the course, most of whose members were town folk. Being American, and not just American, but naively American, he didn’t concern himself with—hell, probably didn’t even notice—the social barriers. He wanted to play.
It didn’t hurt that he was, when younger, a scratch golfer, someone who can shoot par or better over the course of 18 holes. His skill was enough to ingratiate him with the course’s membership. He was even invited to a dance at the clubhouse one Saturday night. In the annals of my mother’s family, this was a big deal.
Dowry: My maternal grandfather is 102 years older than I am. He was born in 1870 and died in 1958. If he were alive today he would be 143.
My maternal grandmother emigrated from Ireland during the War of Independence from England and the subsequent civil war. She worked as a maid in the house of an old Boston Brahmin family. When the violence at home subsided, she returned. Unwed landowners being rare, she married one of the few who were available, even if he was 28 years her senior.
I only met my grandmother on three occasions, twice in Ireland when I was three and six and once here. I remember two things about her: her heavy-set build and her quick and hearty laugh. Despite the fact more than half her children left for America—to be seen, the rest of her life, on only odd occasions—my grandmother was a woman who appreciated life.
The summer my father visited, he would, I am told, pass afternoons in the kitchen with her drinking tea and chatting. Perhaps it was his sociability, perhaps the social status he so quickly acquired at the golf course, a status she may have presumed to be on par with that which he held back home in the United States, but my grandmother loved my father in a way that went well beyond the obligatory politeness a parent would typically show even on their best behavior toward a son’s or daughter’s boyfriend they are meeting for the first time.
It is partially for this reason that my father likes to joke his marriage to my mother was arranged. My grandmother, he says, offered him cows, sheep, and pigs. And though he is only joking, or at least I think he is, there can be no doubt the matron of the Mannion family exerted some influence over the burgeoning relationship between her daughter and this man from America.
Sometime during that summer 47 years ago, my future father and future mother took a weekend excursion to Belfast, where he proposed using a ring my grandmother gave him for the purpose. The hotel where the betrothal occurred was later destroyed by a terrorist’s bomb.
Inheritance: If you were to lay a photo of me down next to one of my father taken when he was the same age, the only way you’d be able to tell who is who is by our respective styles of dress, which might not even be enough to distinguish us. I’ve even been told I inherited his swing.
My father’s swing was a thing of local legend. He once worked for a judge in Boston’s municipal court system who would regularly play golf with politicians and fellow members of the bench. My father, scratch player that he was, would tag along and play with him to make sure the judge won. Once, when they were running late for a tee time, the cops dragged the neighborhood drunk in to be arraigned. The judge dismissed all charges on the spot so that he and my father could make it to the course on time.
My father protested. “Don’t worry,” the judge assured him. “He’ll be back tomorrow.” He was.
Many years later, my father bumped into the judge at Jimmy’s Harborside, a restaurant, which, before urban renewal and gentrification changed the face of Boston, was one of the places in the city to see and be seen. The judge was sitting at the bar with Tip O’Neill, the Congressman who served for a long time as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The judge bragged to Tip about my father’s swing. It was, he said, the best golf swing he’d ever seen. Intrigued, Tip asked to see it.
Despite the fact it was Friday night and the crowd three and four deep at the bar, an umbrella was fetched from the coatroom and an aisle through all those drinkers cleared so that Tip could see my father’s swing. How do you say no to a member of Congress?
Discontent: Despite inheriting his swing, I was never as good as my father. Not even remotely. The best round I can remember shooting was 88 and, if I’m being honest, that was probably with mulligans. More often than not, I was happy to break 100.
After retiring from teaching, my father joined a small 9-hole course in Sharon, Massachusetts, a quiet suburb about 30 minutes south of Boston. Though he turned 76 this month, he still likes to play Sunday afternoons, when, the other members long since ensconced at the clubhouse bar, he can get around the course in less than 90 minutes.
Maddeningly, golf comes as easily to him as it always did. At his age, he doesn’t hit the ball as far as he used to, but his swing remains the same fluid motion he committed to muscle memory so long ago he’s forgotten he ever needed to commit it to memory in the first place.
When we played, I would spend agonizing seconds standing over the ball addressing it, adjusting my stance and grip, mentally running through the shot I was about to hit. My father spends hardly any time at all. In roughly one motion, he walks up, pulls out a club, drops his bag, and, almost without breaking stride, hits the ball. He then just as quickly picks up his bag, puts the club back in it, and continues on up the fairway, without even pausing to watch where the ball lands.
Disinheritance: I stopped playing golf about five years ago. It wasn’t a conscious decision. I didn’t quit the way I quit chewing tobacco, which I made an effort over a number of months to ween myself off. But, as life became busier, among the options I had to spend my few free moments and even fewer disposable dollars, golf no longer rated as high for me as, say, writing or going to a movie with my wife.
It was also just the latest in a series of things I stopped doing in part because I didn’t want to follow in my father’s well-tread tracks. Though a formal apprentice system disappeared with industrialism’s advent—factories replacing workshops as the primary means of employment—the informal system by which so many sons follow in their fathers’ footsteps is alive and well. Doctors beget doctors, dentists dentists, teachers teachers.
When I returned from Ireland and began looking for a job I didn’t know what I really wanted to do, but I had been coaching basketball since I was 14, working, in fact, at the basketball camp my father ran at the high school where he was the varsity coach.
My summers in college were likewise spent coaching at various camps in and around New England. All these jobs I got because the coaches running the camps knew my father. So, when it came time for me to find a job upon returning to the United States, I fell naturally into what I knew, what my father had done. I became a teacher and a coach.
But, again, I was never as good as my father.
Hustle & Flow: My father spent more than 30 years teaching and coaching and, toward the end of his career, as the assistant principal at the Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Boston. When he started his career, the Burke was an all-girls school with a predominantly white student body. But as white flight gripped parts of the city, provoked by block-busting and enabled by banks that redlined the neighborhoods to limit where African-Americans could buy homes, the school became co-ed and almost exclusively black.
When a federal court mandated Boston desegregate its schools via busing, a decision whose implementation was met with violent resistance on the part of some residents in the city’s remaining white neighborhoods, my father was on the front lines.
He spent his mornings in Kane Square, a fault between a white and black neighborhood, making sure there was no trouble as the students waited for the buses to pick them up. When the team he coached played schools in all-white neighborhoods, his players were the targets of taunts and projectiles—coins, batteries, even rocks.
For this he received a great deal of media attention. The Boston Herald called him the city’s White Shadow, a reference to the then popular television series about a white basketball coach and the predominantly black high school team he coached. He was even the subject once of a lengthy feature in the New York Times.
What I didn’t know until recently was that, after the Times’ piece came out, my father received a call from a publisher in New York offering him an advance to write a book about his experiences teaching and coaching during Boston’s busing crisis. He turned it down.
For someone who would give his right eye for an advance, I was, at this revelation, somewhat incredulous. How do you turn down a book deal? But, as Key says in Hustle & Flow, “There are two types of people: those that talk the talk and those that walk the walk. People who walk the walk sometimes talk the talk but most times they don’t talk at all, ’cause they walkin’.”
My father was a walker.
Psychotherapy: I am not a walker.
Perhaps it is my generation, one raised in a culture in which we all strive for 15 minutes of fame, but I wasn’t satisfied being a teacher and a coach. So, after five years, I made the decision to step out of the classroom and, with it, the gym. This was more like the decision to quit chewing tobacco than it was the dissipation of my interest in golf. It was entirely conscious.
Freud might say it was the need on the part of the son to replace the father by committing symbolic patricide. And I was, consciously and unconsciously, removing from my life, one by one, those aspects of my father’s life that most defined him. I assume there is at least part of him that was disappointed by this. One cannot but help watch as your son quits coaching basketball, quits teaching, even quits playing golf, and not take it at least in part as a repudiation of yourself.
Still, I’m not sure my father hasn’t, in his own subtle way, approved of and even encouraged my break with him. Though in many ways a conventional man, he has also spent his life bucking convention, secure enough in himself as both a man and a person that he never felt the need to think or act like anyone else, secure enough, I suspect, to be proud of his son who chose not to be like his father, as much as it seemed on the surface he was.
After all, this is a man who refused to succumb to racial solidarity, who rather impulsively proposed to the woman he’s remained marry to for 46 years, who wouldn’t engage in easygoing banter about screaming wives with a man whose door his son had just broken, who ignored social mores to play golf simply because he wanted to, who turned down his 15 minutes of fame because it would have meant leaving teaching, at least for a year.
So, yes, as much as anyone, my father knows what it is to be your own person. Still, at a simpler level, like any relationship, fathers and sons need things in common over which they can bond. Fortunately for us, there are planes other than basketball and golf on which we can connect. He continues to read and go to movies and attend plays and, when we meet for a beer on Friday afternoons, as we sometimes do, the conversation is never stilted, though basketball and golf are now rarely among the topics.
Oh, I’ll ask him if he’s played recently and how he’s putting the ball, and as, even at 76, he continues to coach, I’ll ask him how the team is doing, but the answers don’t really interest me, at least not as much as what he’s reading and what he’s watching does.
In turn, I will tell him about the challenges and opportunities that come with working in a government bureaucracy, through which I’ve ascended since leaving the classroom. Though I haven’t followed in his footsteps, I retain the urge to tell him everything about my professional life. In fact, my wife tells me that, if she wants to know how things at work are really going, she’s better off eavesdropping on the conversations I have with my father than she is asking me herself.
Twilight: The one time I remember challenging my father on a golf course was in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I had just graduated from college and he and I were returning from a road trip to visit my brother, who was then stationed at Fort Stewart in Georgia.
We’d taken four or five days driving down, exploring North Carolina’s Outer Banks along the way, and we took another two or three on the way home, stopping in a couple of different places to play 18.
In Fredericksburg, I led at the turn. It is the only time I can ever remember posting a lower score than him for nine holes. So, feeling cocky, I egged him into betting on the back nine, which he proceeded to play in 38—seven pars and two bogeys—winning all but one or two of the nine holes. I can’t remember what I had to do to pay off the bet.
I don’t know how many rounds my father has left. But with the distance of five years and having, during that time, carved out a distinct personality and life for myself, perhaps it is time for me to get back on the links and join him for a final round or two.
I can dig my blades out of the closet, where they’ve lain collecting dust for half a decade, hit the driving range to work out the kinks, call him up and challenge him some Sunday afternoon.
Maybe he’ll get hot like he did on the back nine in Fredericksburg. Or maybe, instead, I’ll finally beat him, though I doubt five years off have improved my game much.
I hope, and sincerely think, my youthful petulance has dissipated enough it won’t matter, because, in a broader context, winning never matters, at least when compared to life’s other milestones. When one is a young man, it is easy to miss this basic fact. To conquer the course was all and a sliced drive or flubbed approach was enough for me to launch a club into the trees like I was a toddler throwing a tantrum.
Failure, the frustration of not being as good as him, gone, maybe we can just walk and talk—about movies and books and work, as we do on Friday afternoons at Doyle’s—or enjoy the silence, that particular silence which descends on a golf course as a fine summer’s day, one that’s transpired absent the cares that pervade so much of life off the course, turns to night.
It is the silence of peace, the silence of rest, and though, my father being older than I would like to admit and 40 fast fading in my own rearview mirror, it is a silence ripe with the knowledge of time’s inexorability and the finite nature of our lives, it is, like all experience, a silence to be savored, savored with the ones we love, with the ones we admire, admired so much, perhaps, we needed to become someone else, someone, in at least very distinct ways, different, enough so that we might be distinguished despite the overwhelming resemblance.
After all, you don’t need to talk if you can walk the walk.