It seemed like a good idea at the time.
With nothing better to do on the last day of school in 8th grade, my friend John and I decided to turn a section of his backyard into a putting green. Who came up with this scheme and, perhaps more inexplicably, who supported and encouraged it, is lost in the haze of my teenage memories. Regardless, John and I were agreed. The best use of our time in those first halcyon moments of summer would be to jack the Zinman’s Briggs & Stratton Yard Master down to the lowest setting and carve a circle roughly 20 feet in diameter into the right rear corner of their property. Once this was accomplished, we dug a hole into the approximate center of the circle and inserted what we believed to be the most accurate facsimile of an actual golf cup—an empty Chock Full o’ Nuts coffee can.
I’m sure we made a cursory search of John’s garage for a whiffle ball bat or a hockey stick to serve as the flagstick. But, by then we were too anxious to try our invention to stand on ceremony. So, we grabbed John’s dad’s golf clubs and headed out to the Back 1. Not content to simply putt on the now quarter-inch grass, we decided to work on our short game. We selected the sand and pitching wedges and took turns chipping onto the “green”. Those of you who golf (and have lawns) are doubtless already gasping in horror. For those of you who don’t, let’s just say that in addition knocking balls onto a patch of lawn that would be irreversibly burned out by July 4th we were also taking divots the size of throw rugs out of the remaining healthy lawn. Here, I am once again stunned that neither of us felt compelled to stop before things got worse.
Fortunately, John’s mom saved us from ourselves.
Ann Zinman, perhaps craving an afternoon cup of joe, had gone to look for her Chock Full o’ Nuts and found only a zip-lock bag full of coffee grounds. Sensing trouble, or at the very least stupidity, she glanced out her back window and saw what we were up to. Without hesitation, she raced into the yard and uttered a simple phase that froze us mid-swing.
“John, your father is going to kill you.”
Both John and I had a healthy fear of his father. And with good reason. “Stormin” Norman Zinman (a nickname he earned long before General Schwarzkopf entered the public consciousness) was not a man given to timeouts or teachable moments as methods of discipline. His punishments were more biblical, leaning Old Testament, in form. He certainly did not suffer fools gladly and at that moment there were not two greater fools in the 617 area code than John and I.
“Boys, replace all those divots,” ordered Mrs. Zinman, taking charge of the situation. “Then, take the coffee can out of the ground and fill up the hole as best you can. When you finish that, I’m going to drive CJ home and then we’ll figure out what we’re going to tell Mr. Zinman.”
We moved as if the spirits of Augusta’s best greens keepers possessed us, tamping down rectangles of earth with alacrity and covering the evidence of our handiwork as thoroughly as possible. Although nothing could hide the giant crop circle in the back.
As I bid John goodbye from the backseat of his mother’s car, I wished him well. While in the back of my mind I wondered if it was possible to be grounded for an entire summer. It was with great trepidation that I called him later that night.
“How’d it go?” I whispered into the phone.
“Not bad,” he replied. “I’ve gotta re-seed the lawn and water and weed it every day until camp, but that ‘s it.”
“Yeah, it was my mom. She softened him up. By the end, he was almost laughing about it…almost.”
I thought about our failed golf course experiment as I sat in a temple pew between my wife and my friend Eric listening to John eulogize his mother. After years of fighting off one health issue after another, Ann Zinman finally succumbed this past December.
In addition to talking about what a kind and generous woman his mother was, John spoke about all the times she bailed him out with Norman. “We’ll just keep this between us,” Ann would tell John after he broke a lamp or punched his brother or ruined a sizeable chunk of their lawn with his dopey friend.
John addressed a good portion of his remarks to his father, whom he described as a mensch (Yiddish for “a person of integrity and honor”) and credited with showing John and his brother how to be good and worthy men. Norman sat in the front row, simultaneously grieving for his wife and beaming with pride at his boys who were doing both he and Ann proud with their words.
“Is this where we’re at now?” I asked John as I hugged him after the service.
“We’re not kids anymore, CJ,” he replied, stepping away to accompany his mother’s casket to the cemetery.
Maybe not. But, given the chance, John and I would probably still try to make a putting green in his backyard.
And Ann Zinman would still save us.
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