The Caddie

J. Michael Veron

Thomas Dunne Books

I


Stealing is against the law in Louisiana, unless you happen to be a politician. Since I didn't qualify for that exemption, the authorities in Baton Rouge understandably took a dim view of my taking $602 from the cash register at the driving range where I worked.

I wish I could tell you what made me do it, especially since the money belonged to one of my best friends, a guy named Emile Boudreau. If I deserved to be in jail for stealing, I deserved to be under it for stealing from Boo.

That's what everyone called him when we played together on the golf team at LSU. Boo came from Houma, which is "down on the bayou," as they say in south Louisiana, and he had a swing that was more suited for skinning nutria than playing golf. But the guy could get up and down from an orbiting satellite, if you know what I mean. Heck, he was the only player I ever saw who could hit only four greens in a round and still shoot 68.

That isn't what made me like him, though. The fact is, Boo stuck by me when nobody else on the team would. Not that I would have blamed him if he hadn't. To be honest, I didn't have a very good attitude at LSU. I spent more time pulling the tabs off beer cans than I did working on my game. The fact that I was good enough to skip practice and still post the best scores on the team didn't help, either. I suppose Coach Sicks shouldn't have let me get away with it, but he did, and that made the other players just resent me even more.

Not Boo, though. Even counting the time he decked me at the Tulane tournament (all I'll say about that is I had it coming), he was my best friend. That is, of course, until I rifled his cash register.

They say opposites attract, and you couldn't find two people less alike than Boo and me. He was a year ahead of me, studied hard, and got his degree in business. I, on the other hand, did what I had to do to stay eligible and not much more. It was no coincidence that I left school to chase golf prizes as soon as Boo graduated.

While Boo was back home becoming one of the more successful insurance agents in the state, I was paying $350 entry fees to play in mini tour events where I had to beat a hundred other guys just to get my money back. I know it didn't make a whole lot of sense, but math was never my strong suit. It took me years to realize that the only one who really came out ahead on those deals was the guy who ran the tournaments. After expenses, he made more from the entry fees than the player who finished first.

Boo obviously understood this a lot better'n I did. Instead of fighting those odds, he maintained his connection to golf by buying a driving range outside of Baton Rouge. When I ran out of money to pay entry fees, he gave me a job there, giving lessons and minding the store. I rewarded his trust by stealing his cash and heading to Florida.

I don't know how I ever expected to get away with it. It wasn't like Boo didn't know where I was going. There are only so many small-time professional golf tournaments, and the nearest ones at the time were in northwest Florida.

Of course, when you're drinking a lot, you don't think those kinds of things through. The folks at Alcoholics Anonymous call it "crooked thinking." That's pretty accurate; I was so drunk at the time I must have figured Pensacola was gonna grant me political asylum. In any event, the cops there caught up with me on the putting clock at Tiger Point and escorted me to the Escambia County Correctional Center.

After a sleepless night sharing a cell with an ill-tempered Cuban who spit on the floor and cursed me in Spanish, I was glad to see two uniformed deputies from the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office arrive the next day to take me back to Louisiana. At least those guys spoke English.

They were a whole lot friendlier, too, even to the point of removing my handcuffs about halfway home. (Turned out one of them played golf.) Still, as they explained almost apologetically, they would have to book me into jail again when we got to Louisiana. That's how I got a record.

After I was mugged and printed, they put me in a holding cell, where I waited to make the telephone call I had been promised. I must have sat there over an hour. Not that it mattered. I mean, it wasn't like I could leave 'cause I was getting bad service.

Besides, I didn't even know the amount of my bond, much less whom to call for bail. One thing for sure: I wasn't about to call anyone in my family. I had sobered up, and my shame ran far too deep to consider facing any of them. In fact, I spent a good part of the time trying to figure a way to keep them from finding out what I had done. It wasn't like I was in their good graces to begin with. If it was possible to make a black sheep blacker, I knew this latest episode would do it for me.

I guess I ought to explain. I'm from Lake Charles, Louisiana, which is the kind of place where it's still big news when a new Walgreens opens or the local Piccadilly has blue Jell-O. It isn't exactly Mayberry; maybe closer to Mount Pilot. For precisely that reason, though, it was a great place to grow up. With three movie theaters and plenty of places to play ball, it provided all the entertainment I needed at the time.

My dad was a lawyer as well as a pretty fair golfer, and so we belonged to the Lake Charles Country Club. Naturally, he was also my first golf teacher, and a damned good one at that. While most folks found golf as hard to understand as the lyrics to "Louie, Louie," Dad kept it simple.

To build tempo and extension in my swing, he'd tell me "Drag the club back when you start your swing." Whenever I started swinging too fast, he'd slow me down by saying "There's no need to hurry, son; the ball won't move before you hit it."

It's too bad I never wrote all that stuff down. If I had, you might never have heard of Harvey Penick's Little Red Book.

I was the firstborn in my family, and because of that my parents had high hopes for me. You know what they say: All the pressure's on the first child. I guess that's why most of them are overachievers.

For some reason no one ever quite understood, I chose to rebel. I guess you could say that I was determined never to reveal the high IQ that my gene pool had given me. My bad attitude wasn't so obvious in high school, though, where I could make decent grades without really trying. I was also really good at standardized tests, and, when I hit the top of the charts on the SAT, my parents sent off for catalogues from places like Duke, Tulane, and Rice.

The problem was, I was also a three-time state high school golf champion, and none of those schools had a particularly good golf program at the time. Plus, they were the real deal when it came to the books, and I really wasn't into that sort of thing.

I had grown up in a state that deemed your education complete once you knew how to make gumbo. As you might expect, Louisiana's institutions of higher learning were funded accordingly, and it showed. I figured I could go to LSU, play golf, and never get eyestrain from studying.

My folks, however, were not as impressed as I was with the attention I was getting from LSU's golf coach. They insisted on a private school. When it became obvious I wasn't going to get my way, I reluctantly settled on Duke.

It would have been a great choice if I had had a lick of sense. But instead of taking advantage of a generous athletic scholarship, I didn't make it past the Carolina leaves turning color in late October, which coincided with mid-term progress reports coming out for first-semester freshmen.

Somebody at school (either my coach or an academic adviser, I never knew which) called my father to inform him that I was oh-for-everything in my courses. He flew to Durham and, in a rather painful conference that I would have preferred not to attend, was informed that my prospects for continuing at Duke were nil. Their advice was that I should withdraw now and take an I (for "incomplete," not "idiot" as my father suggested) in each of my classes, instead of the inevitable F if I stayed to the end of the semester. That way, I would still be eligible to transfer to a "less demanding" school.

We packed my stuff, and I flew home with my father. It was not the most pleasant trip I ever made (although it sure as hell beat that police car ride from Florida to Louisiana). I remember how he wasn't mad so much as hurt by what I had done or, more accurately, had failed to do. Not that I had sense enough to care at the time. My only real regret was that I didn't make it to a single game at Cameron Indoor Arena, where the Blue Devils played basketball.

That's how I ended up at LSU. After a few months of working in a carwash at a job that afforded me neither the time nor the money for golf, I began to have a new appreciation for higher education. I somehow persuaded my father that I'd do better this time, and he reluctantly agreed to let me move 120 miles or so down I-10 to Baton Rouge, where I walked on the golf team.

I made good on my promise and made pretty decent grades for a while. I guess that the disaster at Duke had more of an effect on me than I realized. Perhaps my dad's threat to send me to boot camp with the Marines had something to do with it, too. I may have wanted to see the world, but not from the back of a troop carrier.

Besides, it wasn't like I was seeking the cure for cancer. My course load consisted mostly of English lit, economics, and political science. It wasn't P.E., but it wasn't rocket science, either.

I've known people who found the humanities difficult. They were quite comfortable memorizing phyla or the molecular structure of every variety of hydrocarbon-stuff I couldn't hope to decipher-but literally wet themselves at the thought of writing an essay about one of Milton's sonnets (I always liked "On His Blindness") or Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, which I could do while watching a football game without even turning the sound down.

It seems that I was born to write essays about man's inhumanity to man or the relationship between truth and beauty. I could bullshit about that kind of stuff for pages on end and make it sound pretty good. I learned early on that the difference between science and the humanities was that there was only one correct answer about the number of chromosomes but any number of ways to describe the themes in A Streetcar Named Desire.

For my money, it was just too easy to be wrong in science. So I was determined to take only the minimum science courses required for my B.A. degree and no more. I avoided it as long as I could, but eventually I had to sign up for something. My adviser showed me a list of science courses that would satisfy the requirement for my degree. Most of them were at the wrong times, meaning they conflicted with our afternoon golf practices.

I settled on Chemistry 103, which turned out to be a huge mistake. My adviser had failed to tell me that this course was for premed majors. These anal-obsessive types were some kind of intense. I had hardly settled in for the first class when the professor finished introducing himself and then coughed. The geek next to me wrote

"C-O-U-G-H" in his notes. He wasn't going to miss a thing.

I should have left right then. Instead, I sat and listened to the professor talk for an entire hour without understanding a word he said. When it was over, I immediately went to the dean's office and asked if they could direct me to a class where they spoke English. That's when I learned that I should have taken Chemistry 101, which was for students who weren't premed. Around campus, the course was referred to as "Beakers for Bozos." I signed up for it, and it turned out to be just the thing I needed for my science requirement.


li0Obviously, when I later blew my second chance at education by leaving LSU, that only made things worse. I had raised my parents' hopes by doing reasonably well and then had dashed them (again) by leaving before I got my degree. All it did was prove, as my father pointedly said, that I was better at golf than at life.

My brother Mark didn't help things, either. Three years younger, he had followed me at Catholic High in Lake Charles but had taken a decidedly different path. Mark was the valedictorian of his graduating class and earned a full ride to Tulane on an academic scholarship. I can't tell you the number of times I began to hear "Why can't you be like your brother Mark?"

Call it pride if you want, but now that I had really screwed up, I wasn't about to subject myself to any I-told-you-so lectures from my father. So asking him to get me out of jail-which he was certainly in a position to do, being a lawyer and all-was out of the question.

I was in the process of once again running through an imaginary list of prospects who might be willing to make bail for me when they came and told me that my bond had been posted and that I was free to go. I asked the jailer who had bailed me out, and he said the fellow was waiting for me outside.


Copyright 2004 by J. Michael Veron