By Marty Duncan
The Pilot's Mate
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Shin'ar, My Love
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Gold...then Iron
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Iron Lake Burning
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Black Powder, Gray Hope:

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Black Powder, Gray Hope:
A Civil War Romance

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Black Powder, Gray Hope:
New Americans

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     A drop of sweat spiraled down to smash itself across the dimpled surface of my golf ball. Another formed on the tip of my nose. There was no wind. A blazing hot sun broiled my back. The air was hot, heavy and sluggish. Grackles were cackling in the tall corn off to my left. A few scattered white clouds provided little respite from the sun. My shirt was soaked through; my head dripped water in all directions. I leaned over my golf ball; practiced the speed and direction. It was only a three-foot putt. If I could sink it I would be one up with eight holes to play.
     Nine holes of golf. Nine holes that transformed my world. I stepped up to the ball. Took one more look at the hole. A glance at David off to my right. I started my back swing and heard,
      “Marty, can I ask the question now?”
      The head of the putter slowly stopped its motion. I straightened up. I looked at David …he was standing in the shade. Had he tried to break my concentration? A drop of sweat ran off my nose and over my chin. I squinted to see him …the August sun was blindingly white. He stood in the shade, wearing cut-off blue jeans and a polo shirt. Not exactly de rigueur for a golf course. David didn’t come from a golfing family …he grew up among fishermen in a town so small the evening activity was counting boat trailers.
       David has a pleasant demeanor and a positive outlook. He sports a handsome face with a mop of untidy brown hair. His blue eyes looked at me, echoing his question. I looked back, without glaring. It was dawning on him. Talking while someone was putting was not ‘good form’.
      “No, David, you can’t.” I looked up at the scattered clouds hoping for a little shade …even for a minute. A trickle of sweat ran down my spine, reminding me it was time to get a move on. “We will do nine holes and get a pair of beers.”
       My golf ball smiled and said, ‘It’s only three feet.’ The distance ‘felt’ like thirty. ‘A straight pendulum,’ I said quietly. My mind went blank. From a thousand feet up I saw myself standing over the ball, cornfield to my left, David behind me. I saw myself in white shorts, a pale green shirt with a raggedy golf cap. The band in the cap was wet and a dark mass ran down my back and soaked the waistband of my shorts.
      “It’s too bloody hot to talk,” I barked. My putter swung in a slow arc, and began its descent toward the ball. Thinking back, I realize there must have been a ‘click’ I didn’t hear. I knew only that I wanted desperately to get ahead by three or four holes.
        In my heat-hazed mind I thought I could decide which of us should win this match, if match it was. The ball danced and bounced in light bumps toward the right edge of the hole …touched the edge and fell left. I was one-up on David and moving toward the tee on Number Two.


     “It was more like we had him terrorized,” I told my friend Michael. “Maybe he thought I would turn him down if he lost the golf match. Maybe he thought Darcy might refuse to marry him if I said No! loudly enough. I don’t know what he thought.”
       Mike and I were sitting in the Olympia Café. It’s an old café, dating to the mid ‘40’s’ when Faribault, Minnesota was young veterans with wives and children. Dark green plastic lined the booths. White Formica covered the tables. Each booth held a chrome plated Rolodex with speakers. In the late 1950’s you could hear the latest from Johnny Ray or Elvis. Plate-glass windows looked out onto Fourth Street. A long soda fountain with stools stood opposite the windows. Mirrors made the Olympia look deeper than it really was. Ten years ago when I talked to Mike during our 40th Class Reunion the Olympia was just the same, unchanged and steady.
        Mike and I had few memories of the Olympia. The ‘In-Crowd’ was not part of our circle. We were Science nerds who spent time in Mike’s basement building aluminum tube rockets. Mike spent days snipping the white tips off safety matches, making fuel for his rocket. Those tips were volatile and tended to flare, as we found out when Mike packed the tips into the rocket. Then we saw Mike’s Dad in the workshop doorway, frowning at us. We were probably twelve or thirteen years old, ‘and should know better’, as Mike’s Dad pointed out.
          “Do you remember the rocket that exploded,” I asked.
          “We were both grounded for three weeks?” he laughed.
           When we finally shot the rocket off, with its ‘Safety Match’ fuel …it went straight up for about twenty feet, turned over and dove into the ground. The rocket mangled its nose. Mike went on to become an engineer and lives in Atlanta.
          “You were telling me about the day David made you nervous.”
          “Hot day in August,” I said quietly. “My daughter and I made him sweat.”
           My Darcy met David in high school, when we moved to Iron Lake. I was the Superintendent and my family had agreed to make one more move if Derek, our oldest and Darcy could stay to graduate from Iron Lake. David was from outside Darcy’s circle of friends. Darcy tried volleyball in grade seven, but she didn’t have the skill or the desire after one year. Darcy’s young man David, on the other hand, distinguished himself with the Iron Lake Mavericks, playing defensive back on the state championship team. He wasn’t the tallest tackle, but he made up for his lack of height by terrorizing quarterbacks.
          Darcy focused on Art, Band and Choir while David acquired a reputation as a pool hustler. I saw him once working a mark in a pool hall. David lost the first two games. When the bet doubled, he actually smiled at the mark, almost as if he was saying, ‘I’m the shark and you are lunch.’ He won $120 and called that a ‘good night’s work’.
         “So, yeah, I was nervous. I didn’t want to disappoint my daughter.” I looked across at Mike, sitting in the booth. We were older suddenly with road maps for faces. Dry skin covered our, showing the veins that run under the skin. Up top his hair was thinner. We were both gray on top with ‘reminiscent’ brown on the sides to wave the flag of youth. “What David didn’t know was that my Darcy told me to be tough …like a gangster.”
         “So what did you do?” asked Mike.
         “I wanted to pull out a cigar. To puff and blow smoke. But it was too darn hot.”


         So David and I played golf, sweating inside our shirts. I won the next two holes, and was ‘three up’ when I pushed a drive into the rough. His drive landed about 50 yards from the hole. He must have been warmed up. His second shot with a pitching wedge landed six feet beyond the hole and backed up, stopping two feet from the flag.
        “Was he out of turn?” asked Mike with a smile.
        “Yes,” I nodded.
        “Did you do anything about it?”
        “Thought about it. But I was ‘up three’. Feeling rather grand, in that heat. It was too hot to invoke the rules. Beside, I just knew I could get my ball close to the pin.”
        “Did you?”
        “Shanked it to my left. It came down in the rough next to the green. I got rattled, or the heat got to me. I was in a hurry to get to the shade behind the green. My third shot barely reached the green.”
         “So, he won the hole.”
         “Yes, and the next two holes.” Somehow I managed to get ‘pushes’ on Seven and Eight. Then we came to the Ninth tied, ‘All Square.’ Then I decided to get nasty, and said, “A lot riding on this hole, David.” He just smiled.
          Then he needled me, and said, “Hot out today, isn’t it?” His shirt was wet down his back …drops of moisture covered his face …he was pretending the heat didn’t bother him. That twenty-four-year-old was trying to prove he was in better shape than Darcy’s fifty-year-old father. On the number Nine tee I stood and smoked an entire cigarette …making him wait. The course was largely abandoned to the heat. The parking lot was almost empty.
         “Mad dogs and Englishmen,” I stammered, under my breath. A little heat was not going to wilt this ‘old duffer.’ I laughed, but the tenor of my deep voice felt hollow.


         We had been the best of friends, Michael and I. Something happened between the two of us. During our last years in high school, we barely saw each other. Mike left for college and I didn’t see him again until our class held its 40th Reunion. I left for college in Milwaukee; my parents moved to outstate. I had no reason to return to Faribault.
          Over the years I returned to Faribault to mentally review ‘my’ neighborhood. The ‘East Side’ is still reached by crossing a concrete viaduct. A ‘Quik Mart’ has replaced the neighborhood grocery. A new housing subdivision surrounds the eighteen-hole golf course that alumni built for Shattuck, the private school. But worst of all …our red brick elementary school is gone. Only the playground remains.
          We looked at each other, sitting in the Olympia and wondered how we had separated …how we had managed to forget to talk for forty years. I suspected the fault was mine.
         “Our generation was so confident …we had a new president in the White House …he said we were going to the Moon. That must have pleased you, Mike.”
          He smiled with a far-away look. “I followed all the space shots …the Mercury lift-offs and the Apollo missions. My wife and I went to Cape Kennedy to watch two of the Apollo lift-offs. You can’t imagine the power of those Saturn V rockets …the earth trembles under the foot of man, and the sun blinks to see a man traversing the heavens.”
          For Mike, that was tantamount to a speech. He was always taciturn and quiet in high school. Across from me I saw mist forming in the corner of his eye.
         “I was just remembering Annie. Her smile, and her way with words. ‘The earth trembles’ is from a poem she wrote.” He showed me a picture of a lady in a floppy yellow sun hat with freckles on her nose.
         “Do you miss her?”
         “It’s been two years …it was a fast cancer.” Mike turned to look into the mirror. He saw the reflected street and perhaps looked into the past. “Annie knew she was leaving me.”
          I looked out onto Fourth Street …and saw a 1955 Ford Thunderbird passing by. “That was a sweet car …three-speed automatic on the floor because there wasn’t room to raise your leg to shift gears. I owned one, once.”
         “You gave it up?”
         “To get married. Once in a while, though, I have a dream where I’m driving that black ‘T-bird’ on a fast highway …above 100 miles per hour the front end had a tendency to lift up …you felt like you were flying …literally flying.”
          “You were a kid then…” Mike left the sentence unfinished. We both remembered our dreams …we felt we could fly …but along came work …and families. We stumbled through life, finding an occasional shining moment.
           “Where have all the flowers gone?” …I sang in a low voice, thinking about Abraham, Martin and John. “We saw our leaders killed by bullets and dishonored by White House tape recordings."
            Mike looked at me, asking perhaps ‘Who are you?’ When I said nothing, he asked if there were ‘bright shining moments’ in my life.
           “That was the point of my story.”


        “The ninth hole was a short par four. David drove his ball to within thirty feet of the green. I swung as hard as I could, trying to match his shot. Literally, I hit a ‘masher.’ It sailed up and drifted over a line of trees, landing even with the green, but with a short tree between the ball and green.”
        “When I got up to the ball, I looked over at David.” How do I describe that Shark’s grin on his face? “There he was …grinning. And I’m telling you, Mike, I could read his mind. He’s thinking he’s got me.”
         It was an olive tree, of all things. A pitching wedge could loft the ball but it would probably roll off the green. But there was a split in the tree …about two feet from the ground the tree branched, forming a ‘V’. A ‘pitch and run’ shot through the ‘V’ would land the ball on the front of the green, leaving room for the ball to run back to the flag.
         I wanted to wipe that smile off his face. At the same time I saw my daughter holding my arm when she explained why David wanted to play nine holes of golf with me.
       “He put his second shot six feet from the flag. I pitched my second shot through the ‘V’ and was left with a three-foot putt. David’s smile disappeared.”
         Mike was laughing, trying to sip on his soda and anticipate the end of my story. When I told him the scorecard showed David shot a four, and I shot a five, Mike frowned for a moment.
        “You mean you shot a fib …don’t you?”
         “In that heat, I don’t know. Did I deliberately miss two putts? I don’t know. I do know I was ambivalent about whether I wanted David to win my daughter’s hand. Perhaps fathers are reluctant to let go …their little girls grow up much too fast.”
         “So David won and you went into the clubhouse.”
         “For a beer. A Corona …Hecho en Mexico as it says. We sat in front of a fan and tried to cool down. The Corona was perfect for a hot day. David asked for my daughter’s hand, and I said, Yes!”
          “So Darcy’s wedding was a bright moment?”
          “Of course. But there’s more. One year ago Darcy delivered the most beautiful, darling baby girl. We celebrated her first birthday in May. Every time Darcy’s little girl smiles at me, I just melt. She’s wound me around her little finger.
          “That’s my definition of a bright moment. The heat and the sweat were worth it. Giving away my daughter was worth it. In the end, the glorious shining trophy is my granddaughter’s smile.”


© Marty Duncan May 2001

Iron Lake, Minnesota is a fictional town, “somewhere southwest of the Twin Cities, on the great prairie” and is the site of Duncan’s second novel, Iron Lake Burning. This short story actually happened, ‘almost’ as written, says Marty Duncan. Mr. Duncan is a veteran school superintendent, teacher of English and Journalism.


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