A High School Caper

After reading Jesse Ybarra’s recent story highlighting his scuba diving for golf balls antics, I was inspired to come clean with a true story of my own from my teen-age days. Factual is more interesting than fiction, and this is actual. This adventure might suggest that classmates have shared similar experiences, and we duplicate much more than differ. Thank you, Jesse for spawning a sequel.

  ***************

It was in late 1969 when my close friend and classmate, Steve Harwell, made a seemingly innocuous comment while we were playing golf at Memorial Park alongside Mike Kalousek and Joe McMullen.

“How many golf balls do you think are in that reservoir?”

“Gosh, Harwell, I don’t know, maybe thousands. Why does it matter that you just hit one more in there?”

Steve just smiled, and I knew him well enough to detect he had a scheme originating from the right-side of his cerebral cortex (Steve was left-handed). The lake was a huge reservoir, situated between #7 and #8 fairways, and it was the source of irrigation for the golf course watering system. Since the city pumped water into the lake, the level was consistent, and the water was generally clear.

I had forgotten about the exchange until early springtime when Steve revealed his master plan to me. Over the winter, assisted by his dad, my friend had built a device in their garage which could dredge the lake for golf balls. The invention, a metal device similar to a tractor disc, was constructed to allow golf balls to be pinched between the blades (and lodged within the gaps) while it rolled along the bottom of the lake. Long ropes were attached to each end. While I was on one bank, Steve was to be on the other bank, and we were to pull the ropes, dragging the damn thing through the pond.

Steve had also modified a wagon to assist in transporting the balls and supplies to and from our parked truck. We did a dry test run to make sure that the device was operating properly, and then after a bit of adjusting decided that our machine was water worthy.

Our clandestine caper debuted on a cool Saturday night in March of ’70. We estimated that the retrieval effort would take four or five hours to complete; at approximately ten o’clock that evening, I utilized my “screen out of the window” technique to sneak out of my home. Steve picked me up in his red pick-up, fully loaded with the “rig”, the wagon, flashlights, and a canvas sack for our collection.

We decided to park at Saint Teresa’s Catholic Church, which was only a half-mile from the reservoir and would not draw attention to the truck. I suppose we began the operation in earnest about 10:45. The task was strenuous work, with me on one side of the lake and Steve on the other. The mechanism was about 3 1/2 feet wide so we had to work our way in small bits until we covered the entire length of the 5 acre lake. After each run, we would pull the retriever out of the water, peel away the desirable balls, and realign it for the next pull. The entire enterprise was very laborious for two 17 year olds.

We used the flashlights to inspect after each drag. The cut and miss-shaped balls were culled from our collection, keeping only the Titleist and other pro-line balls. By 3:00 AM we were both exhausted, but we had a big bushel bag full of balls for our effort. After loading the balls in the wagon, we began the hike back to Saint Teresa’s. Our machine was engineered to roll, and it performed well as we trekked back to our truck. Steve had indeed designed a masterpiece.

While we were crossing the asphalt road, just 150 yards from our truck, as fate would have it, headlights appeared from around the bend from Memorial Drive. The car was driving slowly when we first saw it, giving us a few seconds to pull the machine and wagon into the ditch alongside the road and scamper behind the first two trees a few yards away.

The approaching vehicle was the Park Patrol Police with his “candy-topper” quiet. Our hearts were pounding when he stopped his vehicle near our abandoned equipment and the bulging bushel bag. While still in his vehicle, the officer shined his car spotlight in our direction. The two skinny boys inhaled as the law enforcement officer profiled our two trees with his light. Ranger Rick decided to load our possessions in his trunk and back seat, giving us an opportunity to scamper about 30 yards deeper in the woods. I laid face down behind an old oak only forty yards from the police car while Steve hid a bit deeper in the woods.

After confiscating the evidence, the patrolman walked directly towards us with his powerful flashlight beaming in our direction. As I buried my head into the soft soil hoping not to be apprehended, my moment of truth arrived. I lay still. Silently but passionately I recited my prayers. As luck would have it, my face was submerged in a mound of fire ants. They spread all over my still face and chest as I remained motionless.

With the vicious insects all over my face and neck, I silenced any whimper or movements as the uniformed authority approached. I was lying low, much as an infantry soldier would lay when bombarded with superior fire power. Although I couldn’t see the ‘heat,” he was so close that I could hear the footsteps and even detect his heavy breathing. I was as still as a placid lake. Soon, those sounds began to dissipate, and I dared to move and then gazed out.

The uniformed officer was alone, alongside his car, deep in thought. I suppose he assumed we had retreated deep into the darkness and made our escape. After five minutes or so, he shrugged his shoulders, took one final look in our direction, and finally drove off with the contraband: the invention, the wagon, and about 800 golf balls. It was only then that I could brush off (with a vengeance) the hundreds of fire ants which covered my face and upper torso.

I was cold and wheezing from an episode of athletic induced asthma stemming from our hard work. My face and neck needed an alcohol bath. My belly itched like a bad sunburn or a case of poison ivy, at their worse. Steve reappeared from the woods, and empty-handed, we exited the area immediately. The ride back to Oak Forest was strangely silent as the two defeated golf ball hawks returned to their nest. Our final conclusion was that the cop was an avid golfer, and he decided to benefit personally from the situation. Otherwise, he certainly would have called for back-up.

Monday morning at school proved to be one of the most embarrassing and painful days of my life. I was in a stage where I was overly sensitive to my appearance anyhow. I was starting to date a bit, but now I didn’t have the gumption to interact with a girl much less ask one for a date. My face, neck, and belly were covered with literally hundreds of puss-filled, pimple-replicas. Zits, I believe we tagged them at the time. Although the ones on my belly hurt the most, physically, the facial ones caused the most distress. It took two weeks for them to heal.

My fellow students laughed openly to my face and even concocted jokes of an excessive chocolate indulgence over the weekend. I was the laughing-stock. Worst of all, the enterprise we envisioned came to an abrupt end. We were ahead of our time but had nothing to show for our effort.

Steve and I have kept the reality a carefully guarded secret until now. I probably should have spoken to him before I did this confessional, but I neglected to. Hopefully, Harwell will be at our next reunion and can confirm my recollection, even jostle my meager memory. Although our results were less fruitful than Jesse’s gang, perhaps we were sort of pioneers for his subsequent late night shenanigans. Maybe not; I was just hoping to find a silver lining somewhere deep in that canvas bushel bag. Guess I will have to be satisfied with a bit of irony.

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