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.

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It was in the summer of 1969 when my close friend and classmate, Steve Harwell, made a seemingly innocuous comment while we were playing golf at Memorial Park with Mike Kalousek and Joe McMullen. As we were walking down hole number seven, the long par five, Steve spoke for the first time of his plan.

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

“Gosh, Harwell, I don’t know, thousands. Your last shot would be the latest!”

Steve just smiled, and I knew him well enough to detect he had a scheme originating from the right-side of his cerebrum (Steve was left-handed). The lake was a huge reservoir, situated between #7 and #8 fairways, and it was the water source for irrigation for the golf course. Since the city pumped water into the lake, the level was consistent, and the water was generally clear. We could always see balls, mostly out of reach, when we peered into the lake.

The exchange was forgotten until early spring when Steve revealed his master plan to me. Over the winter, assisted by his dad, my dear friend had built a device in his garage which could dredge the lake for golf balls. The invention, a metal device much like 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 reservoir. Long ropes were attached to each end. I would be on one bank with Steve on the other bank. We would pull the ropes to provide the power and drag the apparatus on the bottom, trapping the balls within the slots.

Steve had also modified a wagon to assist in transporting the balls and supplies to and from our parked truck. At a neighborhood park, we performed a dry test run to ensure the device was operating properly. He then made a few adjustments in his garage before deciding that the machine was water worthy.

Our clandestine caper commenced on a cool Saturday night in April of ’70. We estimated that the retrieval effort would take four or five hours to complete. At approximately ten o’clock in the evening, I utilized my usual “screen out of the window” technique to sneak out of my house. Steve picked me up in his red pick-up, fully loaded with the “rig”, the wagon, flashlights, gloves, and a canvas sack to collect the haul.

We decided to park at Saint Teresa’s Catholic Church, which was a half-mile from ground zero and would not draw attention to the truck. I suppose we began the operation in earnest about 9:45. Getting the contraction into the water and situated soaked us both  . 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 segments until we navigated the majority of the 4-acre body of water. After each run, we would pull the retriever out of the water, peel away the desirable balls, and then shift and realign for the next pull. The entire enterprise was very laborious for a 17-year-old kid.

Using flashlights to inspect after each pass, the cut and misshaped balls were culled from our collection and tossed to area already dragged.  The prized Titleist and other pro-line balls were collected and placed in a big. By 3:00 AM we were both exhausted but had a big bushel bag full of balls for our effort. After loading the bags into the wagon, we began the hike back to Saint Teresa’s. Steve’s machine had been engineered well, allowing us to roll the supplies and equipment across the golf course and back towards the truck.

While we were crossing the asphalt road which circled the park, just 150 yards from our truck, as fate would have it, headlights appeared from around the bend from the direction of Memorial Drive. Noticing the car was driving gave us a few seconds to pull the machine and wagon into the ditch alongside the road. While I scampered behind the first tree a few yards away, Steve hid a little deeper in the woods and stood within some brush.

The approaching vehicle was the Park Patrol Police with his “candy-topper” quiet. My heart was pounding when he stopped his vehicle near our abandoned equipment with 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. After a couple of  minutes, the officer got out of his car and walked to the ditch. Ranger Rick decided to load our possessions in his trunk and back seat, giving me an opportunity to scamper about 30 yards deeper in the woods. I laid face down behind a wide pine tree only forty yards from the police car while Steve sunk 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 in rapid rote. As luck would have it, my face was submerged in a mound of fire ants. They spread all over my motionless face and chest.

With the vicious insects all over my face and neck, I silenced any whimpers or movement as the uniformed authority began to walk in our direction. Our pursuer seemed indecisive as he approached. I was lying low, much as an infantry soldier would lay when bombarded with superior fire power. Although I could not see the ‘heat,” he was so close that I could hear the footsteps and even detect heavy breathing. I was as still as a statue. Moments turned into minutes as my heart pounded with my head buried in a colony of ants. Finally, the sounds he created began to dissipate. I dared to move a bit and quietly brushed my face with a sleeve. It was only then that I peered into the direction of the patrol car .

The uniformed officer was alone, alongside his car, deep in thought. Maybe he assumed we had retreated deep into the darkness and made our escape. After five minutes or so, he shrugged his shoulders and took one final look in our direction. He opened his trunk and loaded the machine and the sack of balls. He quickly drove off with his contraband which included about 500 top quality golf balls. He left the wagon behind. 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 in agony.

I was cold and wheezing from an episode of asthma stemming from the hard work. My face and neck needed an alcohol bath. My belly itched like a bad sunburn had combined with a severe case of poison ivy. Steve reappeared from the woods and  empty-handed, we vacated the area immediately. Steve rolled the wagon back to the truck solemnly as I brushed the last of the ants. The ride back to Oak Forest was strangely silent as two defeated golf ball hawks returned to their nest. Our 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. I re-entered my room and replaced the screen. Several alcohol baths followed but nothing would relieve the deep pain that the creepy crawlers inflicted.

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

My fellow classmates laughed openly to my face, and I even heard jokes about excessive chocolate eclair indulgence over the weekend. I was a laughingstock. Worst of all, the enterprise we envisioned ended abruptly. We were ahead of our time but had nothing to show for the effort but the modified wagon.

Later that summer I was playing a quick nine with my dad after he got off work one day. As we were walking down the fairway, I noticed two maintenance workers with a utility vehicle unloading our machine. Part of me was sad while the other part filled with satisfaction for Steve’s ingenuity and his machine. Steve and his dad were craftsmen and perfectionist, and their effort would bring in revenue to the city in the form of the sale of the used balls in the pro shop. How I wanted to tell my Dad the entire story, but I never did.

I have not seen Steve Harwell in years, but hopefully he will be at our next reunion and maybe we can reminisce. I would love to hear his version, and it might  even jostle my vivid memory. I have always tried to find a silver lining or hidden meaning. Although our results were not fruitful maybe we were sort of phantom pioneers for later day entrepreneurs. Guess I should be satisfied having a memory with a dear friend.

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