Earl Gets To First Base

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic
Tales From Dirt Mountain, Part 2. Everything in these stories really happened to me, except for the parts I made up. You'll figure it out.

A lot of preliminary information is in Part 1 of the series, Sasquatch the Squirrel. After that, the stories can be read in any sequence.

Submitted: February 02, 2015

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Submitted: February 02, 2015

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You hear a lot of people talking about unintended consequences.  Politicians pass laws that do more harm than good.  Parents spoil their kids trying to be kind.  It’s human nature.  So no one would expect Earl and myself to understand that making a game of hitting golf balls into a junk yard and scoring points based on the number of ricochets might have unintended consequences.  We were just kids, after all.

That summer when it wasn’t raining, Daddy drove me to Dirt Mountain, early in the morning, in his big white van.  The one with Wlodarski’s Plumbing hand painted on each side.  Earl and I were usually the first ones out on the course, we could get in 36 holes before lunch on a good day.  The first 18 was the serious round of the day.  That was the score we were going to post on our handicap card.  The next round usually degraded into games, dares and gambling.  I’ll bet a Coke I get closer to the pin.  I dare you to bank a shot off the bathroom wall while Mr. Linden is in there.

The 18th hole is a par four with a pond right in front of the green.  To me, the pond was Charlie Brown’s kite eating tree.  Every time I played Dirt Mountain, if I had a good round going, that nasty patch of muddy water was hanging in the back of my mind.  The dreams of more than one good round ended up there.  That’s where Earl came in.  Earl’s father owned and operated Dirt Mountain.  Every week or so, one of Earl’s jobs was to don a snorkel and mask, and go ball bobbing in the pond.  Since me and Earl were buddies, he always gave me back my own balls, if he found them before the water had time to soak off my mark.  The shiny new balls ended up for sale in the pro shop.  The rest ended up on the driving range, in the garbage, or in Earl’s bag.

When you round the dogleg on the 6th hole, Filer’s Salvage and Towing is just across Grinder Creek.  The 7th tee faces directly away from the salvage yard.  Which means that wayward youth with too much idle time can simply rotate 180 degrees and twenty acres of junked cars is beckoning.  There we were, standing on the 7th tee on a torrid July afternoon, bored out of our minds.  Earl had a bag full of second rate golf balls.  And the game of pinball golf was invented.

Before Earl hit the first shot into the junkyard, I told him it was a stupid idea.  I said the same thing after the second shot.  The third shot hit a headlight, it exploded with a whooshing sound.  That was awesome.  Now it was my turn.  I told Earl, “one point for every ricochet.”  Thus the name pinball golf.  You had to hit metal before you hit ground to score any points.  Over time, the scoring became more elaborate.  The more difficult the shot, the more points.  If you called the shot before you hit it, points were tripled.  But if you called a shot and missed, you lost points.  That was how we rolled.  Earl came up with the bad idea, I made it worse.

Thus our days of summer went, my 14th year, Earl’s 13th.  The Universe was a known, defined place.  Pinball golf was a good thing.  It wasn’t until next summer that we learned about unintended consequences.  We knew girls had cooties, how could we know that within a year, Earl would have a hopeless crush on Mary Ann Filer, daughter of Jonah Filer, of Filer’s Salvage and Towing.  But enough about young love for now, what we need to discuss next is The Autograph.

Daddy never made much money as a plumber, but he must have done good work because we got a lot of Christmas cards from his customers.  Often he would come home with a plate of cookies or a bag of garden fresh vegetables.  He mentioned on an April morning, the next year, he was on his way to Judge Phelps’s house to install a hot tub.  But I never expected he would come home, slap me on the back, and say, “Pack your bags, sonny boy, I’ve got four tickets to tomorrow’s practice round at The Masters.  We’re going to Augusta!”  Turns out the Judge had tickets every year to golf’s most exclusive tournament.  He couldn’t make it the next day because of a trial.

I called Earl, he asked George for permission.  Then Daddy, Momma, Earl and I piled into the van with our luggage and drove all night to Augusta.  I must have fallen asleep, all I remember is Momma waking me up the next morning in a hotel room.  Then a drive that probably took an hour but seemed like a month, until we turned down that magnolia lined road.  From then on the day was all magic.  I hadn’t hit my growth spurt yet, so when I saw my heroes up close for the first time, not on a 12 inch black and white TV, they seemed like giants. 

Jack Nicklaus could flick his tail and destroy half of downtown Tokyo.  Daddy got his picture taken with Gary Player.  Tom Weiskopf gave me an autographed glove, it sits today next to Daddy’s photo in what passes for a trophy case.  And Earl got Arnold Palmer to sign a ball.  We all liked the memorabilia we got, except for Earl.  Earl didn’t like that ball, he worshipped it.  Earl was going to be with that ball in sickness and in health, and not be parted at death because a golf ball will fit in a coffin.

Earl loved that ball so much he became convinced that he had to carry it with him in his bag when he played.  Knowing Earl, I expected him to lose it, so at least I got him to keep it in the side compartment, where you keep rain gear.  Not the compartment where you keep balls and tees.

Golf is a mental game to a large extent.  Of course you have to master the fundamentals, but after that, confidence is a big part of the game.  That’s what that ball did, it gave Earl confidence.  Before the trip to The Masters, I was beating Earl by two shots a round, easy.  Afterward, he was one or two shots better.  That was okay, there are worse things in life than getting outplayed by your best friend. 

Next we need to talk about girls.

When we invented pinball golf, and when we went to The Masters, we thought of girls as people you didn’t see often on a golf course.  That changed the next fall.  Differences between boys and girls had become obvious in Mary Ann Filer, and Earl noticed.  Earl was a fast talker, which is not the same thing as a smart talker.  I put up with him because we shared a passion for golf.  And I’ve never had a more loyal friend.  But I can’t imagine what the rest of the world thought when Earl started talking.  His heart was in the right place, but there was no filter between his brain and his mouth.

The first day of school, we’re right in the middle of a serious discussion about who will be the starting quarterback, when Mary Ann and her twin sister Mary Lou walk past.  They weren’t identical twins, but obviously sisters.  Mary Lou was tall and athletic.  She would lead the volleyball team to the state championship in her senior year.  Mary Ann was average height and stunningly beautiful.  She could have been homecoming queen, except in Maynard County, you couldn’t be homecoming queen if your daddy runs a junk yard.

One minute Earl is babbling about football, then he sees Mary Ann and stops in the middle of a sentence.  That never happens.  The next thing I know, he is running down the hall, hollering at Mary Ann to stop because he needs to talk to her.  To this day, I don’t know what he said to her.  But she slapped him in the face and ran off.  By the time he walked back to me, there were two things Earl Saunders was in love with.  A golf ball autographed by Arnold Palmer, and Jonah Filer’s oldest daughter, the one born four minutes before Mary Lou.

Here’s what we need to keep in mind at this point.  Earl was in love with Mary Ann Filer.  Earl and his best friend Serge had been vandalizing the junk yard owned by Mary Ann’s father for more than a year.  And it had not occurred to either of us there might be a reason we should stop playing pinball golf.

There is always a point when a line is crossed, where that avalanche starts sliding down the hill and won’t stop until it reaches the bottom.  You don’t know you’ve crossed the line when it happens, you only figure that out later when you look back with the clarity of 20/20 hindsight. 

For Earl, the line got crossed one Saturday afternoon when his father walked into the pro shop and asked if we wanted to go to the junk yard.  The F-150 needed a new old muffler.  Earl and I had finished golf for the day.  I was waiting for Daddy to pick me up and the two of us were amusing ourselves with a game of darts. 

At this point, Earl had made zero headway on the Mary Ann front.  But here was a golden opportunity, he knew both of Jonah’s daughters helped out in the salvage yard office during the summer and on Saturdays during the school year.  I didn’t think anything of it when he said, “Wait a minute” and ran back into the shed where we kept our clubs.  That was where Earl crossed the line.

But this was one of those slow moving avalanches, we hadn’t felt the slight shift under our feet yet when the pickup truck pulled into the lot.  Right away we could see Mary Ann and Mary Lou on the other side of the lot, unloading some bags filled with aluminum cans from the back of a panel truck.  Earl made a beeline to the girls.  Just like the time at school, he was too far away for me to hear what he said.  But I did see him pull a golf ball out of his pocket and show it to Mary Ann. 

Then Mary Lou pushed him.  She was a tall, strong girl, once I saw her spike a volleyball so hard it hit an opponent in the face and broke her nose.  When she pushed Earl, he hit the ground back first with a dull thud, and like before, the girls ran off.  This time, Earl wasn’t moving, so I went over to see what was wrong.  He had the wind knocked out of him.  By the time he could breathe again, he sat up and wheezed, “Where’s the ball?”  That fool had brought his Arnold Palmer golf ball to the junkyard to impress Mary Ann, but stuck his foot in his mouth as usual.  Fortunately the ball was right there on the ground, crisis averted.  But not for long.

The next afternoon, we were on the 7th tee, engaging in the latest chapter of pinball golf.  I had just got a 3 bouncer off of a burned out Volvo, a Dodge Charger with a crushed front end, and VW microbus.  Earl was down to his last shot and needed a two bouncer to tie, three to win.  Just as he started his downswing, something caught the corner of my eye.  I noticed a script “e” on Earl’s golf ball.  The kind of letter someone would write if they were autographing a golf ball, and their nickname was Arnie.

That damn fool was so distracted by his not so close call with Mary Ann the day before, when he got back to Dirt Mountain, he put the Arnie ball in the wrong compartment, the one with the pinball balls.  It was just bad luck that he couldn’t see any of the autograph when he teed the ball, the autograph was at the South Pole from where Earl was standing. I could only see the “e” because I was off to the side.

The word “No!” came out of my mouth.  If someone drew a cartoon of that scene, it would have come out in slow motion, like “Nooooooooooooooo!”  But it was too late, Earl had already started his downswing. Arnie’s ball hit the ground before it bounced off of a tan Ford Pinto, for zero points. 

Now both of the things Earl loved were on the other side of Grinder’s Creek, behind an 8 foot high fence topped with barbed wire.  The avalanche had started slow, but once it got going, it finished fast.

I’ve only seen Earl cry a few times.  In the waiting room after the birth of his first daughter.  Last year at George’s funeral.  The first time was that day, standing on the 7th tee at Dirt Mountain.  At that moment, I knew two things.  One was that my best friend was absolutely insane.  Another was that me and Earl were going to figure out a way to get the ball back.

You might think that losing the Arnie ball was the unintended consequences I’ve been leading up to.  Not by a long shot.  That was bad, but what was going to happen next would change Earl’s life forever.  Before that, there was some planning.

It had to be a daytime job.  We were kids, I didn’t have a driver’s license, and I wasn’t going to ride my bike to Dirt Mountain at night.  But we had a ready excuse to be across Grinder’s Creek from the junkyard every day when we rounded the dogleg on 6.  The creek was easy, we could take off our socks and wade across.  That still left us some big problems.  How to get over the fence, and back out after retrieving the ball? 

Earl told George there were some broken branches out on the course, so we took the utility cart, saws, rope and a ladder out toward the 7th tee.  We’d stashed some blankets under the other supplies.  We were going to lean the ladder against the fence, put the blankets over the barbed wire, tie the rope to the top rung of the ladder and throw it over the fence. 

Earl would climb down the rope, find Arnie, and climb back up the rope.  I’d be on the ladder to help him get back over.  I’d seen him climb that rope in the gym at school, the one where you’re supposed to touch the rafter before you shinny back down.

The other problem was named Zombie.  That was Jonah Filer’s junkyard dog.  Zombie was a mangy German Shepard with only three legs, two in the front and one in the back.  Zombie probably couldn’t run as fast as a four legged dog.  But he could run faster than a two legged Earl.  The plan for Zombie was to throw a bunch of hamburgers over the fence, once Zombie had a full stomach he should curl up and take a nap, and wouldn’t be too inclined to run after Earl.

At least that is what Earl thought.  The ladder was my idea, I was sure it was going to work.  The hamburger was Earl’s idea, we’ve already covered what happens when Earl has an idea.  But I knew that once my pal had made up his mind, there was no changing it.  The best thing I can do at that point is to go along and try to minimize the damage.

We crossed Grinder Creek, I set up the ladder while Earl carried the hamburgers a distance down the fence line.  He started shaking the fence, that sound always got Zombie’s attention.  By the time he got back from feeding Zombie, I’d finished with the ladder and had also cut up some branches and loaded them in the back of the cart for our cover story.

He met me back at the fence, and was munching on a hamburger patty and licking the fat off his fingers.  I gave him the eye, he just shrugged and said, “You know I’m always hungry.” That turned out to be another one of Earl’s poor decisions. 

Earl makes it over the fence okay, and he’s on his hands and knees near the tan Pinto searching for the Arnie ball.  You’d think it was a simple matter, but if you’ve ever played golf on a course that has a driving range near any of the holes, and you happen to hit a shot in the rough on the driving range side, you know what Earl is going through at that time.  It’s not too hard to find one golf ball in the rough, if you have a general idea where it is.  The problem comes in when you are finding every pinball golf ball that ever got hit near the Pinto.  That can slow you down, and give Zombie time to digest lunch.

Other problems await Earl, for example, dogs have an incredibly keen sense of smell.  Once the wind changed direction, Zombie perked up.  He smelled the hamburger fat still on Earl’s hands from a 100 yards away and made a beeline for him.  From my vantage point of the ladder, I saw Zombie before Earl did.  I wanted to shout something like, “Earl, look out, Zombie is coming!”  But primal instincts being what they are, all I could do was let out a high pitched, blood curdling scream.  Not a manly scream, my voice had yet to change.  Yet my moment of shame may have saved Earl’s life.

When Earl heard my scream, he stood up and saw Zombie coming toward him.  He pivoted to run, tripped over a battery, and hit his head on the bumper of the tan Pinto.  He was out cold.  Zombie was hovering over Earl, growling and drooling.  I was standing on the ladder, trembling, certain I was going to see my golf buddy get mauled by a three legged dog. 

That’s when the unintended consequences started.  By a miracle of fate, Jonah had sent Mary Ann and Mary Lou out to pull the starter out of that Pinto.  What are the odds that someone would need a starter for a Pinto the same day of our trespassing?  The girls heard my piercing scream and came running to Earl’s rescue.  Mary Lou pulled Zombie away, Mary Ann cradled Earl’s head in her arms and, I swear this is the truth.  She bent down and kissed him on the forehead.  A partially conscious Earl had finally gotten to first base. He woke up, smiled the famous Earl smile, and said, “Mary Ann, I am going to marry you.”

And he did.  That time when I saw him crying in the waiting room, that was Mary Ann in the delivery room, exhausted and drenched in sweat, after giving Earl his first daughter.  Earl promised me he was going to name his first son Serge, but that never happened.  Earl and Mary Ann had four more daughters, they had to quit after that.  Running Dirt Mountain wasn’t very lucrative, but Earl somehow managed to provide.

In a perfect world, I would have ended up with Mary Lou.  Earl spent a lot of energy trying to get us together, and we did go out on some double dates.  But even after my growth spurt, when I was tall enough to look down into her beautiful brown eyes, I was still a shy geek.  Not the kind of material to hang on to a first rate lady like Mary Lou Filer.  She used her volleyball scholarship to get started and ended up practicing medicine at Johns Hopkins University.  She was the only one of us to make it out of Maynard County.  I guess the rest of us belong here.  We aren’t complaining.

At any rate, Earl found the ball and didn’t get eaten by Zombie.  The episode convinced him he could avoid the shanks without carrying the ball in his bag.  The only golf ball ever hit by both a seven time major winner and Earl Saunders was placed next to a Georgia State Amateur Championship medal in the Dirt Mountain pro shop. 

On his wedding day, Jonah Filer handed Earl a small box.  Inside were the keys to a VW microbus that Jonah had carefully restored from various wrecks at the yard.  Jonah didn’t just junk them, he could put them back together as well.  Until the day he retired, he made sure Earl and Mary Ann never had a car payment.

Jonah smiled when Earl opened the box, and said, “The VW runs great, you shouldn’t have much mechanical trouble.  Darnedest thing though.  When I pulled that thing out of the back of the yard, it was covered with tiny dents.  We must have had a hail storm, back there near the 7th tee.”


© Copyright 2017 Serge Wlodarski. All rights reserved.

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