Most of my elementary school memories include two things: boys and sports. I remember the former because I loved them, the latter because I loathed them.
I spent my mornings slipping notes to one special boy, my first love, when the teacher wasn’t looking. Topics included: “Do you love me? Circle yes or no.” (Yes) and “Are you allowed to talk on the phone tonight?” (No) and “Want to sit with me at lunch? Circle yes or no.” (Yes). One Valentine’s Day we exchanged gifts. I bought him a bottle of Dr. Pepper and a box of Fruit Roll Ups, his favorite food. He bought me a heart shaped onion, my favorite food, and an angel pin which spent the next three years on my backpack. The romance was real, and the mornings good.
I spent my afternoons dreading gym.
I don’t remember the name of my P.E. teacher, but she struck fear in my heart. I used to hide in the bathroom when I saw her walking down the hall. It didn’t matter which sport we were learning, I was miserable. I was so bad at basketball that I had to learn to dribble with a beach ball. I retied my shoelaces so many times during soccer that the teacher told my parents they might need to buy me Velcro shoes. I “let” so many kids go ahead of me in kickball, altogether avoiding a turn, until one day she caught on and made me go first every day.
It wasn’t all bad though. One week she was out sick and we had a very handsome substitute teacher. That was a good week.
Field Day was a special kind of hell, and after surviving the dreaded day in First and Second Grade, my parents finally let me skip the day each time it rolled around for the rest of elementary school.
Middle school wasn’t much better. My car rides to and from school were spent begging my parents to find a way to get me out of volleyball. Get a doctor’s note, I insisted. Unfortunately, hatred of sports isn’t considered an actual medical condition, so they resorted to prayer. From that day on, we spent the car rides begging God to help me get the ball over the net.
Since hormones and heartbreaks and greasy hair and braces weren’t torture enough for Eighth Grade, we had to run a mile once a week. I’m proud of the fact that I didn’t come in dead last each week, rather second to last, only ahead of the girl who had debilitating asthma.
Asthma. Why didn’t I think of that?
By that age, we’d outgrown the torture of Field Day. In its place: the epic four day Eight Grade trip for camping and white-water rafting. While everyone in my class excitedly packed and prepared, I tried to research believable illnesses I could fake to skip the trip. It didn’t work, and I watched my mom pack the horrifying necessities listed on our school-provided packing list: bug spray, sleeping bags, a one-piece bathing suit, toothbrush, and jock itch cream. Before I knew it I was on a bus with the eighth grade class heading to a campsite where we were met by a stereotypical outdoorsy man in his sixties. He gave us the low down of the trip, announced our tent assignments, and quoted a book called How to Shit in the Woods. In his hand, a Ziploc bag and a shovel. I made a silent vow to myself: Hold it, whatever you do, just hold it. It’s only a few days.
Three days later we were back on the bus heading for our white-water rafting “adventure.” We put on wetsuits and walked in groups of five, raft overhead, down to the Chattooga River. Our raft guide (Are they called guides?) was a pretty cute guy in his twenties. At least if I was going to die, I’d have some eye candy in my final moments. Between my simultaneous flirty and panicked glances, he informed us that the Chattooga River is where the 1970’s horror film Deliverance was filmed. Death suddenly seemed like an actual possibility.
The last thing I remember hearing before climbing into the raft was the instruction to bring your legs up if you got flipped out. Something about toes getting stuck in rocks. Drowning. Death.
We watched two groups ahead of us raft down the large 14-foot double drop called Bull Sluice. After the drop, they got out of their rafts to cheer on the next team from the large rocks. The next team was us. Remember, if you fall out, lift your feet.
I don’t remember the exact moment I felt my entire body flip out of the raft, then under the raft, into the freezing water, but I do remember lifting my feet. I was so focused on lifting my feet that I barely saw the guide (who had suddenly lost his appeal to me) standing on the rocks throwing a rope in my direction while I floated downstream, but dammit my feet were lifted. The rope hit my nose before I was able to grab it, leaving a large black bruise. Soon we were back at the lodge (Is it called a lodge?) and as I took off the wetsuit I realized why jock itch cream was on the packing list.
Eventually college came, clearly without an athletic scholarship, and I thought I’d escaped sports purgatory for good. I was wrong. I attended a small liberal arts school in the Upstate of South Carolina. One of the benefits of a liberal arts education is the ability to explore a variety of disciplines in addition to your major of choice. Basically, a liberal arts degree ensures that you’re good at your job and at cocktail parties.
Here’s the downside to a liberal arts degree: sports are considered part of the experience that creates well-rounded human beings. I wholeheartedly disagree. I avoided my sports requirements until my senior year. Finally, the time came to register for classes for my Senior year and my advisor reminded me that I hadn’t yet taken my physical education courses. I briefly considered dropping out, but I was engaged and my Dad often reminded me, No degree, no dress, so I bit the bullet and looked at my options.
We could choose from three sections: team sport, dance, and individual sport. I had visions of beach ball dribbling practice and I decided that one helping of that particular form of humiliation was enough for a lifetime. Clearly, team sports were out. That left dance and an individual sport.
I bought a leotard, tights, ballet shoes, and survived my semester-long ballet class with the grace of a drunk ox. I don’t remember my grade, but I can almost guarantee it wasn’t an A. I didn’t care. It was over.
My last semester of college was beginning and my roommate and I decided golf sounded like a pretty safe option for an individual sport. We came back from Christmas break, our parents’ credit cards in tow, and went to the sporting goods store where twenty years of heart-thumping humiliation flashed brighter than the fluorescent lights overhead. As I walked through the time warp of my childhood athletic traumas, I began to sweat. Basketballs here, kickballs there, a nice display of beach balls. Volleyball nets. Rafts. Wetsuits.
Lindsay, my roommate, saw the panic in my eyes came up with a brilliant plan to get us through the semester. The plan involved pink golf clubs and argyle socks; we’d just accessorize our way through the semester. It was kind of a “tan fat looks better than pale fat” situation, but the golf version. As long as you look like a golfer, it won’t matter that you have a striking lack of athletic ability.
A few days later we grabbed our new golf bags and walked to the athletics building, the only building on our campus I’d never visited. Apparently it was pretty state of the art, not that I would know. My walking into that building was about as pointless as a vegetarian visiting a butcher. But there I sat in a classroom (Who knew the athletics building had classrooms?) with about twenty other women waiting for our professor.
And then he came in.
Afternoon, ladies. I’m sorry I’m a few minutes late, but when you’re 80 you sometimes misplace your keys. My name is Olin Calicutt, and I’m here to teach you to love the great game of golf.
I was smitten.
I’m not sure if it was his deep southern drawl, his white hair, his silver rimmed glasses, or the fact that he truly believed he could teach someone like me to love the game of golf, but I decided the semester wouldn’t be so bad after all.
The first class only lasted a few minutes. He gave us some handouts and told us all materials would be provided, including golf clubs. He looked over at Lindsay and me, our matching pink bags and clubs. Of course, if you bring your own that’ll be just fine too. Don’t think I’ve ever seen a pink bag, ladies. I sure like them.
Our first real class was on a chilly day and we walked down to the practice field (We had a practice field?), where he lined us up. One by one, he showed us how to grip the club correctly and how to align our feet. Then we started swinging. I’m clearly no expert, but my first attempt was weak. Pitiful, really. But Olin was a gentleman.
Classes continued and surprisingly, Lindsay and I began to look forward to them. Our excitement had nothing to do with golf, but rather the opportunity to see Olin. Our golf skills improved slightly, and I mean very, very, very slightly, and we began visiting the par three course in town with our boyfriends on the weekends. Have argyle, will golf.
After our first visit to the par three course, we told Olin about our weekend adventure. He looked thrilled. The smile on his face faded slightly when one of us, and I’m not naming any names, pulled out our driver, swung, and knocked the head right off of the club. The head flew farther than the ball. Lindsay and I broke into hysterics. Olin, however, took his glasses off his face, wiped them with the corner of his shirt and said, Well, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything like that before. That was really something.
Olin stopped Lindsay and me after class that day. I’m so glad you ladies are enjoying golf. If there’s ever anything I can do to help you with your game, all you have to do is ask.
We asked if he’d ever be willing to meet us at the driving range. I would just be delighted.
We made a plan to meet him at the driving range that weekend. I remember nothing about our time, but after we were finished he asked if we were hungry. Starving.
I know a great Chinese place. You ladies can follow me.
The three of us sat at the table, sipped our water, ordered. Lindsay and I still had on our golf shoes. He talked to us about his kids and grandkids, we talked about our other classes, our parents, our boyfriends. He told us about his wife who had died several years before, his face lit up when he spoke of her. I sure miss her.
The waitress came over and told us it was so sweet to see two granddaughters having lunch with their grandfather. Oh, he’s not actually our grandfather…
No, these are my friends, Olin interrupted.
She left the bill on the table which Lindsay and I tried to take. He grabbed it before we could. Friends, I’m 80 years old. I’ve never let a lady buy my lunch, and I’m not about to begin now.
The class ended, and on the last day we presented him with a plaque. I don’t remember what we had engraved on it, but I remember that he took his glasses off again, this time wiping his eyes. We hugged him goodbye.
I wish I could say we kept in touch, but life went on. We graduated, he got a new group of students, and I lost my golf swing quickly, although it wasn’t much to brag about at its peak.
I recently found out that Olin died two years ago. I wish I’d known at the time so I could have written his family and told him what he’d meant to me. We didn’t know each other well, but that semester I learned that sports don’t exclusively create miserable memories. Sometimes, they create a friend. Olin did exactly what he told us he’d do on the first day of class: he gave me the love of golf. I don’t play, and I probably never will. I never watch golf, and I still couldn’t tell you the rules, but I love the memory of golf because it gave me the memory of Olin, a true gentleman, and at one point, my friend.