Thursday, September 5, 2013

Hole 10: The Back Nine Rush

Hole 10: The Back Nine Rush
A group of nearly thirty boys fielded a calvary of bicycles, all with eager eyes following Mr. Cassidy’s every movement. That morning marked the day of the Burnt Creek Back Nine Rush, and the winner of the hour-long competition would be the next creekboy to work on the Burnt Creek Golf Course.
The excitement reflecting from the boys’ faces felt contagious, and Mr. Cassidy was silently pleased that Adam Grizzwald turned sixteen and found a job at a local sandwich shop, opening the position for a new creekboy.
As usual Mr. Cassidy’s explanation for the rules of the competition seemed fairly useless. The boys staring back at him had either attended a fair number of Back Nine Rushes over the years, or they had heard about it from word of mouth and had the rules memorized. Still, Mr. Cassidy listed them anyway. It might not have served a practical purpose, but to refuse the boys the ceremony of the build up to the Back Nine Rush would have smacked of sacrilege. So Mr. Cassidy rattled off the rules to a knowing crowd:
-The participants would have exactly one hour, according to Mr. Cassidy’s watch, to gather golf balls within the boundaries of Hole 10.
-The winner is determined by the one to gather the most amount of golf balls.
-The Rush must be an individual effort.
-A golf ball is claimed not by first sight but by first touch.
-No intentional physical contact in any way.
-Any participant reported to be seen or heard by a Burnt Creek Golf Course customer (i.e., golfer) is immediately disqualified.
-Once the winner is determined, all other participants must stay away from Burnt Creek Properties, unless as a client, until the next Back Nine Rush, to be determined when one of the two positions turns up vacant.
After a faithless petition for any questions, Mr. Cassidy glanced at his watch and raised his opposite hand high up in the air. A smattering of feet sounded out as pedals cranked to the ready position. An intense stillness weighed down on the gathered group.
Mr. Cassidy savored the silence for a brief moment before dropping his hand and watching the scene immediately explode into a mass of dust, spinning tires, and blurred images of boys careening into the tree-infested portion of Hole 10. Without even a backward glance, Mr. Cassidy retreated to his office in the clubhouse, completing the surreal transfer from the enticing realm of creekboys to the world of invoices, permits and other mundane paperwork.
Had Mr. Cassidy waited to see what remained once the dust settled, he probably would have been surprised. There in the open space, sat a boy on his bike, one foot on a pedal, one foot anchored to the ground.
After nearly a year since his last foray into a Back Nine Rush, Bert Gardner--known by all as Bertie the Kid--had grown into his simple, grey bicycle. Though still the runt of the group of participants, this time around nobody questioned whether the boy who fell one short of Kid Carson belonged there … though they might have questioned why he had not yet made his way towards Hole 10’s rough.
It could not have been from a lack of resolve--if his last outing in a Back Nine Rush taught onlookers anything, it was that Bertie the Kid’s disadvantages in size or age were easily compensated by sheer determination.
In fact, Bertie the Kid sat pondering, soaking in the situation at hand. Finally, as if waiting for the final speck of floating dust particle to settle, he shifted his weight to his forward pedal and with graceful ease Bertie the Kid entered the Back Nine Rush. This time, he would not be satisfied with a respectable second place showing. Bertie the Kid was in it to win.
After years of the Back Nine Rush, held religiously at Hole 10 whenever a creekboy position opened up, the strategy for gathering the most golf balls had been a poorly kept secret. Just down the hill from the Burnt Creek Clubhouse, Hole 10 teed off. The hole stretched into a vast par 5 bending eastward, with a swath of trees slicing directly through the first stretch. The course’s namesake, the Burnt Creek, anchored that line of trees, tumbling through the hole’s landscape before exiting golf course boundaries on the west. The challenge for the average golfer was getting past the wall of greenery and into the open fairway beyond, a task that few golfers succeeded in accomplishing on their first drive.
As a result, golf balls judiciously piled up past the first sentries of trees, something made common knowledge through word of mouth among the Back Nine Rush competitors. This caused the inevitable scramble--the Rush--every time Mr. Cassidy flagged the competition to a start--with every participant angling to pluck from the ripe garden of lost golf balls.
Bertie the Kid had no desire to scavenge about Hole 10’s golf ball trap. Dividing so many golf balls among so many boys invariably meant a mediocre to a pathetic catch. The other downside to joining the others at the front end of the bush lay in the veteran golfers of the Burnt Creek Golf Course. Though Mr. Cassidy never advertised the Rush to paying customers of the course, determined that the youthful distraction not infringe on any customer’s golfing experience, those that had been around long enough knew both about the competition and about the rule that anyone seen by a golfer could be disqualified. These vultures, as the boys soon came to call them, found out the day of a Back Nine Rush and then camped out in their golf carts on the Hole 10 tee, taking an hour’s entertainment to call out any sloppy competitor.
For these reasons, Bertie the Kid peeled away from the path heading to the bush’s edge, his bike tires bouncing agilely over the rocks and branches hugging the bank of Burnt Creek--the very heart of Hole 10’s rough. At once he found scattered success. Bertie’s eagle eyes easily located anything white and spherical in the vicinity. Even golf balls matted with dirt and mud were not invisible because Bertie’s trained eyes knew to single out the perfect form of a golf ball when contrasted with the irregularities of nature.
While not in as generous piles as the place where the other participants flocked, the faded newspaper-carrier bag slung across Bertie’s shoulder began to amass a sizeable portion of stray golf balls. After forty-five minutes of patrolling along the edge of the Burnt Creek, Bertie the Kid felt fairly confident that his modest, yet consistent collection would outnumber anything that one of the fringe boys might have gathered within that same amount of time.
At that point, Bertie the Kid heard the crash of someone biking clumsily through the foliage.
“Bertie? Bertie the Kid, is that you?”
Bertie gazed past the bill of his worn baseball cap. The speaker was a large fifteen-year-old, breathing heavily and squatting on an equally large and squeaking bicycle. Bertie nodded slowly. The sizeable youth let out a breath.
“Phew. I was hoping to find you. My name is Wade Ernest.”
The boy looked as if he were about to dismount his bike and offer his hand to Bertie, but something about the Kid’s demeanor held him back.
“I knew I had to find you.” Heavy breathing. “I figured that you should know.”
At this point he craned his bulky neck and noticed the bag hanging to Bertie’s side. His eyebrows rose, “You’ve got a pretty big haul.” Bertie responded nothing, waiting Wade out. After Wade’s eyes took in their fill, he continued, “But I still don’t think it will be enough.”
Wade finally had Bertie’s full attention.
“After about fifteen minutes everything slowed down at the edge of the bush. Some wandered off but most kept checking the area, finding every last golf ball. Well, about ten minutes ago, two fourteen-year-olds with plenty of golf balls between them tried their luck right up against the edge of the fairway.”
Bertie the Kid did not have to hear the rest to know what happened. He assumed that they fell victim to the deft eyes of the  vultures, though he failed to see how that had anything to do with him. “Caught by the creekboy vultures,” Bertie said, cutting off Wade’s building story.
The abrupt transition temporarily tripped up Wade, but he swiftly recovered in the interest of time. “Before they gave themselves up, they dropped their catches. I saw James Woodson sneak up after they left and empty their bags into his.”
Bertie the Kid said nothing for a moment, just stared. Wade gazed at him searchingly, “I didn’t think that was fair and thought you should know.”
Bertie the Kid nodded slowly. Wade unslung his own bag, extending it towards Bertie. “It’s not much, but you’ve got enough that I think it’d give you more than James.”
“How much time is left?” Bertie made no move to grab the bag.
Wade, a bit astonished that the great Bertie the Kid did not even keep track of time for the Back Nine Rush, checked his cheap digital watch. “Fourteen minutes, sixteen seconds.”
Bertie nodded again before waving off the extended bag. “I can’t beat him by doing the same thing that he’s done to the rest of us. There are always more golf balls out there--I’ve just got to find them.”
Wade rose his eyebrows, then stuttered, “Well, yeah, but … but a pile’s worth in fourteen minutes?!”
“Twelve. I’ll need two minutes to get to the clubhouse.”
Wade nodded excitedly, albeit bemused. He immediately threw his eager eyes around hoping to come across a rogue golf ball or two.
Bertie the Kid, however, meditated. Where do golf balls amass? he thought. Sometimes low spots on the ground, other times nestled inside bushes against trees. This train of thought led him to a dead end--he already used this knowledge to gather what he now had. He needed to think differently.
The laughing creek to his side inspired Bertie the Kid’s next thoughts. Sure, most balls fell prey to the imposing front lines of the rough, fewer scattered into openings past it, but what Bertie missed up until that point was the second line of tree sentries that could potentially trap as many golf balls as the first line--the line created by the small gap of the Burnt Creek.
Bertie’s eyes climbed the magnificent, gnarled trunks of the bush’s wild trees. His view at the top confirmed his thoughts. Though the leafy canopy reached across the creek’s divide, a distinct dominance of blue sky seeped through enough that a significant amount of long drives could still find themselves ensnared by the reaching branches of the trees on the higher, opposite bank of the Burnt Creek.
“Um,” Wade broke what must have been to him an awkward silence. “Twelve minutes eleven seconds.”
Bertie continued thinking. The likely resting spot? Either along the opposite bank of Burnt Creek, or … or bouncing, plopping, ricocheting off branches in its descent from the second wall and dropping into the waters of the creek.
“Eleven minutes, fifty-three seconds.”
Most people know that golf balls sink. Thus lakes and ponds--and creeks for that matter--provide such hazards to golfers, but most people fail to realize that golf balls are not anchors. In fact, the balls almost hover above the bottom of any water spot they plop into.
Bertie knew this. He knew, as a result, that a golf ball that fell into the creek would not likely stay where it had landed, but would--instead--be swept up by the current. That meant, he thought, that nearly all of the golf balls would follow the current until coming to a spot in the creek with slower-moving water. In his mind, he saw the creek dropping them in this recessed pool before tumbling on its perpetual downward course. If true, this negated Bertie’s need to collect the golf balls at all--the Burnt Creek accomplished it already. All he needed to do was find such a spot in the creek.
If, he added to himself, such a spot in the Burnt Creek existed within Hole 10’s boundaries.
“Ten-minutes, exactly … ”
Having just come from upstream and not recalling any slow spots in the creek, Bertie the Kid flipped his handlebars westward and kicked up leaves and dirt with his first, forceful pedaling. Wade sat for a moment, confused, before pounding his bike’s pedals and jerkily slipping into Bertie’s wake.
While cruising past bush-infested mounds and root-reaching trees, Bertie’s eyes dared not rip themselves from the tumbling waters of the Burnt Creek. In fact, his concentration was so resolute that at one point he nearly smashed head on into a towering cottonwood tree that shot up as if an extension of the creek. A deft, last-second tweak of the handlebar brought him around and then back on track.
Despite his dedicated monitoring of the creek, the current only intensified as it raced past monolith boulders, abrupt corners, and stubborn tree roots. Nowhere did he see a potential nook for the creek to store stray golf balls.
All too soon, the line of trees gave way to smaller bushes, and twenty yards beyond that the green transitioned to stiff, yellow grass, large clumps of sagebrush and intermittent mounds of dirt. It was the boundary to the Burnt Creek Golf Course, and Bertie found no sign of the stash of golf balls he needed to secure a win in the Back Nine Rush.
After a moment of facing this dire realization, Wade Ernest’s bike finally tumbled through the bush into the clearing. Wade’s searching eyes first caught Bertie’s despondent look, then plummeted to the bag--no wider than before. Again, Wade lifted his own bag from his shoulder. Again he extended it towards Bertie the Kid.
“We both know that you’re the rightful winner. Just take my bag and let’s hurry back to the clubhouse.” Wade diligently checked his watch again. “We’ve got six minutes and forty-eight seconds to make it there.”
Almost, Bertie agreed. But something held him back. Though he doubted any would blame him for simply balancing out James’s dishonesty, Bertie refused to spend the rest of the summer justifying it to himself. Still, Bertie knew that he could also not just give in. So Bertie the Kid decided to throw in one, last spurt of effort.
Immediately Bertie’s eyes traveled back upstream and squinted. For the first time he noticed that even where the water moved fastest, inched up against the downstream face of a rock, the water swirled lazily in flat, mirrored pools. The effect created small pockets of dead water right next to white, rushing rapids.
While none of the pockets of still water before him seemed large enough to amass significant amounts of golf balls, Bertie realized that he had ignored the bigger rapids upstream in his hunt, not realizing that big rapids were precisely where he should have searched.
Bertie the Kid’s mind retraced the route he just traveled. The biggest drop along that section must have been just after the huge cottonwood he barely managed to evade, since it caused the ground to drop so suddenly there. Surely, the cottonwood tree roots extended far enough out into the creek to create a substantial waterfall. Where there was a large waterfall, Bertie reasoned, there was also a good chance of finding a large pocket of still water next to it.
“How accurate is your watch Wade?” Bertie the Kid questioned.
Wade seemed almost affronted, but at least excited. “I’ve got it down to the precise second!”
“Good, because I’m going to need every second you’ve got.”
Without another word, dust and floating pieces of dead leaves were all that was left of Bertie the Kid. Doing everything he could to keep up, Wade followed.
Because Bertie no longer needed his eyes to search the creek, he traversed the bush’s path with much greater swiftness. After a blur of bushes and rocks flew past him, he located the towering cottonwood. Skidding to a halt, his eyes instinctively dropped to the creek and saw that, sure enough, the creek water flung itself in cascading glory over a massive cottonwood root obstructing its path. At the conclusion of the drop, where white water met bubbling, Bertie’s eyes scanned. Before he could wonder if his hopes would be dashed, his sight immediately stumbled into a darkened edge to the side of the rapid, nestled up against the trunk of the cottonwood.
Bertie rushed forward. Before he could allow himself a single despairing thought, he saw it. There glimmering under the cool, clear surface, sat a stash of golf balls nearly double the amount already in his bag.
It only took a moment of exultation before Bertie the Kid’s arm shimmered wet from the creek water. With a mechanical precision, his arm dove, snatched, resurfaced, stored, and dove again. By the time Wade huffed up to the cottonwood, the pile had nearly been completely transferred.
As Bertie dipped and stashed the last of the golf balls his eyes met Wade’s and transmitted an unasked question with the utmost urgency.
Though it was apparent that Wade could use the time to catch his breath and marvel at the sudden discovered cache of golf balls, instead he held his wrist up to his eyes and then sputtered almost apologetically, “A minute and sixteen seconds. You’re too late … but I can’t believe you found all those ... that is truly---”
Wade never finished his sentence before Bertie the Kid hopped on his bike and disappeared.
Mr. Cassidy waited, confused. No Bertie the Kid? The visor-capped golf course manager could not say he felt intense emotions about the moment, except that it left him bewildered. Mr. Cassidy saw before him a line of older boys eager for the official end so that they could count their piles in front of Mr. Cassidy and determine the winner--but the grey bike and faded baseball cap of Bertie the Kid remained conspicuously absent.
Mr. Cassidy glanced over to Kid Carson, the newly minted creekboy of the Front Nine. Due to the boy’s previous experience in the Rush--besides his own prodigy reputation within the creekboy culture--Mr. Cassidy respected Kid Carson’s opinion.
Kid Carson recognized Mr. Cassidy’s glance. Without saying a word, the creekboy simply stared at Cassidy’s watch.
The unspoken meaning, Mr. Cassidy knew, instructed him to wait out the time. A deft look told the golf course manager that only fifty-four seconds remained. From his vantage point on the patio of the Burnt Creek Café, Mr. Cassidy saw no one approaching along the back trail up the hill. He might as well have started the counting, but with respect to Kid Carson, he waited out the final seconds.
At about this time a stirring commenced among the crowd of boys gathered before Mr. Cassidy. Mr. Cassidy checked his watch. Forty-one seconds. Then he heard it.
The creak of a bike pedal sounded along the golf course, causing some heads to swivel. The noise, Mr. Cassidy noted with shock, did not come from the back path. Instead, it came from just below the hill on the open fairway of Hole 10 itself. Within the next couple of seconds Mr. Cassidy, along with everyone else, discovered that the pedaling belong to none other than Bertie the Kid. The 10-year-old, Mr. Cassidy realized, sidestepped the lengthy, but secure, back trail to the clubhouse. Opting, instead, to explode directly out from the bush and make a straight line towards the clubhouse.
At any other time it would have been suicide for a potential creekboy to place himself so much in the open, easy prey to the creekboy vultures. Yet, with time running out, Mr. Cassidy and the others realized that Bertie the Kid had taken the only risk with the possibility of positive outcome.
With admiration for the daring deed, Mr. Cassidy did have to wonder how Bertie managed to escape the scavenging eyes of veteran golfers, only thirty yards or so removed to the northeast. A single pivot of his eyesight told him that the group had taken a reprieve from their duties to witness a fellow golfer’s driving tee off Hole 10. Due to the velocity of Bertie the Kid’s final sprint out of the bush, he had evaded their attention, but as he neared the hill just before the clubhouse, and as the vultures turned back to their original view of the far edge of Hole 10’s rough, Mr. Cassidy knew that it was inevitable that Bertie would be sighted.
In spite of his efforts to be an impartial observer, Mr. Cassidy failed to suppress a welling of pity for the noble--but doomed-to-fail--effort. A similar sentiment seemed to afflict the whole crowd in the the final seconds of the competition.
As Bertie’s bike breached the border of the hill, it happened. An elated cry emitted from the Hole 10 tee and a pointing arm from the vultures confirmed the expected sighting. Mr. Cassidy observed that Bertie seemed to hear the cry and know its repercussions. The boy’s face feinted a flinch, but he still pedaled forward, intent on finishing, even if his cover had been officially blown. His powerful pedalling up the steep incline seemed to try to push the vultures’ sighting out of mind with each pump.
Magically, that’s what seemed to have happened. Mr. Cassidy stole a glance back at the vultures and recognized, suddenly, that Bertie the Kid was not the object of their vision. Instead, the entertainment-starved men hollered at an awkward-looking larger kid on a rickety bicycle at the edge of the bush--an easy target. Too easy, Mr. Cassidy thought. Then the realization dawned on him--a distraction. It was a reckless gamble, but one that paid off.
As this thought settled into Mr. Cassidy’s mind, he looked at his watch and witnessed the last five seconds slice away into nothing. Just as the last second ticked by, Bertie the Kid crested the top of the hill, culminating in a leap and sliding-stop landing. The young boy immediately faced south in order to take in the vulture scene behind him. With what sounded like mild surprise and relief, he mumbled, “Wade.”
After a moment of hidden awe, Mr. Cassidy nodded respectfully to Bertie the Kid, and then captured the attention of the rest of the crowd of boys by stating, “That ends the timed portion of today’s Back Nine Rush. I will now accept and count those golf balls recovered in the order that the participants arrived.”
Though no one had officially kept track of who arrived in what order, the boys had a general idea. Each stepped forward at the appropriate moment, handed their bags to Mr. Cassidy, and watched as he counted them individually, placing them in large bucket set on the ground next to him. After each count, the silent Kid Carson recorded the name and number of each participant on a golfer’s score card.
Generally, the first couple of boys presented small samplings, anywhere from one to five golf balls. Then the more experienced offered up to a dozen or so golf balls. Some garnered healthy nods of respect for topping twenty. But the greatest shock came as James Woodson lopped his loaded bag onto the table. Even Mr. Cassidy’s eyes widened considerably. By the end of the count he announced, with no small measure of surprise, that James had gathered thirty-two golf balls.
Each year the number of gathered golf balls varied due to circumstances beyond a participant’s skill. Part depended on the number of competitors, part on how long since Hole 10 received its last creekboy sweep--though Mr. Cassidy usually asked the resident creekboys steer clear for a good month before an anticipated Rush--and part depended on the quality of golfers lately visiting the hole. In spite of this fluid nature of golf ball quantities, thirty-two was more than anyone had ever found in a single competition, and the shocked crowd knew it. They also knew that as good as Bertie the Kid might be, he suddenly became the underdog.
If Bertie the Kid realized the same thing, Mr. Cassidy noted that the boy did not show it. With a calm stillness that contrasted perfectly with his frantic sprint only minutes earlier, the Kid respectfully set his bike’s kickstand, walked up to the table, and slung his bag onto it.
The resulting thud and massive lump that the bag boasted confirmed Bertie the Kid’s confidence. With increasing respect for this unprecedented moment, Mr. Cassidy began the long process of drawing the golf balls out of the bag. By the time he surpassed the previous best of thirty-two, Mr. Cassidy could still not see the bottom of the old newspaper-carrier bag. Upon removing the final golf ball, he announced “Fifty,” and dropped it ceremoniously into the now-loaded bucket on the ground.
For a moment Mr. Cassidy paused, allowing the whispered excitement to mingle in the crowd before stating authoritatively, “The winner of this year’s Back Nine Rush is ... ”
As a prestigious citizen who rubbed elbows daily with the most prominent people of the Burnt Creek area, Mr. Cassidy was not accustomed to being interrupted by adults, let alone scrawny little teenagers. Yet here, Mr. Cassidy noted, a very sour-faced James Woodson callously cut him off.
“He’s a cheater! No one can get fifty golf balls in the Back Nine Rush.”
“James Woodson,” Mr. Cassidy said, using the boy’s full name for effect, “You just watched me count all fifty right before your very eyes.”
“I don’t care. He could spend all day in that bush and still not get fifty. He’s a dirty cheat!”
“How would you know that, James? Personal experience? Was it hard enough for you to cheat for those thirty-two?” This voice came not from Mr. Cassidy but instead from Wade Ernest, having arrived recently enough to hear James and Bertie’s counts.
James eyed Wade with disdain. “Your opinion don’t count for nothin’, Wade. You’re disqualified. You don’t even belong here.”
Wade reacted by removing his bag and showing that it still held a modest pile of his own. “I offered it to him, but Bertie the Kid turned it down. I wouldn’t have offered it at all if I hadn’t seen you pick up the abandoned bags of two boys caught by the vultures.”
The accusation jolted through the crowd of boys.
James sensed that any sympathy he had was slipping away. “You’re a loser! There’s no way you can prove that!”
His cries of desperation were interrupted by Kid Carson. “And you can’t prove what you’re saying, James. Until you can, Bertie the Kid’s count stays as is.”
Even though younger than James Woodson, Kid Carson’s creekboy title carried enough weight to momentarily quiet James, who could only open and close his mouth pathetically before Kid Carson continued, “And if you can prove Bertie wrong, then I’ll take these two empty bags brought to me by the boys who own them. Wade’s story, the empty bags, and the boys telling about you being right behind them when they were spotted will prove that you cheated too. So, if you don’t want something like that to happen, you should probably just stay out of this.”
After Kid Carson’s commanding speech, Mr. Cassidy saw James desperately looking for anyone to back him up. Even his sulky friends, however, inconspicuously melted into the background, leaving James alone to retreat bitterly through the mob.
A subtle nod of acknowledgment pass between Bertie the Kid and Kid Carson--the two kids of the Burnt Creek, Mr. Cassidy philosophized. For a split moment, he paused in satisfying reflection, then he shook himself out of it. I need to announce the winner so that I can get these kids off the golf course and back to work, he realized, amused to think of how he would explain his absence from an unknowing adult. “The winner of the Back Nine Rush is … ”
Again, something interrupted Mr. Cassidy. This time the interruption came, not from an impetuous youth, but from the collective cheers of all the boys rushing up to Bertie the Kid with their chorus of congratulations.
“Bertie the Kid,” Mr. Cassidy finished softly.
As Bertie became engulfed by the onrushing group of admirers, Mr. Cassidy managed to wink at him and quip. “See you tomorrow,” then he added, “creekboy.”
The last thing Mr. Cassidy saw of Bertie the Kid, before the boy became enveloped by swarming bodies, was a subdued smile.

©2013 Marty Reeder
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