The farming communities of the Central Valley of California are blocks of land, packaged squares as if God had a T-square and thought of the world in 160 acre chunks. These square plots were an attempt to contain nature as opposed to letting nature take its course. Most of the land had already been parceled, measured, weighed, valued, leveled, graded, and sold by the time I was a teen, but I remember those wild sections of land on the edge of town. They were full of tumbleweeds and uncapitalized dirt. Soon strips of sidewalk and asphalt appeared and connected those squares of land. Then a house would grow from the ground, a Redwood fence was constructed, a pool was built, and then a family would materialize. Lawns were watered, grass grew, bleached swimming trunks were slapped across the top of the fence to dry, and a new neighborhood pushed the farm dirt back another 160 acres.
In those early days the summers felt endless. The evenings were long, warm, and covered in the stickiness of adrenaline and freedom. There was very little organized activity. Sports were not a lifetime commitment, summer homework was unheard of, and almost everyone finished work by 5. Friday and Saturday nights hummed with those sounds that only the young hear. The anticipation and energy of freedom never dulled from week to week.
When things got slow, as they often did, we found brainless things to do: The corn fields were high enough to hide a young couple in a car looking for privacy, the bend in the canal where an old oak tree grew was turned into a beach, the drive-in with its triple-features, the walled school pool with a space just wide enough for a skinny kid to fit through, and then there was the golf course. This was our place. It was the place we didn’t share with outsiders. The course was unimaginative: one big chunk of territory contained by the freeway to the west, 18th Avenue to the south, Iona Avenue to the east, and a dead-end road to the north lined by tall alders that hid cars parked by teenagers looking for something to do in the cool evenings during the eternally hot summers.
There was nothing appealing about the course during the daytime, it was as flat and dry as a country road in Kansas, but at night, it was a large, open area unmonitored by adults. When all else failed the golf course called to us with its faint buzz of life.
There wasn’t much preparation needed for golf-ball diving all you had to have was a towel or two, swim trunks, and a willingness to do something unwise. Turning from Iona Avenue to the dead-end was done in silence, the car stereo was turned down, headlights were extinguished, and once the car came to a stop the doors were opened and closed with great care. We quietly moved to the par three 5th, a short hole fronted by a pond. Towels were laid alongside the pond, flip-flops were discarded (no one wanted to lose a flip-flop in the muck below the surface), and then we took slow, careful steps into the primordial ooze of the pond.
The stagnant warm waters surrounding several of the holes always held a bounty of balls given up to the golf gods. These ponds were not places for people with a fear of water, or of disease. The putrid wetness smelled of rot and the bottom of the ponds was slick with oozy muck, but once you were in, and your bare feet squished through the half a foot of pond pus, the experience was relaxing. All was quiet while we searched, fingers dragging just over the floor of the pond hoping to feel something small, round and solid. In some places, handfuls of lost balls would be scooped up and tossed into the nearby fairway or green. We were led by instinct. Most of the balls were in the deepest part of the pond and very few were found close to the shore. A half hour of golf ball diving would produce hundreds of balls that were collected on the worst of our towels and cleaned. Eventually the towel would be wrapped around the balls and carried Santa-like to the trunk of the car and laid inside carefully so as to not make much sound. Car doors were opened and closed with care. Silence was observed until the ignition switch was turned. Then the cacophony began: The radio blasted, the car engine was gunned and then driven backwards, Jim Rockford style, down the long dead-end road. Golfballs spilled from the towel and the glorious roar of hundreds of balls rolling through the trunk echoed throughout the car.
It was the sound of success, the sound of my youth.