Chapter #1 from Hardly Working, my memoir of jobs and work.
Caddy in Clarendon Hills, IL. 1960
The first time I set foot in the clubhouse of the Hinsdale Golf Club was on the occasion of my 50th high school reunion. That October night, the club was crawling with weird, saggy renditions of my former classmates. I didn’t feel saggy, but I also looked far different than the picture on my name tag, taken during my senior year for the yearbook. Over 50 years before, the club had provided me my first job: caddying for the esteemed members. Though I had often been on club grounds, I had never seen its innards until this reunion night. It had been off-limits to me fifty years ago.
My caddy career began a few months short of my thirteenth birthday, when I still harbored notions of becoming a major-league pitcher. From 23 Blodgett Avenue in Clarendon Hills, I walked ten minutes down the street and across the peat bog, which had recently been turned into a park. On the other side of this ex-bog was Chicago Avenue. There sat the Hinsdale Golf Club.
Hinsdale is the next town east of Clarendon Hills on the Burlington train line, but the country club was—and still is—in Clarendon Hills. No club member actually lived in Clarendon Hills. That was against the rules. Members had to reside in Hinsdale, home of the rich uncle, the corporate titan, the live-in housekeeper, the afternoon martini, the sprawling, manicured lawn. Coach houses. Brick streets. Columns. A few old money families still employed butlers. Although it had a large section of ordinary middle-class neighborhoods, the town’s reputation was predicated on wealth.
Soon after I began my caddy stint, I started attending Hinsdale junior high. On many Saturday afternoons my father would drive me in the Rambler wagon over to the proverbial other side of the tracks to a newfound friend’s house. I recall one occasion when, in the midst of our pickup football game on the lush front lawn, a live-in housekeeper called to my new friend, “Hubbard. It’s time for your lunch.” Hubbard went into the house with his shoulder pads still on, to dine on pork chops prepared by the cook, to dab the corners of his mouth with linen napkins. Although this rather elaborate lunch struck me as far different than the baloney sandwich I might have had at my house, it mattered little to me at the time—wealth made scant impression on me as a kid. Most of my new friends from Hinsdale took their lives for granted, as did I.
My town of Clarendon Hills was modestly middle class. Most homes had one bathroom and three or four kids who shared bedrooms. It would be several decades before Clarendon Hills transformed into Hinsdale Lite, though the new muscular, trophy homes—too big for their lots—would never be the rambling mansions of an earlier era’s wealth.
For those who lived along the brick streets of Hinsdale, membership at the Hinsdale Golf Club was a must. “The Club,” as it was referred to, was a gathering place for those who had arrived. It was where like-minded, well-bred folks with similar aspirations gathered; folks eager to showcase their faith in the status quo while being catered to and smiled at. Club members shared a belief that they were blessed, that there was a divine element involved in their good fortune. Sure, hard work got them to this exalted position—maybe not their hard work, but someone’s. “We are so blessed to have all this” was a frequent mantra. These were God’s creatures, steeped in an aura of entitlement and a knack for conversations about golf swing mechanics, the renovation of the fourteenth tee, membership rules, recent purchases and investments, second homes, booze-fueled gossip, and how swell things are if we can just keep them this way.
To caddy at the Hinsdale Golf Club, you had to be at least 13. I was still only 12 but tall for my age, so I passed. Caddies were divided into three descending classes—A, B, and C—subject to the judgement of the caddy master. For the record, most of the C caddies were pipsqueaks. Numbers were then assigned to us, ranging from one to ninety-nine and the lower the number, the more qualified the caddy. At least that was the theory. In spite of my age but because of my height, I was assigned number A-13. Class A! Being tall is a natural confidence-builder.
What stands out about the job was not the actual caddying, or the members, but the caddy master, Doc, and his cohorts Moose and Harry. These characters were of a type I had never been around, and very different from the dads I knew. They were certainly not Little League coaches.
Doc was about 40 years old and clearly not from Hinsdale. He dressed like a golfer, wore thick glasses, and his beard was a permanent five o’clock shadow. He reminded me of Sergeant Bilko from the 1950s TV show; a bit of a hustler and a schemer, and definitely a gambler. Club members had a winking appreciation for this rogue in their midst. It was Doc who decided which little creep was going to carry which golf bag for 18 holes at the going rate of $3.00, a sum enough to keep me thick in baseball cards and milkshakes from Parker’s drugstore, where I had begun to ogle Darlene, the 15-year-old, tight-sweatered soda jerk.
Moose was Doc’s enforcer. He had a world-class menacing stare and didn’t hesitate to frighten a suburban caddy. Looking back, I’m not sure he had any other function than terrorizing us. His black hair was well-greased, his gut pushed out above the waistline of sans-a-belt slacks. He wore shiny shirts of a pattern and color unknown to the dads on my block. He was from an entirely different world. He was Moose.
Harry was downright scary. Gaunt. Way tall. Pock-marked complexion. Doubtful that he’d ever seen a dentist. The demeanor of Frankenstein. He was a professional caddy and a golf hustler who spoke double negatives through broken teeth. In downtown Clarendon Hills I had glimpsed him getting off the train in his cracked, wing tip golf shoes then followed him at a safe distance as he strode up Blodgett—right past my house—to his job at the Club. Was he one of those guys who lived on skid row?
When things were slow, Doc, Moose, and Harry played cards and swore and accused each other of cheating or bluffing. This was my first exposure to real cursing. It wasn’t practiced in my neighborhood. At least not in front of the kids. When word came that a member was ready to golf, Doc leaned out of his office and peered through his thick glasses at the pathetic collection of caddy boys, all of us cooling our heels on the bench that lined the walls of the shack. He seemed to delight in this moment. He knew which members were ball-busters, and which ones had low handicaps and needed a competent caddy. Which scrawny kid would he pair with a captain of industry or the well-coiffed wife of the bank president? “Here, Bain,” he’d say, handing me a card with a member name and number on it. “Go pick up the clubs for Mrs. Templeton. They’re on the first tee.” I was always gripped with a moment of giddy anxiety on the way to the pro shop to pick up the clubs, knowing that I was about to undergo a three-hour golf etiquette examination.
The club had a no-tipping policy, with signs posted in the pro shop to reinforce the idea. Seemed a bit cheap even to my young mind. On occasion, though, a member would hand me twenty-five cents at the turn, golfspeak for passing nine holes, which I’d spend on a Baby Ruth and a Coke in the caddy shack. A quarter was a small amount to truly be considered a tip, but it still created a minor conspiracy between the member and me. The offer and acceptance made us both complicit. We were bending the rules together.
I recall a general air of indifference when it came to the members’ relationships with caddies. Some tolerated my existence, a few noticed that I was alive and breathing. Some ignored me altogether, an invisible arm handing them a club. Occasionally one would ask where I lived or where I went to school or if I played golf, pleased to be displaying a concern for the welfare of the help. Some wore plaid pants. Some had wives who drank too much. Some had red cheeks. Many owned the firm. All believed that golf is what civilized people did.
I had played golf a few times with my uncle, who was a real ace, and on public courses with kids in my neighborhood. Through playing, you pick up a sense of the rules. My only other training was the occasional tidbit from Doc or Moose about how to hold the flag or to be sure that my shadow didn’t cross paths with the line of the putt. Always keep your eye on the ball. Speak when spoken to. Never laugh at a duffed shot. Don’t make your player wait for you. And keep the clubs from clanking too much as you walk down the fairway.
Caddying provided a good opportunity to sing under your breath whenever your golfer was at least twenty yards away. If the member was good enough and he hit the ball far enough, I’d get to sing a whole song between the drive and his next shot. Most songs were two minutes or less. How long did it take to explain that Betty Lou Needed a New Pair of Shoes or that it was Finger Poppin’ Time? I didn’t yet know about Muddy and Wolf and Little Walter.
I eventually doubled my pay by doing doubles—carrying two bags at once. This also doubled the work, especially when one of your golfers had a slice and the other a hook. Golfers can get aggravated waiting for their pitiful caddy to help them find their Titleist in the rough even if the caddy has been waylaid helping his other lousy golfer 100 yards away in the bushes on the opposite side of the fairway. An aggravated golfer decreased your chances of the 25cent bonus at the turn.
One nice perk was that caddies could play free golf at the Club on Mondays when the course was closed for maintenance. We had to dodge the sprinklers and skip any greens that were being repaired but who cared? We played 18 or 27 holes, practiced our cheating, and tried out some of the cuss words. Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, two sides of America were being exposed to my growing mind. Where else could I be hanging around Doc, Moose, and Harry one minute, then handing a club to Mr. Comiskey or Mrs. Johnson the next? Right off the bat, I’d stumbled into a job that revealed a swath of our social strata. As I matriculated through Hinsdale junior high and high school, I became friends with many club members’ kids, but I never thought to myself, “One day, I’ll become a member.” Not because I felt that I couldn’t, but I found Doc more intriguing than any of the members. Chalk one up for the salt of the earth. There had to be more options than either hitting the balls or carrying the clubs.
I had the Hinsdale Golf Club in mind when I wrote and recorded this decades after my stint as a caddy: