The Dirty, the Disgusting, and the Diseased
By Jerry Woodfill
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“Your skin is ghastly!” Such was the pronouncement of the dermatologist. His tri-fold told the unhappy tale: “Youthful exposure to the Sun’s harmful radiation may lead to skin cancer in later life.” My blemish count eclipsed the most grotesque Halloween mask’s façade. (When I included face, forearms, and hands in the tally.)
Dark thoughts of those Japanese exposed to A-bomb fallout explained my dilemma. Encapsulating my body in a dermatological sun-protective wardrobe would be useless. Basal-cell carcinomes (my word - as in gnomes) would continue to decorate my face forevermore, i.e., eliminating added outdoor exposure would not stop the process. Those damnable vermin had already required planting a quarter-sized donor patch of cheek skin in the center of my nose. I was no longer an object of feminine admiration with such a disfigurement.
Yet, I’d earned a measure of respect. Jerry Woodfill was the “go-to-guy” at my NASA workplace for counseling colleagues about epidermal afflictions, mole pigmentation, and like epidermal threats. However, my greatest specialty was describing the characteristics of basal cells; especially, how mine had been treated. More than once, I’d provided my doctor’s phone number to the concerned among our kind. My quarterly visits for those liquid-nitrogen-cotton-cue-tip-freezings of suspicious facial flaws left me scab-faced for days.
This led co-workers to take comfort when I offered the encouraging words, “Your situation is not near as dire as mine.” Nevertheless, their dread of my fate soared when I applied a proactive basal-cell-killer-cream. It was altogether loathsome. This was the stuff which seeks and finds those carcinomes hiding among normal cells.
It then executes the hellcats before they perpetrate their epidermal crimes. The battle was fought on the field of my complexion. Unfortunately, the catch-22 of the skirmish is not only extreme itching. A police mug-shot would have my bilious face looking like a street-wino. Along with the itch came shocked stares from my office associates. Mercifully, after a month, the redness left.
Like historians seeking the origin of ancient bones, I sought the source of my Sun exposure. Though a half-century past, at once, the cause came to mind,
“Too much GOLF.”
Sadly, I’d seldom worn my Sam Sneed Dobbs straw hat. Sam wore his to shield his bald head from the Sun’s rays. My full head of hair was protection enough. Besides, I’d caddied. No golfer’s bag-carrier dared sport headwear. Our naked heads segregated us from our mentors.
But then, it was like the plight of those 1950’s cigarette devotees, whose habit was deified by cinema stars of the era. No caveat warning was posted either on packs of Camels or the caddy shack . There was no “Solar Radiation May be Hazardous to Your Skin” warning sign. The five bucks I earned for four hours of weekend golf club carrying has become my 2006 quarterly $300 visits to the skin-clinic. Thankfully, it’s not something more serious. Had I smoked, it might have been lung cancer.
However, among our kind, there was a greater
health risk on
The ball-bounty was akin to how lottery jackpots grow. In early summer, there was a water-ball dearth. Nevertheless, day-by-day, duffers populated the depths of that sour smelling reservoir, making the end-of-summer harvest bountiful.
What assured the large prize? It was the unlikely prospect that any golfer would wade into that slough of despond, sock-less and shoeless, for a lost ball. Only the Creature from the Black Lagoon, a horror film shown at the Highland Town Theater, might dive to such depths to reclaim his $1.25 Titleist. Seeing schools of threatening water bugs discouraged an outstretched hand from reaching beneath the dark gray liquid. And, yet, some braved the waters in search of their errant tee shot. As a result, more than one over 90s, forty plus handicapper fell prey to blood sucking leaches. Such creatures affix themselves to bare feet and hands.
Week by week until the onset of September did
the water hole gather its collection.
The well-healed ball-knockers, the affluent Brantwoodians of the kingdom
Remarkably, the spherical multitude, whether expensive or discount store stock, remained in pristine state, as though just removed from the three-ball-carton. This had to do with a golfer’s optimism at the onset of play. Confidence reigned supreme after the first two holes. “I will surely reach the green despite that pond, “ was the thought which kept the virgin ball in play.
Later in the day, with the fatigue of sun, sand, and sloppy play taking its toll, a “water-ball” of lower pedigree might substitute for more expensive stock. But because hole one, a long par five, and hole two, a modest par four, posed little challenge, confidence reigned. No slashing machete-like-club-head-gash had wounded the dimpled skin. The ball of the same high-bearing launched heavenward on the first tee remained in play.
Like those who matriculated into America from Ellis Island, those pond balls became the stuff of democracy, mired together awaiting the providence of reclamation, new life in fairway pastures of golfdom.
Some kind of mysterious psychological phenomena had to be responsible for the host of balls swallowed on that third hole. Even the illicit mulligan stroke often drowned along with the first shot into the pond. As a result, the hapless player was facing a triple bogey with fifteen holes remaining, a sure end to improving ones handicap. Henceforth, when peril threatened, on those remaining holes, only the flawed dregs of the bag’s ball pocket were played. Happily, for us, the pond had claimed its prize, soon to be our spoils, a pirate’s purse of countless white dimpled loot!
Why had other marauders failed to raid our treasure? Surely, during scores of summer nights, some vagrant, an across the track interloper, might have collected our due. Remarkably, in the course of many summers, none had. The explanation has its foundation in a business practice known as risk reward analysis. Simply put, “Is the risk worth the reward?”
Our risk, though considerable, had built in safety factors. We were grade school youths within walking distance of the pond. There was no need to travel from afar, hide an automobile from the Wicker Park Police or the golf course’s greens-keeper. The pond was not illuminated, and, as caddies, our sure knowledge of its location, required no flashlights to find it. The end-of-summer pond heist was the perfect act of criminality. Besides, it wasn’t like a bank vault break-in where funds were missed. No one knew the ball count before and after our felonious raid.
But our greatest advantage was ignorance, specifically, ignorance of the risk of disease. We should have known that the pond’s water held grave consequences for those predisposed to disease. It was the era of pre-pollution-control. Any lake, creek, pond, or pool might serve as a neighborhood toilet for all manner of human and commercial excrement. Bordering the course, less than a hundred yards from our beloved pond, was the infamous CREEK. Tales were told of a vacationer’s discarded match igniting surface slime with a ghastly napalm-glow.
A puzzling creek phenomena confused me. Where its waters flowed over a make-shift dam appeared an enormous cloud of soap-like bubbles. My Dad explained the source, Mom’s detergent. Our bathtub, washing machine, sinks and toilets, along with the same from hundreds of neighbors’, flowed into the Creek. “That’s one bubble bath, I’ll never take.”
However, most nauseating was watching and smelling the CREEK from its bank. I saw schools of oblong brown skinned fish-like masses flowing pass. Moments before, these creatures had flushed from Brantwood toilets into that ecological tributary flowing just yards from our pond. Once, I saw a strange tubular half-foot-long-jelly-fish-like skin deposit itself on the bank. I asked an older caddy about the creature. At once, he educated me on the biology of human reproduction in altogether non-medical textbook terminology.
Each of the course’s eighteen holes had a huge faucet on a pipe jutting from the ground. I’d watched the greens-keeper attach a hose and nozzle then spray blast water onto the green in fire-hose-like fashion.
“Where did the water came from?”
Fortunately, I never got an answer until long after I’d visited the pond. Both the pond and the green had the same source, THE CREEK!
Yes, ignorance was, indeed, an advantage. I knew not the risk, i.e., nothing of the pond’s contaminated contents, of its potential for contagion, how tuberculosis, polio, even typhoid and cholera might infect those who raked its bottom for golf ball treasure.
I was amazed by my first voyage into its waters. Shoeless and sock-less, I wadded forth, my feet sinking three to five inches into its muddy bottom. Often, rather than taking steps, I simply inched through the mire forcing my feet forward. Around my neck, I’d strapped Mom’s laundry sack using its drawstring as sort of a hangman’s noose. It draped down my back so I could bend at my waist, hands feeling along the muddy bottom for those dimpled white nuggets.
It was as though I was collecting balls on the practice range, each only inches apart. A better description would be catching a school of stationary fish, one at a time, and throwing each into the laundry sack. My excited greed overcame the fetid smell of the pond’s surface. Besides, I had trained myself to breathe wholly through my mouth so that nausea seldom overwhelmed me. That had not been the case on my first visit. I’d almost vomited in the midst of that tepid slime until I discovered the mouth breathing alternative.
After an hour’s wading, the catch weighed heavily on my back, perhaps, a record. However, the prescribed reclamation was a two-fold process. Most balls lay undisturbed on the mucky bottom mire. Like an open fairway lie, a swift sweep of the club, my hand in this case, lofted the ball upward into my bag. These were the so-called “give-me” grabs, akin to a sure-thing putt to “hole-out.”
A novice water-hole sleuth might conclude his venture with these gimmes, ignoring the white-dimpled gems imprisoned beneath the muck. The imbedded jewels covertly dwelled only inches beneath the quagmire.
Their recovery from the bog tested the meddle of water hole felons. Though naked feet often mistook lumpy stones for these projectiles, the accomplished ball-gleaner never failed to pause for these muddies (as we called them). Extracting them from their cocoon-like environs validated our art.
Truly, this was not unlike the experience of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on lunar firmament. Geologist insisted he immediately grab a “contingency sample”, a moon rock conveniently collected and deposited in his laundry sack, not hung about his neck as mine but a leg-pouch sewn onto his space suit. His was altogether like my plight. Should an unexpected malfunction of his space suit or Eagle lander ensue, the aborted mission could bring at least one moon rock home.
However, like Neil’s acquisition of lunar regolith, no abort appeared imminent such that both gimmes and muddies had become a heavy but welcome burden. Perhaps, several hundred Podos, Spaldings, Wilson K-28s, Titleists, and Ben Hogans were among the collection.
Even the loathsome bare-handed extraction of those slime covered muck-balls was proving tolerable. These, I washed in the pond’s liquid drool, a cleansing agent of sorts for both hand and ball.
Ignorant of myriad microscopic vermin contained thereon, I wiped sweat from my forehead with that contaminated hand. Likewise, it served well as a mosquito-swatter, combating the swarming beasts attached to my forearms, neck, and face. The risk/reward ratio was growing with each potential injection of malaria, encephalitis, and dengue fever.
Capture of perpetrators of my kind was unlikely. This was before the advent of video surveillance, motion detectors, golf-course night watchmen, and roaming herds of Dobermans intent on seizing golf-links trespassers. And who really cared? This was mischief not the felonious theft of pro-shop merchandise. However, there had been occasional acts of vandalism, i.e., ripping off a tee-box ball washer, or inadvertently strolling over a rain softened green leaving trench marks. For these nefarious deeds, park police maintained vigilance. From the road, they swept the dark void with a floodlight attached to the patrol car’s frame. But the encircling park road was just distant enough from the ball reservoir to obscure exposure. Besides, our ball seining stoop-labor posture hid us beneath the pond’s raised banks.
All these factors lowered that risk/reward ratio. No clandestine “look-out” accomplice was needed. A gang of one sufficed. (Thinking of the experience, it was usually a gang of one person, only me.) I don’t recall often dividing my ill-gotten cache with others. However, this night, an alarm to “cut and run” might have saved me.
My later NASA career dealt with Neil Armstrong’s spacecraft warning system. Aborting a Moon mission in response to an alarm would save an astronaut’s life. The Apollo alerts came in two categories: a caution type alarm that danger was likely but not imminent and a warning type that peril was imminent requiring immediate action.
I’d always wondered why
Approaching the green side of the water hazard, I looked toward the outlying road whose path between the Creek and golf links defined the perimeter of the course. A slow moving vehicle ambled along, certainly, not a patrol car, judging from its height, length and tire complement. The front wheels were dwarfed by the rear tires.
“How can this be?” I wondered.
only farm nearby was Vandermollen’s rhubarb patch across
“My heist was complete.” My coffers were overflowing with ball-booty. Still at ease, I glanced at the tractor. Hopefully, Mr. Vandermollen had not recognized me or my wicked act of golf ball reclamation. That would not be good. Unexpectedly, instead of passing along the boundary road, the head lights of the mechanical barnyard beast shined my way.
“Had I been seen?” I wondered.
“Perhaps, I had.”
The tractor was now off the road, trekking across the adjacent fairway toward the polluted pond where I knelt. Suddenly, the bag of balls felt like a hangman’s noose about my neck, choking my anxious breathing. There was no doubt I was being pursued by the farming Dutchman. His were a moral people, members of the Christian Reformed sect of Protestant kind. He would certainly report my wrongdoing to the Brantwoodian community.
I would be excommunicated from the Walther League, Redeemer Lutheran’s society of sinless youth. The church elders would advise my mother how best to punish her incorrigible child for his mischief.
The pair of round lights failed to hold a steady beam, illuminating the pond. The irregular terrain jarred the tractor causing the lights to beam upward and downward, often far above or below me. If I could slither from the pond bank across the twenty yard grassy expanse between the pond and the green, I might not be seen. And this I did as the tractor neared the water hazard. Finding refuge in the grassy frog-hair slope behind the putting surface, I heaved deeply, exhausted from the squirmy, belly waddle, handicapped by a rucksack of hundreds of golf balls.
Crickets chirped wildly, my heavy breathing alerting their legions to an unwelcome presence in their wooded laird. But the tractor’s motor had ebbed into an idle. It no longer stalked me. My Dad’s World War II Field Manual served me well. I recalled the sketch of an infantryman peering at the enemy, postured so that his presence was undetected as he peaked over an embankment at the opposing army.
“Yes, it was a tractor but not Herr Vandermollen’s.”
“Much, much worse…it was the greens-keeper!”
“Why was he here? It was long past night fall.”
He was not someone a mischief maker would want to encounter even in daylight. I’d heard he had chased a pair of teen-age vagrants off the course. He pursued them across the seventeenth hole. They only escaped his wrath by catapulting the barb-wired fence. On the run, they disappeared beneath the Highway 41 viaduct bordering the eastern reaches of the course. Screaming expletives, he’d threatened those delinquents with the sickle he’d been swinging to chop weeds surrounding the refreshment stand.
Apparently, he hadn’t seen me, or I’d be
joining those miscreants, dashing for the barbed wire fence separating the
picnic area from the third hole links. Again, I
peaked. There was a four wheeled open
cart attached to the tractor. He had
dismounted and was pulling some kind of apparatus from the cart’s bowels. It appeared to be a long python-like snake,
perhaps, thirty feet in length. Dragging it over the green, he placed one end
of the mechanism
near the hole. What he did with the
other end of the serpentine-like device was hidden. The noise of the tractor’s engine combined with the chirping
crickets muffled the distinctive sound which was forthcoming. It wholly revealed the source of the wretched
morning odor of
I had become a dog’s urine drenched fire plug, an outhouse’s one-hole excrement, the flushing refuse of Brantwoodian toilets, the vial drool of used washing machine detergent, the slimy residue of discarded neighborhood oil changes, the companion of those oblong brown Creek aquatic species, the substance of life defined by my caddy friend, and, one from whom even the Creature of the Black Lagoon would flee. No skunk would have me. I had become Jerry, the loathsome CREEK BOY, never to return to the scene of his crime.
Creature From the Black Lagoon