When I was 16 (that’s me in the middle of the back row),
I got a part-time job at the driving range / miniature golf place in our neighborhood in Chicago. This would have been 1967. I had just finished my very first job at the Palisades Bowl, a job that I’m fairly certain doesn’t exist anymore: I was a scorekeeper for a bowling tournament! Before even pocket calculators, a scorekeeper had to add up the numbers by hand. A match took place on two lanes, with a five-man team on each side. The teams alternated lanes, so when someone got ready to bowl, I always had to ask someone “who’s that?”
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After a couple mistakes led my boss to threaten to fire me, I learned to be very careful and double check my addition. I’m pretty sure kids don’t do that anymore.
I had a friend Richard from high school (Fenger, in Chicago):
who was old beyond his years. He drank coffee, which almost none of us were allowed to do, socialized with the local politicians, and of course, worked at that golf place. He introduced me to Ziggy Troy, the owner, who gave me a job working at the cash register for the miniature golf course, and doing whatever else he needed me to do.
Working at a part-time job was something teenagers did back then. My parents were totally supportive. I was expected to save the money for college, and not blow it all on clothes and entertainment, and I did that, mostly.
Ziggy had been a golf professional in the 1930s and 40s, and he was the rich guy in the neighborhood.
Ziggy owned the whole northwest corner of 115th and Halsted, and had a giant house on one part of the property. On Mondays we’d go out on the driving range and pick up the balls that his big tractor missed. Then we could practice driving all the balls we’d picked up. Monday was Caddy Day, a regular thing on real golf courses. It wasn’t a real golf course and we didn’t caddy, but still, we had Caddy Day.
My dad was a pretty good golfer himself:
and he later “shot his age” (e.g. if you’re 83 and shoot an 83, you’ve shot your age). Golf was his main occupation during retirement. He’d been good enough to at least consider turning pro when he was younger, and he once consulted a professional golfer about it. That guy told him he was pretty good, but he’d have to make some fundamental changes in his swing to be a pro, and Dad decided he wasn’t that committed.
He had never been friends with Ziggy, despite their being neighbors and both of Lithuanian extraction. This should have been a red flag for me. Did they not like each other, or was it just male rivalry and mutual suspicion? Was Dad jealous of him for being rich? Or did he secretly think he could have been a better golfer than Ziggy? I didn’t know. Guys were pretty circumspect about each other back then.
I wasn’t going to make it in baseball, I knew by then. The other boys had grown up and left me behind. I was only 5’2” at age 16, and when I took driver’s education, they taunted me that I couldn’t see over the steering wheel. But I thought maybe golf would be it. After all, Dad was a quarterback on his high school football team, and he only weighed 110. Quarterbacks didn’t throw the ball back then like they do now, but still! He must have known that I wasn’t going to follow in his footsteps as an athlete, despite all the Little League coaching he’d done.
I studied Ben Hogan’s classic book Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, and tried to apply it. I’d take a whiffle ball out in the back yard and swing away, hour after hour.
Ben Hogan was one of the biggest pro golfers of the 40s and 50s. He won nine major tournaments, and his book is still a #1 best seller. Amazon says:
Ben Hogan's premise in this 1957 classic is driven home in bold letters: "THE AVERAGE GOLFER IS ENTIRELY CAPABLE OF BUILDING A REPEATING SWING AND BREAKING 80."
Every golfer knew the legend of Ben Hogan’s car crash and his miraculous recovery from it. He went on to win six more major tournaments. Even I knew this story. That old story got new life when Tiger Woods wiped out his car, and came back to win the Master’s.
My brother Bill (he’s the one in the black sweater in the photo) and I used to go out and play golf. I considered it a good day if I broke 120. Dad and I went to the driving range or to a regular golf course together numerous times, where he would watch me hit the ball 45 degrees to the right, suggest some things for me to try, none of which worked, and finally say “Well, I don’t know what you’re doing wrong.” Ziggy wasn’t any help, either. Of course we couldn’t afford any real golf lessons.
Did you get any compliments?
Working at a driving range wasn’t exactly “becoming a golf pro,” but at least I was making money from golf, and that was something. Besides me and my friend Richard, at least three other teenaged boys worked for Ziggy. Our first job was horrific: we had to pull up the rubberized putting surface and replace it with AstroTurf. The rubber was glued to the concrete securely. We had trowels, but it was pretty much impossible to get the rubber up with just mechanical force. Maybe there were solvents that would have done the job, but they probably would have destroyed the concrete and left toxic waste, too, and in any case we didn’t have any.
What we resorted to was a combination of formaldehyde and gasoline. which we lit on fire. Just imagine teenage boys, or anyone, being allowed to do that nowadays! There were clouds of black smoke, but no one called the Fire Department that I remember.
After the gasoline burned off we could trowel up the burned rubber and get the concrete ready for the adhesive, and then Ziggy put down the AstroTurf. It didn’t occur to any of us to complain that this was dangerous. We were teenage boys, after all. It was fun.
Finally we finished, and the mini-golf place reopened. There were no “grand reopening” signs, ads, or any sort of fanfare about it, but Ziggy was intensely proud. Every night, he’d ask me, “Did you get any compliments on the new AstroTurf?”
My answer was always “No.” Ziggy was dumbfounded. How could all these people, many of whom had presumably played here before, not say “Wow, what a fantastic improvement this is!”? Didn’t they want to express their gratitude for all the hard work and money he’d put into this? I wondered, but didn’t ask, “Well, why don’t you walk around and talk to them? They’re your customers.”
At this point, I have to explain something about myself: I was a teenaged boy. I was not a friendly, gregarious guy back then. (One might argue “You still aren’t!” but all I can say is “Yeah, but back then, really…”) I didn’t smile at customers, say “have fun,” or do anything of those customer service things people are taught to do. Whenever a customer would refer to the putters as “sticks” I’d say to myself “They’re called ‘clubs’ you asshole” although I never actually said that. It was probably written on my face, though.
I always brought a stack of reading material to work with me. Books, magazines, enough to last the whole night until we closed at 10:30. Then I walked home three blocks, alone.
This was the South Side of Chicago in a changing and violent neighborhood. It was scary. You’re probably wondering why my dad didn’t pick me up and drive me home? My parents went to bed at 10:30. I had a key to get into the house.
I know, I know, nowadays any parent would pick up their kid, assuming the kid could even work that late, but this was 1967. I carried this little half-height golf club with me for “protection.” It was about 30 inches long, and supposedly you’d use it if your ball was in a tree or some place with no room to swing a real club. I can’t even find a picture of one of these now. My plan if someone accosted me was to throw it through someone’s front window to get their attention, and presumably have them call the police, or come out and protect me. Or something.
One night when I was maybe half a block from home, I could see someone walking toward me at the other end the sidewalk, about a block away. I started running. They did, too. I made it to the front porch first and I went inside. In a minute or two I heard someone pound on the front door. I never told Mom and Dad what happened.
Ziggy tells us golf stories
One night after I closed up the stand at the mini-golf place and turned in the money, all the boys gathered around Ziggy. He held forth with stories from his professional golf career and kept us all transfixed. You might expect that a guy who knew all the legends of golf would be telling stories all the time, but you’d be wrong. We’d never heard any of this. I guess he was in an expansive mood that night.
The best story was, he was with Ben Hogan that fateful night, just before he got in his car and had the near-fatal accident. I lost track of time.
Suddenly my Dad appeared. He’d never come there when I was working. He was furious! He yelled at Ziggy about keeping us boys out so late, and threatened, if I remember correctly, to punch his lights out. Maybe those weren’t his exact words, but I’m pretty sure a threat of physical violence was made.
Ziggy was calm and unimpressed. Maybe he didn’t consider Dad much of a threat. Dad grabbed me and we left together. For some reason, he had walked there, not driven the car. We walked home. He lectured me about how worried Mom was that I had to walk home alone each night. Did she ever offer to come and pick me up in the car? I really don’t remember that ever happening. Maybe I would have rejected the idea as being too sissy, or maybe they were afraid to tell me.
Each night, according to Dad, Mom would hover at the window, waiting for me to appear, and then run to bed so I wouldn’t see her. While Dad didn’t order me to quit, it was strongly suggested.
When he’d calmed down, I told him Ziggy’s story about being with Ben Hogan on that fateful night. He said, “Yeah, he probably made that up.”
The next day when I saw Ziggy, he said, “So how’s your tough father?” I told him I was quitting.
I never saw Ziggy again. He moved out to the suburbs a couple years after this, like most of the white population of Roseland. He opened up a par-3 golf course, which is still in operation to this day, run by his sons.
In May, 1981, two 16-year-old boys robbed and murdered Ziggy at his golf course. They were tried and convicted and sentenced to long prison terms. I don’t know if he knew them, or they’d ever had any interactions with him before the murder.
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Thanks for sharing! This was a great read.
I grew up on 118th Union, Went to Fenger, (class of 72),SCG (class of 68) and my grandmother came from Lithuania!
thanks to all you readers! The second post "The Best Summer Job Ever" is just out now.