Here in New York City, after feeling cooped up for two weeks in a bunker -- not the sand variety -- being fed a constant stream of news as bad as news gets, the email from Jim saying meet us at the club Friday afternoon sounded heaven-sent.
Exiting the locker room into a prematurely brisk early-autumn Westchester afternoon, the chill catches your breath in your throat as the sunlight hits you -- but your breath has been caught for two weeks now, by that burning smell, by dust, by sobs for the lost lives and for our own lives diminished; for the fact that all of us fall into two groups: those of us who are merely grieving or traumatized, and those who are devastated with personal loss.
Your soft spikes crunch down the gravel path to the pro shop and the first tee, and there on the practice green are the buddies you haven't seen in weeks, since before everything changed -- since before everyone's world seemed to mean a little less; since before "survivor guilt" and "post-traumatic stress" stopped being far-off clinical terms and turned into clumsy phrases that hardly begin to describe the relentless heartache and sense of powerlessness that seems to strike at random and keep you up at night like a huge unpaid debt.
Greeting your friends, checking for damage, you bow your head a little bit, as you've been doing frequently these past weeks when you see neighbors or even complete strangers you exchange the briefest glimpse of sleep-deprived solidarity with on the subway. City life for the moment is paying humble tribute to the good and decent things -- the small courtesies have come back into fashion in New York, a place which so often seems to have made a buck off not caring: traffic lanes merge more smoothly, customers and salespeople smile at one another, we say "good morning" to one another and seem to mean it.
Lots of little things make this a different sort of round -- while you and Kevin are both looking for your balls in the rough beside the first fairway, he says, "You know, I don't know how I could have made it without my kids to take me away from all of it," sounding almost bewildered. Meanwhile some things that have bugged you about your buddies in the past -- Tom likes to narrate his practice swings, while K. keeps rushing everyone -- are just fond foibles. They mutely accept your attempt to explain why you've doubled three of the first four holes with a line about "post-traumatic stress follow-through" excuse, maybe because all it took was one look at your face to see you haven't strung together more than three hours of sleep a night for the last two weeks.
* * *
What golf means to us is flight -- in two senses: flight from work and care, plus the hope of ascending, soaring, and landing safely with the aid of the peculiar instruments of our favorite game. But as far as real-life flying's concerned, aviation will never be the same again; and anyone who remembers how the "peace dividend" led to the surge in high-tech golf equipment fifteen years ago has to wonder whether the ever-advancing technology of the implements of golf will be halted by the need to beat plowshares back into swords. But what about the flight from reality, now that escape seems more difficult and yet more important than ever for sanity's sake? For a while there the very idea of golf seemed practically obscene.
And it isn't just me. There were probably a lot of reasons for canning the Ryder Cup. But a psychologist will tell you (mine did, anyway) that survivor guilt causes people to forsake things like relationships and food "as a way of atoning for the sin of survival." Maybe that's as good an explanation as any.
* * *
The taproom conversation afterwards is different, too -- nothing like ordinary b.s. about lost holes or the pennant races. Instead, mixed in with measured responses to "measured responses" and job evaluations of cabinet-level politicians, we break out rambling confessions about the larger frustrations of our individual fates. About where life has taken us and what choices we have and for some of us what we and our children make of one another, and at one point four confused men are wondering who wants to bring up more into this world?
But a dirty joke and another round banish the angst. Money changes hands, and we decide some more foreign policy, then get off our butts to get our stuff together and head for our cars, where we'll come to realize that our need to golf this particular afternoon probably had little to do with the golf, and everything to do with achieving some sort of communing. As soon as we open the door to the lockeroom, we find something that doesn't seem to belong, which should hardly be shocking at this point but nevertheless is: a flag draped over the door of the lockers. The four of us halt, and each of us for what seems like the thousandth time behold this symbol, this fundamental reduction of what we are and what we are for, and what it's doing here and now -- a way of designating the highest respect for what once belonged to this man's. Not for the things inside the locker -- the sleeves of never-to-be-used balls, the old golf glove, the shoes that will never pace off another putt -- not the simple tokens of a guy who sought diversion from his long, hard weeks' work on the green fields of Westchester. The respect, the consideration, the ache is of course for what he's left behind: the fatherless children, the husbandless wife, the friends, even a few practical strangers he would have waved at riding by on a golf cart.
It was a moment of silence offered unbidden.