Boys, men, golf and war

Now that no one is publishing books, I have decided to write them. My timing is impeccable, as usual.

My golf book is pretty much done. Now I have to figure out what to do with it.

It’s about the Poland Spring Caddy Camp and the eight summers I spent there from age 13 to 20, a formative time indeed.

Caddy Camp — cute name but not a cute place. We drew a firm distinction between our camp and the fun camps, which surrounded us in central Maine. Ours was a residential work camp, 10 weeks from mid-June to late August (but we had some fun too).

The camp dated back to 1921 as a summer experience for underprivileged Boston boys from the South End Settlement House at the majestic Poland Spring Hotel.

It had lost that exclusive relationship by the time I showed up in 1958, but was still a hardy place. I was entering adolescence and my dad figured a little physical effort and challenge wouldn’t hurt me in the least.

The Camp Directors were two of my dad’s friends from Bates College: Bob Hatch was the football coach and Chick Leahey the baseball coach. Both had been star athletes, Bob in football at Boston University and Chick as a pro baseball player in the Yankees system.

Both had served in the Marines in World War II, stationed in the South Pacific. This service was not lost on us. We admired them extravagantly. They were our heroes and role models.

The Caddy Camp itself, a century old, elongated stable, burned down in 1984, nearly 20 years after the hotel had closed forever, and nine years after it, too, had burned down in a spectacular fire of mysterious origin.

In my first summer, I hated Caddy Camp: it was so hard. Walking the four or five miles of the 18-hole course without a golf bag on my shoulder would have been difficult enough for me.

I adjusted, however, and grew to love the place. We were convinced that we were the best caddies in America and provided a unique service to the guests of our magnificent hotel. We had purpose. Every golfer at Poland Spring was required to take a caddy.

The key was effort, hustle. We hustled because we were told to, coercion, and we hustled because we wanted to, choice. We were clean around the greens, we stayed ahead of our golfers, we knew the rules and etiquette of golf, we forecaddied and chased down errant shots deep in the woods.

Caddy Camp reflected a frank dedication to the notions of masculinity of a time now past. Bob and Chick ran it like a military barracks. When I asked Bob if the camp were intentionally organized on a military model, he smiled, shrugged, and said, “Fifty-two boys in one building? How else?”

General Eisenhower famously said, “The true mission of American sports is to prepare young men for war.”

Every night, after a day on the links, we competed in some robust sports activity. The camp was divided in the first week into four teams, named after Indian tribes, At the end of August, one team emerged as the champs, winner of a fierce summer-long, all-encompassing competition.

We played a game called “To Hell and Back,” basketball without rules, on the asphalt basketball court near the camp. You could tell when we had this competition by the bloody legs of the caddies in their shorts the next day.

We had a boxing competition, a marathon (a five-mile road race), and “cane-fighting,” which was simple enough: two boys pairing off, each holding on to a broomstick. The object was for one boy to get the other to let go by whatever means possible. One summer we had two broken collarbones.

Later, I had all I could do not to include prominently on my professional resume, “Captain, Cherokees, Poland Spring Caddy Camp, 1960 - Champions!”

The war we were being prepared for, Vietnam, was so different from Bob’s and Chick’s — no rousing call to arms, no menace to Western Civilization to confront, only confusion and discord.

My Caddy Camp friend, Dick Buzzell, from Arlington, Mass., Captain of the Comanches in 1960, was killed in a helicopter crash the Mekong Delta just a few days before Christmas in 1970.

Al Schofield, from Quincy, a three-year caddy and a counselor for two years with me, had been in Vietnam only a month in 1968 when his convoy was ambushed and he was killed. 

Wayne Chasson, Captain of the Iroquois, flew helicopters in Vietnam in 1968-69, and then again in Iraq 40 years later.

For Bob Spear, Caddymaster with me in 1963, the memory of a beautiful summer day on the golf course, carrying doubles for two good golfers, provided relief on hot and scary nights in the field in Vietnam.

My own kids know Poland Spring Caddy Camp as a mythical place of hardship and glory, a place I would conjure whenever I scolded them for their lassitude or laziness.

My younger son, Peter, responds to my threats now with, “What are you going to do, Dad, send me to Caddy Camp?”

I’d like to.

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