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The Master’s at Augusta National begins today, and it always brings back memories of a time when, as a callow youth, I saw things in and around Augusta, Georgia, that I had never seen before or since.
After basic training, the Army sent me to Fort Gordon, just outside of Augusta, in December of 1958. On the Army bus to the base, I looked out the window and saw a chain gang of Blacks breaking rocks with sledgehammers. It was a scene right out of The Defiant Ones, which had appeared in movie houses earlier that year.
A few days later, in downtown Augusta, I saw a pair of drinking fountains, one of which read “Whites,” the other “Coloreds.” As a naive kid from Southern California, I was somewhat taken aback. What passed through my mind was this: two basins and spigots to purchase, two signs to paint, and two sets of pipes for the plumber to install. Surely such a crazy system couldn’t last much longer, and in fact, it didn’t. Only six years later the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregated facilities.
The Army had sent me to Fort Gordon because they wanted to teach me how to climb poles and string telephone wire before I was shipped to Europe. Then when the Ruskies invaded Europe, I would be able to string telephone wire so that the generals could talk to one another when all the European telephone infrastructure had been destroyed by the Red Hordes. At least that was the theory.
So that’s what I was doing in Augusta, Georgia, learning how to climb poles. That’s when my luck began to turn south on me. Dead south. Total uey.
It was the Christmas season and the Army held a lottery to see who would go home and who would stay on base. That lottery, influenced by the malignity of the universe that was about to come down hard on me in the next week or so, picked me and three or four others to stay on the base during the Christmas season. Everyone else in my company, about two hundred lucky soldiers, could go home and enjoy the Christmas season.
We unlucky ones got the weekend off, so I bused into Augusta and bought a car. I was never without a car. This one cost, oh, about fifty bucks. Every part of it, including the empty hole where a radio had once resided, rattled.
So off we went, me and my new buddy Marino, in the ugliest car in Georgia. The next state over, South Carolina, sounded kinda exotic (Marino was from Brooklyn), so we headed for the border.
Not far across the border, we stopped at a threadbare traveling amusement show, not much more than a freak tent (which featured a lady with a half-formed baby growing out of her belly — I can still see the poster), a few ball-throwing games, and a tiger (said to be a man-eater). Kicking up dust and trash as we walked around, we stopped in front of a small tent that advertised that, for a mere buck, we could see a naked woman doing wondrous things. (This was hardly a family carnival. It seemed to draw mainly from the soldiers at Fort Gordon, but it was apparently just out of reach, being in a different state, of the Fort’s brass.)
Could two Army privates resist such a come-on? Not Marino and me. I can’t go into what the naked lady did for fear of the Ricochet moderators, bluenoses all, but Marino and I had never seen a naked lady perform tricks with — oh hell, even euphemisms will get me in trouble here. I’m going to move on. In fact, I had never seen a bare naked lady, with the exception of that time I walked in on my mom.
When she was done with her act, the carny announced that for an extra five bucks, we could go up and touch the performer anywhere we wanted to. I would have taken them up on it, but five bucks was about a quarter of a week’s pay. (My E1 pay was 78 dollars a month.) I urged Marino to give it a try, he was too shy to do it.
I would like to say we emerged into the light feeling dirty, but we actually felt that we had gotten our money’s worth. Hell of a show, we both agreed.
We wandered over to a little crowd standing in front of a wheel of fortune, most of whom were merely gawking at the wheel and listening to the patter of the carny. With almost my entire month’s pay in my pocket, I played the big shot by putting a buck on the odd numbers. Within a few seconds, a good-looking woman sidled up beside me. I should have suspected something. No good-looking woman had ever sidled up beside me. I tried to sidle up to one once, but she sidled off.
At any rate, I knew about shills and crooked wheels. I wasn’t totally naive. My first bet, my precious buck, doubled. Then it quadrupled. Man, this was going well, as my new lady friend agreed. All of my sophistication was going out the window. I won’t go into the embarrassing details from this point on, but they involved the pretty woman at my side urging me on (“Double up, honey, you’re on a roll”), her pneumatic body occasionally brushing against my side. The odds of my winning were growing better with each spin of the wheel until there were only two numbers on the wheel that were losers. Of course, when the guy running the wheel has his foot on its brake, it matters little how good your odds are. And darned if I didn’t land on one of those losing numbers. I lost my entire month’s pay.
My hard luck didn’t end there. On the way back to the base, a car came alongside my Ford junker and the driver hollered that my car was on fire. It turned out that my car was spewing oil out the bottom of the crankcase. The oil had caught fire from my car’s hot pipe and muffler. So Marino and I jumped out and watched my car burn up.
None of this was funny at the time. But time has worn off the hard edges of my travails, and I now look back and smile.
“Ah, youth. Do you know what I would give to be young again?”
”Nothing. In fact, you’d have to pay me.” — Jon SkovronPublished in