You can’t go back —Gary Lewis and the Playboys
“You can’t go back”—or so they say. I guess that’s mostly true, but there are exceptions. This is an account of one of those exceptional times for me.
The fall after I graduated from high school in 1964, I left my hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana, to attend college. I didn’t look back. My parents moved away the following year so I didn’t have much need to return to Terre Haute again. I eventually lost contact with most of my childhood and high school friends, and my primary focus turned to college initially, and then to the Air Force, graduate school and my academic career later. I did occasionally think about my old hometown and those I had known there—and I wondered about them. But I never went back; they say you can’t, you know.
Beginning with my 25th high school class reunion in 1989, however, I began returning to Terre Haute again. I initially went to look for the landmarks I recalled such as my home on North 34th Street, my elementary and junior high schools, and the hill at Deming Park where I had spent hours sledding as a boy. I recognized these places, although some of their physical characteristics had changed over the years. Yet they all seemed so distant from who I am now. I guess you might say something was missing; I just didn’t have a sense of place in Terre Haute anymore.
In my personal essay titled The Muscles Remember I wrote about my childhood and adolescent years in Terre Haute, as viewed through the lens of my early golfing experiences there. In researching and writing that essay, I discovered the significance of “muscle memory” in relation to my involvement with the game of golf.
Writing that essay also gave me an idea. I determined to go back to Terre Haute at my first opportunity for the purpose of playing again the “front nine” of Rea Park Golf Course, which had been a significant place in my formation as a young golfer. I also hoped to re-discover my sense of place in Terre Haute through this activity of my youth. Perhaps, I reasoned, the muscles will remember.
It looked like rain ahead as I drove north along U.S. Highway 41 towards Terre Haute. It was a Wednesday afternoon in October, and I had arranged to meet my childhood friend, John Gibbons, in Terre Haute later that afternoon. He and I intended to play golf together over the first nine holes at Rea Park Golf Course.
Rea Park was at the southern edge of the city in my childhood days. Now as I drove through the extensive residential and commercial development that has sprung up south of town, I became concerned that I might not recognize the turnoff to 7th Street, which led to the course. I found it, and after driving a short distance I saw on my right the large white clubhouse of the course I knew well from my early days there. I turned onto a short lane leading back to it and as I pulled into the parking lot, my friend John also arrived.
After greeting each other, John informed me that a rain shower had just passed through, but now it looked as if it would be dry for the time we needed to complete our golf round. We checked in with the pro shop and were told that the first tee was open to us and we would have the course to ourselves. I smiled. John and I proceeded to the first tee and as we walked, I explained that it had been 48 years since I last played the front nine at Rea Park.
When I was a child, John Gibbons and his parents lived just two blocks from my family in a middle-class neighborhood on the east side of Terre Haute. Sports were our strongest mutual interests in those days. Along with other boys from the neighborhood, we played football together on a vacant lot in the fall; basketball during winter on the cement driveway behind John’s house where his dad had mounted a hoop on their garage, and baseball every summer at a nearby diamond that once was used as a recreational ball field for workers from a nearby factory. For a short time in the late 1950s, one father organized us boys into a sandlot football team and a baseball team. We played only a few games, but we practiced a lot. Another father installed a sign next to the baseball diamond that read:
The Home of the Fabulous Imps
And from about 1960 to 1964, before I moved away from Terre Haute, John Gibbons and I also played golf together occasionally on the two municipal courses in our town, including Rea Park.
I kneeled and placed my ball and tee into the ground. Club in hand, I stepped back and looked down the fairway. I tried to remember the last time I had stood in this spot. It must have been in late summer of 1964 as I began my final round of golf at Rea Park before leaving for college. I didn’t know then that I would not return to live in Terre Haute again after that school year. My father accepted a job transfer to New York City and I moved there the following summer instead.
The Rea Park course opened in 1920, which makes it one of the earliest in western Indiana. When it was built, its “Parkland” style was popular with golf architects because such courses resembled other city parks of that day and were considered to be aesthetically attractive even for non-golfers. Parkland courses tended to be situated on relatively level terrain with only a few scattered trees and lots of open space.
Terre Haute was quite the place in 1920. It had gone through a period of rapid growth since the 1890s, including construction of many buildings in the downtown area. Some expected the 1920s to be a golden age for Terre Haute. However, beneath its prosperous veneer all was not well. The mayor of Terre Haute had been impeached from office in 1906 for failure to curtail the gambling and corruption in the city. The mayoral election of 1914 was rigged. In 1916, an estimated 900 prostitutes worked in the city, and racial and ethnic prejudices had become more evident. The Ku Klux Klan enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in Terre Haute and other areas of Indiana during that time.
In spite of these shadowy aspects of Terre Haute as it began the 1920s, that decade did bring a number of impressive improvements in the city’s municipal infrastructure. For example, a new baseball stadium was built in 1924 and named “Memorial Stadium” in honor of those who served in World War I. I grew up right across the street from that stadium and I recall it well. Its tall center field wall was 546 feet from home plate. During my childhood, the story was that no player had ever hit a home run over that wall. In all the minor league baseball games I attended there during the 1950s, I certainly never saw one hit.
The city also built a beautiful new junior high school on the east side of town in 1927 and named it for the late president, Woodrow Wilson. I attended this school thirty years later. And, of course, there was also the Rea Park public golf course constructed on land purchased with funds from the estate of a wealthy businessman, William Rea. When Rea Park was built, there were other private courses in town, but none of those were open to the public at large. In 1925, William Rea’s widow built an impressive club house at Rea Park at a cost of $50,000. It served notice to the community that country club-quality golf had finally come to the masses.
I had returned to Rea Park almost 90 years after it initially opened to discover for myself a sense of the place and its meaning for me.
I stepped up to my ball and prepared to take a practice swing. I held a Callaway metal driver in my hands, a far cry from the wood-headed one I had used when I last hit from this tee. I may have played the Rea Park course more than a hundred times between 1960 and 1964. It was the “home” course for my high school golf team, and as a member of that team I played it often in the spring during our practice rounds and matches. I also went there during the summertime too, and especially after I turned sixteen and could drive myself there. I don’t recall ever playing golf at any of the private country clubs in town, so the truth is Rea Park was the finest and most difficult courses I ever played to that point in my life.
Considering how often I played Rea Park fifty years ago, it surprised me on this day to realize just how little I recalled of the course’s layout. The first hole was vaguely familiar—a straight-away 308 yard par-4 with a small “postage stamp” green characteristic of classic courses built in the 1920s. There were two sand traps, one on either side of the fairway about 240 yards from the tee–just the distance a good male golfer might hit his drive when the course was built.
Just before I hit my shot, I recalled one especially poor drive I had hit on this hole, probably during a golf team match in high school. I didn’t recall anything of the context of that shot, but the image of its “duck hook” curving sharply to the left and into the rough gave me chills. If it did occur during a match, I expect there was a group of players gathered around the first tee watching me and awaiting their turns to begin their rounds. A poorly played drive on this hole would have been especially embarrassing for me then, and it probably accounts for why my mind still recalled that memory.
For my round on this day, however, there was only John and me. Modern clubs are also more forgiving now, so hitting another duck hook was not likely. After taking a couple of practice swings, I hit the ball; the contact felt good. My drive sailed down the right side of the fairway and away from the sand trap. John then stroked his drive, and we were on our way.
As John and I progressed through our round, I was disappointed that so little about the course came back to me. There were impressions—the small greens for instance—but I didn’t, as I had hoped, recall specific shots or experiences from when I used to played this course. Instead, I felt distant and disconnected, just as I had from other places in Terre Haute to which I had returned in previous visits. Insult was added to injury when I found that what I remembered as treacherous water hazards on the course in the 1960s were now just dried-up depressions along some of the fairways. Although the tall grass that grew in those now was difficult to hit from, it wasn’t the same as a water hazard!
I certainly appreciated being with John again and sharing the round with him, but he didn’t help my recall of the course much. We hadn’t played Rea Park together that often back in our childhood years, and there seemed to be few mutual stories we could share about the place. For the first seven holes of our round, the sky also remained overcast from the earlier rainstorm. However, as we made our way to the tee box for the eighth hole, I noticed that the clouds were clearing and that sunlight was beginning to break through. I remarked to John that maybe the final two holes would be better. My words were prophetic.
I stood on the eighth tee and looked at my scorecard. It showed that the hole was 498 yards long with a par of 5. Accomplished golfers consider a par 5 hole less than 500 yards in length to usually be a good opportunity to score a par or even a birdie. I noticed on the scorecard, however, that this hole was also rated the second most difficult one on the course. Something began to stir in my memory.
I looked down the fairway and saw a number of large trees lining its left side. There was also out-of-bounds to the left. I thought to myself, “This is not the hole to hit a duck hook!” The trees puzzled me; I had no recollection of such large trees growing at Rea Park when I played here in 1964. Then I realized: “Of course! The trees I remember from that time are now 50 years older–and much larger!”
I hit my drive down the right side of the fairway to keep it away from the trouble I’d seen on the left. After John hit his shot, we headed down the fairway to our balls–as the scales began to fall from my memory. I remembered this hole and why it is considered to be more difficult. It has nothing to do with its length, but everything to do with the position and size of its green. The 8th green is smaller than a postage stamp; it is perfectly round and has less putting surface than any other on the course. To add even more difficulty to the hole, there are two large sand traps guarding the front of the green, one to the left and one to the right. The green also has a significant slope from front to back, which gives it some of the trickiest contours on the course for putting and chipping.
Playing this hole again brought it all back to me. I now recalled what a crucial hole it had been during almost every competition I played at Rea Park. Chipping and putting were my strengths in that time, and a shorter par 5 with a difficult green like hole #8 suited my game well. If I was behind my opponent in a match as I came to this hole in the round, I usually knew there was a chance I might make up some ground on him. High scores were common on this hole, and especially for those who struggled with their “short game.”
As John and I finished the eighth hole, I replaced the flagstick and stood behind the green for a few moments looking once more down the fairway toward the distant tee. I had finally found a sense of my place at Rea Park–and there was still one more hole to go.
We walked a short distance to the tee for the 9th hole. My mind and body felt more connected to the course now, and stories about it began to come more easily for me. I explained to John that my most memorable round of golf ever at Rea Park was when I played my first high school golf team competition there. I’m guessing it was sometime in mid-April 1962; it may have been the third meet or so of the season. As a first-year player on the team, our coach, Mr. Pritchett, hadn’t chosen me to compete in the earlier meets that year. I remember nothing now about my opponent that day or even the name of his school. I do, however, recall that my opponent and I were tied as we headed to the 9th and final hole of the match. Whomever won that hole would win.
The 9th hole at Rea Park is a good finishing hole. It is 378 yards long with a par of 4. There is a large sand trap in the rough to the left of the fairway at a distance of about 230 yards from the tee. Another smaller trap guards the right front of the green. The fairway leads north back towards the clubhouse. I began to recount for John my memories of playing hole #9 in that match fifty years before. I clearly remembered only one shot–it had changed my life. I now call it THE SHOT, but it came later in the round.
I suppose my tee shot that day went maybe 210 yards or so. It would have been well short of that sand bunker in the rough. I didn’t hit drives very far then since I was only five feet six inches tall and still used a starter set of women’s clubs that my dad had given me when I first took up the game three years earlier. My second stroke on hole #9 that day might have carried about 170 yards and was probably played with a 3-wood. I don’t remember anything about that shot either except that the ball ended up on the right front edge of the green just short of the putting surface.
John and I had now reached our balls. My drive had traveled much farther this day than it did in 1962. It’s not that I’m that much better of a golfer now, but I’m taller and use modern clubs that are capable of hitting farther than my Betty Alex-autograph clubs ever could fifty years ago. For my second shot on this day, I chose an iron and my ball sailed over the green. I didn’t care because I had suddenly lost most of my interest in the current round. It was as if I had entered a time machine and I was now playing the 9th hole again one April afternoon in 1962!
I walked towards the green, just as I had done fifty years before. I remembered knowing then that I could win the hole and the match if I just hit my next shot really well. It was a chip shot. The term “chip shot” is used today to describe something as relatively simple and easy. For example, a field goal from short range in football is sometimes called “a chip shot.” But this chip shot of mine on hole #9 to win my first competitive match was anything but easy and certain. I knew my future with the team probably hinged on the outcome of that shot and my match. If my ball ended up near the hole and I was able to one-putt for a par, I stood a good chance of winning.
For THE SHOT, I chose a seven iron that day. There wasn’t much slope to the green and my ball was three feet or so off the putting surface. The hole was about twenty feet away and I knew a seven iron, correctly stroked, would lift the ball over the fringe and drop it softly onto the putting surface where it could then roll to the hole. I had executed such shots many times before on the practice green at Rea Park, but never in a competition. I took a couple of practice strokes to get my rhythm, and then I hit the ball.
It was my habit then to keep my eyes fixed on the place where the ball had been after I hit so as not to move my head prematurely. When I did look, I saw my ball coming to a stop about a foot from the hole. I exhaled and heard a smattering of applause from over near the clubhouse. I tapped in the remaining putt for par while my opponent made a bogey (one above par). I had won.
As I walked off the green and towards the club house that day, my coach and a few teammates who had been watching came up to me to learn how my match had turned out. I informed them and they then said that, because of my victory, our team had just won the meet. The following day, in the Terre Haute newspaper, there was a short article about the contest that included the following statement:
“The meet was not decided until Gerstmeyer’s Steve Simmons defeated his opponent (1-up) in the final match of the day.”
As John and I neared the 9th green, I asked him to take my photograph reenacting THE SHOT. I placed a ball at about the same place on the fringe of the green as I remembered it being fifty years earlier. I took a seven-iron from my bag and after a couple of practice swings, I once again stroked the ball toward the hole. That it rolled well beyond the flagstick this time didn’t matter to me. In reenacting this defining moment of my adolescent life, I had gone back. I had found a sense of place at Rea Park and Terre Haute–and now I needed to explore its meaning.
Since my reunion round of golf with John Gibbons, I’ve realized that my return to Terre Haute wasn’t just about nostalgia. I understand now that I was seeking to not only remember my younger life, but to also be in that life again. The walk up the fairway to the 9th green at Rea Park, and my reenactment of THE SHOT, enabled both my mind and my body to reenter this defining moment again.
There were a number of consequences of THE SHOT for me. The coach began competing me in nearly every one of our team’s matches after that day. Success in golf became as important for my sense of well-being and esteem—and the perception of me by my peers—as anything else I did during my high school years.
There was one additional outcome from that April afternoon on hole #9. I had taken up the game of golf at the age of twelve mostly at the insistence of my father. He was a practical man, and he reasoned that I could play golf no matter how tall I grew. He also pointed out that golf was a lifelong sport while more glamorous ones like football and basketball usually stopped after one’s school years. In addition to buying me that set of women’s clubs during seventh grade, he arranged for me to take lessons from a tavern buddy who ran a “golf school.” He and I didn’t play much golf together, but after I joined the high school golf team, he expressed interest in how it was going for me. He never came to meets, but then I don’t think remember other parents ever coming to matches either; maybe it was just not the thing to do then.
Besides being practical, my father was also a perfectionist, at least when it came to my “performances.” As his elder son, I recognized his expectations and that there would be no lowering of his standards with respect to my golf. He’d played basketball for a small-town high school team during the 1930s, and although I would have liked to follow him in that, my short stature at the time ruled it out. Once I took up golf, I felt he would expect a high level of achievement in that endeavor too.
After I won that initial golf match at Rea Park, my dad clipped the article about it from the newspaper and taped it to the refrigerator in our home. For the moment, I felt his pride and approval.
We find ourselves—and our stories—where we need to. —Samuel Green from First Up
During my golf round with my longtime friend John Gibbons at Rea Park, I lived another truth about a sense of place. As he and I proceeded up the fairway of that final hole, he also shared a story with me. His defined the meaning of this place for him. He recounted how his father, Tom, had played golf at Rea Park many times during his years of living in Terre Haute. However, Tom’s most memorable and meaningful moment in this place didn’t involve winning a golf match with a chip shot. It was a July day in 1976 when his golfing partner and neighbor, Shuman Hunter, collapsed and died as he and Tom were walking up the fairway of hole #9 and approaching the green. At that moment, they were just a few yards away from the spot where I had hit THE SHOT fourteen years earlier. Medical personnel were summoned and soon arrived, but nothing could be done.
The poignancy of John’s account stunned me for a moment. As I later reflected upon the meaning of John’s story, I realized it illustrates a principle. Most people relate to places because of their individual experiences in them, and they make personal meaning from those. But places also have collective meaning. The significance of Rea Park’s 9th hole for me now is only partly about it being where I came of age one April afternoon in 1962. The importance of that fact hasn’t changed, but my sense of the place, as a result of John’s story, is broader now. It has taken on new meaning for me because of Tom Gibbons’ experience there thirty-six years ago. This hole #9 at Rea Park is not only symbolic of a point of passage in my life, but also the moment of passage for another. It’s become for me a place where transience, transition and transformation come together.
I had found myself—and my story—and a sense of place–where I needed to.
Steve Robert Simmons wrote this personal essay in 2013. All rights reserved.