Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Vacant Lots and Mobridge Golf

The older I get, the faster time goes, the more friends and relatives die, leaving me with fewer and fewer people with whom I can share and confirm memories from my distant past. I saw in the paper that Olivia de Havilland is 99. Okay, I can live with that news. But today is also Leslie Caron’s 84th. Ouch! What happened to that young dancer I loved in An American in Paris, the young girl named Gigi, the big-eyed waif who fell in love with Daddy Long Legs Fred Astaire? I don’t really need those reminders of my longevity.

I’ve already written about the small town of my birth, Mobridge, South Dakota, and what I remember about it from my youth. I wonder how much of what I remember is real, accurate, and how much is made up, imagined. There aren’t many people still alive whom I might ask to confirm events and places. Which are real and which imagined? I don’t mean I’d deliberately manufacture memories. At least, I don’t think I would. Memory is such a slippery beast. Some moments in our past are so vivid, so brightly colored, that we’ve locked them in, while huge segments of our past are just gray mist.

From my earliest memories, let’s say from age four to ten (1937 to 1943), Mobridge, in the 1940 census figures as I recall, had 3,413 people. I’m sure that number isn’t quite correct but it’s there in my head because, as I recall, each of my friends and I used to think we were that last number, the “3” on the 3,413. Mobridge then was a dusty trail town, with all streets and avenues still just dirt and gravel. Main St. from the highway south to the railroad tracks was black-topped but that was it. And when the summer winds got up, the dirt and dust would turn the skies tan and gritty. It was a time when there were many what we called then and I guess most Mobridgers still call “vacant lots.” I remember the ones that had some meaning for me.

When we lived on the highway at the corner of 2nd Avenue West (just across the street from Dean's Drivein after he moved it over near the Catholic Church), the entire block to the west of us was vacant. It was cut diagonally from southeast to northwest by the foot path kids took to get to the Beadle School, with weeds, mostly ragweeds, growing up through the summer, grasshoppers flying up around us on our walk to school, the path often near the red-ant anthills we kids would just have to kick and scatter as we made our way back and forth. The lots north of the Beadle School were all vacant in the 1930’s, with a few basement houses built there in the years after the war. You remember basement houses? They were what couples would build and live in until they could afford to put in a real house on top of the basement. Couples today wouldn’t even consider such a housing plan, instead going for thirty-year mortgages on something between a quarter and a million dollars, then reneging on the loan in the divorce settlement a few years later.

One of my areas of play during the summers of late 30’s and early 40’s was mostly south of the highway around 3rd and 4th Avenues West, where my cousin Gordon lived on 3rd, the Appleby twins Ray and Roy just west on 4th, and across the street on 4th, Q.P. Coleman and Punky Miller resided, with Jackie and Gwen Hepper on the south corner in the brick house later owned by the Holgates. Back to vacant lots. North of the Miller house, from 4th to 5th, nothing but vacant lots, with a large highway billboard sign at the north edge along the highway. We played on the back side of that billboard, scaling the scaffolding for what seemed like hours but must have been more like an abbreviated hour before boredom set in. A number of the west-side gang dug an underground room on that lot, covering it with old sheets of plywood from someone’s backyard. Amazing that none of us died in an earth collapse. Some of us hiding in the weeds on that lot (But who exactly?) experimented with smoking by filling straws with used coffee grounds, lighting them, and then puffing. Ah, the thrill. Ah, the disgust. Even smoke wood was better than coffee straws. For those who don’t recognize what smoke wood was, the trees and branches of riverside cottonwoods would fall into the Missouri and stay there so long that the branches would turn punky and white and could be broken into cigar-sized pieces which, when lighted, served as youthful cigs. We played pickup baseball on the northwest corner, across the street from where Jimmy Fenlon lived. Most of the city land west of 5th or 6th Avenues was unoccupied, nothing much between there and the Lutheran Academy and further out, the original Mobridge Airport.

Later, in about 1946, we moved to a house previously owned by the Tolkeins on the corner of Main and 7th Street East, across from the city park, next door to Doc Spiry. Across the street to the west there was a vacant half-block, from 7th St. West along the park to 1st Ave. West and to the alleyway to the north. It was another place for pickup baseball, more for games of bat-and-catch than actual games with bases. As I remember that game of b-and-c, we took turns as batter with one or more of us in the field, the batter hitting stuff at us. Cleanly-fielded grounders were worth 25 points, one-bouncers 50 points, and flies 100 points. I guess the next turn as batter was determined by some pre-set number of points accumulated. Does anyone remember such a game? And if so, do I have it sort of right? Or have I again only imagined such details? There was also a vacant lot just east of the Spiry house, where someone (Who?) had put up a basket at which I and others would play sweaty games of one-on-one or whatever number there was split in two. If not one-on-one, there was always Horse. Or if alone, endless shots from close up to as far away as we could heave the ball. There were other vacant lots up near the high school that had baskets for the same kinds of basketball games we could put together. The other lot that springs to mind was south of the high school, on the corner of Main and 11th Street. It was vacant until Ben Boschker built a house on it with a small convenience store on the ground floor at the front. It became a regular stop-off to and from high school for an 8-ounce bottle of pop (never called "soda") or a much-needed Powerhouse bar.

There must have been any number of other vacant lots in town back in those days, but I remember only the ones that stick in my head, stick there either correctly or incorrectly colored by too many memory flashcards.

Another Mobridge memory so vivid to me involves the Mobridge Country Club where I spent too many summer hours playing golf, sometimes with David Durand, sometimes with my mother and father, sometimes with brother Dick, but most often alone. The clubhouse was a single large room with a bar on the south end, several nickel shot machines near the door on the east, tables and chairs in the middle, and probably a jukebox somewhere for playing dance tunes for those visiting the bar afterhours. The slots were, of course, illegal, but whenever the county authorities were scheduled to show up to confiscate them, the machines magically disappeared. Slot machines then were so much simpler than the ones we now see in casinos. You had cherries, lemons, plums, oranges, and jackpot bars. You knew immediately what you were going to win when the three wheels came to rest. Now, most of us don’t know until the computerized machine tells us with its silence or its “dingadingding!” for wins. I think the percentage of payouts then was about the same as it is now in our many casinos, not very high. I remember once, when I was in either middle school or high school, going on a winter hayride out to the Country Club for bowls of chili for the hayriders. Did I go with a girl or go alone? I don’t remember. I’m sure if she’d been a lovely young thing I’d have remembered.

The course back before Mobridge got so fancy with grass greens and mowed fairways had a slightly different nine holes than is there today. I remember it as having seven par-4’s (all somewhere between 300 and 350 yards), one par-3 (about 140 yards), and one par-5 (about 450 yards). Golf scores then were simply 9-hole scores. Never having seen or played on an 18-hole course, I could only envision a round made up of nine holes. The greens were all “browns,” consisting of oiled sand on round packed-earth bases, with the pins in permanent spots near the center of each green. The fairways were made up of occasionally-mowed buffalo grass, on which we played “winter rules,” meaning one could move the ball as far as one liked to find a bit of grass, which one would often then twist up to form a kind of grass tee. Mobridge rules of golf were not very strict back then, nor very strictly enforced. The roughs were fairly short right after one of the several summer mowings, and up to knee-high just before one of the mowings. The grass from mowing it would be piled up to be later hauled away for hay. But until then, if your ball may have gone into one of the piles, one never never stuck a hand in to find the ball for fear that some wily rattlesnake might take offense. The tee boxes were eight-foot squares of oiled earth within creosoted railroad ties. Each tee box had a bench with a small gabled roof above for shelter in case of that rare South Dakota summer rain. Holes one and two were then much as they are now, both par-4’s. The tee box on three, right near the fenced gravel road, had a scraggly cottonwood tree that Heinie Long tried to keep alive by carrying out buckets of water. I don’t remember if it survived or died sometime in the forties. The third hole was a straightaway par-4 with a green too close to the road for comfort. The fourth was the lone par-3, with a tee box just about where the tee is now for the fourth, hitting downhill across the small valley to a green due east. Then golfers would go back uphill to the tee box for five and play straight east pretty much on the same line as it is now for the eighth hole but much shorter then (maybe even less than 300 yards). The sixth tee was to the right of the fifth green, a straight, short par-5 up the valley to a green that sat just west of where the present pond is near the present-day putting green. Then up the hill to the west for a short par-4 with a drive straight south. Then another par-4, the eighth going diagonally north and west. And finally, the ninth, hitting east toward the clubhouse, a good drive carrying past the hill leading down to the ninth green, the only one with more than one level, this one with a back tier sloping down from the back of the green which was cut into the hillside leading up to the clubhouse. I wish I had one of those old scorecards to confirm my memories of the length and directions of the holes. As I remember, here are the yardages: 1-310, 2-330, 3-340, 4-140, 5-295, 6-450, 7-320, 8-335, 9-340. Total: 2860 yards. Pretty short by today’s standards, but back then the equipment and balls weren’t even close to today’s stuff. It was the only golf course I knew when I was a young lad, so I had nothing to compare it to. It was what it was, take it or leave it. My best scores there were several 33’s. I must have gone from scores in the sixties and fifties when I was ten or eleven, into the forties for most of my teen years, then into the thirties after high school and after I got back from Korea. No such thing as handicaps back then. You just played golf and kept score. I remember playing in the club championship when I was either a senior in high school or during that abortive year after my first year in college. It was a semi-final match against Heinie Long, the barber we boys all remember from our visits to the shop in the Monogram to get that well-known “heinie” haircut. Heinie had a short, controlled backswing, pretty good golfer, didn’t talk much. We were playing match play. I remember his drive on number three, along the road, going into the high weeds near the fence, either just in or just out of bounds. Bud Lowe was jogging along the road and saw where the ball had gone and just had to point it out to Heinie. It was in-bounds and would have been a lost ball without Bud’s unsolicited help, a win for me. Instead it was a hole won by Heinie. I don’t remember how we played any of the other holes, but I know we were tied after eight holes. I hit a good drive in the fairway on nine, somewhere over the hill and past the 200-hundred yard stake. We got there and couldn’t find my ball. It just disappeared. It had to have gone down a snake or a gopher hole. I dropped a ball in the vicinity, hit my shot onto the green, made my par to Heinie’s bogey, won the match. After the round, he told me he’d won the hole and the match because my drive was lost and I should have gone back to the tee to hit my third shot, probably making a double bogey to his bogey. I was incensed. I was livid. How could he claim a victory when a snake or gopher had obviously taken my ball? It was just another of the lessons we learn along the way that life and golf isn’t always fair.

I’d love to hear from any people from Mobridge, back then or more recent, who have their own memories about “vacant lots” and the Mobridge Country Club. Or anyone who can spot false holes in my memories of those times and places. You can write me at

1 comment:

  1. How wonderful! Thank you Jerry for the trip down memory lane. My parents brought me to Mobridge in 1950 and by age 8, I virtually lived on the golf course. Fond memories of watching my hero, Dick Travis, play that course with finesse. The owner, of the slot machines, was Jim Marin who past away this year. Because I was 'big and strong,' I got to move those machines to a variety of local basements during the early 60s. Mobridge was the only course I had ever played when I went to the 1962 high school state tourney. The greens in Mitchell required 'reading' after years of carefully leveling each sand green putt. I look forward to future blog entries. Thanks again Jerry.