Monday, April 21, 2014

Over Par

The crowd, which only minutes before had welcomed golf’s recent breakout champion to the 17th hole at the 1927 Shawnee open with hopes to see an unforgettable display of golfing precision, were now bristling with a mixture of confusion and horror.  At the tee was Tommy Armour; a tall and handsome man whose signature black hair had begun surrendering to the deep veins of silver that would ultimately brand him the “Silver Scot” - golf’s greatest teacher and one of the most enigmatic names to ever play the game.  After a year of consistently scoring ahead of such names as Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones, both drinking buddies and golfing legends in their own right; Tommy Armour was fresh off his win at the US open, just the week before.  Despite undeniable skill and talent, he now found himself placing yet another ball on the tee after hitting 7 consecutive shots in the water hazard.  The Scottish iron master had given up all hopes of securing a victory after the second ball took a bath, and now his common sense was in question as he aimed once again towards the water.  When he finally walked off the green, he had given up 23 strokes on a par 5.  This travesty was the worst single hole score in PGA history…a title which still holds to this day. 

 The spectators believed they were witnessing a man coming apart at the seams - the result of a game that mirrors the everyday pressures of life.  In golf, as in life, a man cannot hide behind the talent of the many or ride the coattails of a team, but instead must rely on his facilitates alone if he wants to find himself being cheered on the approach to the 18th green.  To understand what happened that fateful day, you first must examine the man behind the tee.  The layout of that par five would have told any reasonable golfer to follow the given formula: Drive conservatively far right, lay up around the bend on the fairway and reach the green in 4, maybe 3 shots, max.  However, Tommy did not look for routes that were “safe” or “easy” – in golf, or life.  Instead, I like to think he saw a shot in his mind directly over the vast water that none before had dared try. With a confidence and grit attained by many men that have seen war, he decided the overall total of his score was no excuse for choosing the “easy shot”, when the “right shot” was staring him in the face. 

If you haven’t already guessed, I am speaking of my grandfather.  I grew up knowing very little about him, other than the stories I was told from my family and what small nuggets of information are available through the internet.  The best glimpse into his mind is accessible through his published works on golf; “A round of golf with Tommy Armour,” and “How to play your best golf all the time”.  My father did not tell me much about him, but, to be fair, my adolescent concerns were so full of x-men knowledge and late night Showtime adult line-up scheduling, that perhaps his attempts to go over my heritage fell on deaf ears.  I find it ironic that a boy, so caught up with fictional superheroes, did not see the connection between the extraordinary and my own heritage.  For every documented feat of golfing prowess he achieved during his career, there are countless other tales of his life off the course that have defined his larger than life persona.

The 1920’s were a decade that could very well be considered the golden years of golf in America.  Far removed from the bright and colorful magazine covers of the modern golfer, the sepia-toned images of this era capture the pioneers of the game; men who walked the fairways in pressed suits and fedoras.  This was a gentleman’s game, played without the influence of multi-million dollar sponsorships and payouts.  The prize for these men was holding that silver cup in front of their peers, rather than hoisting the over sized cardboard check.  This practice makes understanding that fateful hole complicated, seeing how pride and fortune were both slipping away from the Silver Scot as he fired shot after shot into the water, with little more than a shake of the head and a cool determination to “get it right”.  Seemingly out of character for such a talented and competitive player, this curious hole can easily be explained away as the result of bad judgment, or, more likely given his reputation, a bad hangover.  However, in context, I believe there is an all but forgotten lesson to be found in his actions that day; an ideal of why golf is more than just a game, but an examination of character.  Who better to give this lesson but my grandfather; a man who was named the "teacher of the century" by Golf Magazine, but a legend.    

As with every great hero, Tommy came from humble beginnings.   The cold and rainy links of his native Scotland served as both playground and battlefield for young Tommy.  The local course of Braid Hills is where he cut his teeth in competition.  As there were no tournaments back then specifically for boys, Tommy was allowed to compete against the men; ultimately forcing his way into the amateur team at a very young age.  It was here that Tommy gained a confidence that would stay with him though life.  Over the years, dogged determination coupled with raw talent elevated him through the ranks, making him among the leading Scottish amateurs at the age of 18.  There is much to be said of his upbringing, and how the right circumstances tempered the raw metal in young Tommy to become the Silver Scot he is known as today, however it is not my intention to write a full biography here; I will leave that more knowledgeable men like Ed Dixon and Dr. Milton Wayne, whose articles on my grandfather are available in the links below.  As Ed put it; “The world for Tommy Armour must have been looking mighty fine at the end of the 1914 golf season...unfortunately for Tommy, as for thousands of other young men, the golden days were about to vanish in a haze of gun smoke.”

Before he could answer the call to professional golf, Tommy was compelled to fulfill his call to service.  WWI had broken out and introduced the world to a new terror of industrial war-time innovation - the tank.  These iron giants roamed the front lines like mechanical monsters, and young Tommy would be among the first tank gunners for the Allied forces to face them head on in France.  He rose quickly through the ranks of the Tank Corp, earning many medals for bravery and the reputation as the “fastest machine gunner in the British Army.”  Lifelong friend and future PGA star Bobby Cruikshank, who served alongside Tommy in France, later recounted the infamous story of how Tommy single-highhandedly captured a German tank and strangled the German officer to death with his bare hands when he refused to disarm.  His military career, however, was cut short by a mustard gas explosion which rendered Tommy blind in both eyes.  Months later he would slowly regain use of his right eye, however his left eye was rendered virtually useless for the rest of his life.  With metal plates in his arm and skull, along with the loss of his depth perception, a post war career in any kind of precision sport - especially golf, seemed impossible.

After the war, his good fortune returned when, on a voyage to the states, Tommy crossed paths with another up and coming golfer; none other than Walter Hagen.  The ‘Haig’ took a liking to Tommy and, by the time they entered New York harbor, Tommy had talked his way into a job at the Westchester-Biltmore Club as the ‘club pro’, with Hagen’s recommendation.  Soon, Tommy had adjusted his game to compensate for the loss of his right eye, and once again gained a reputation as one of the best golfers around.

The man who had mastered the iron giants of war torn Europe seemed equally lethal on the fairways.  With his powerful hands, Tommy could compensate nearly every other facet of his golf game with superhuman power and precision in his iron game.  It is said that he could tear a deck of cards in half.  To put his strength in context, Jack “the Manassa Mauler” Dempsey, Heavyweight boxing Champion of the world from 1919-1926, challenged Tommy to prove his strength during a smoky social gathering.  Tommy, always the showman, grabbed a billiard cue by the tip and held it out level at arm’s length.  The Manassa Mauler picked up the tab that night. 

By the time he had turned pro, Tommy was a naturalized US citizen and had earned a reputation as a fierce competitor.  To add to his many amateur and exhibition titles, he had 27 professional tour victories that included two Majors; the U.S. Open in 1927, the PGA championship in 1929.  Never one to be singularly labeled, his career would see him earn many titles ranging from “war hero” to “master storyteller”.  His famous ‘iron-like’ hands, which were once described as resembling a ‘bunch of bananas,’ also knew the gentle touch required to play the violin, which he did at a concert level.  Sports author Ross Goodner said of him: "At one time or another, (Tommy Armour) was known as the greatest iron player, the greatest raconteur, the greatest drinker and the greatest and most expensive teacher in golf."   

When I look at those old photographs of my grandfather, I see a quiet confidence in his eyes that seems to define a forgotten generation.  The sheer effort and determination required to get ahead - not just as a golfer, but in any field of the depression era, is a lesson we can all benefit from today as we consider what it is we hope to accomplish in our own lives.  I wonder how clear the line between what is ‘right’ and what is ‘easy’ has been in the decisions of my past.  The thought of my grandfather on that fateful day; a man who had already attained the success and reputation as a master of his craft, yet boldly sacrificing not only a decent score, but the entirety of any hopes of contention in pursuit of ‘the right shot’, is one of the most prized images I hold in my heart.  To have such a clearly defined stage by which to confront all the subtle influences and conflicting motivations of a man’s character is a rare moment, and I believe any good student of life can benefit from a little introspection during trying times. 

With friend and golf student Babe Ruth
The ability to hold ones composure under stress is one of the most admirable and useful traits among men, and, in the world of golf, more valuable than anything you can buy at the pro shop.  My grandfather had the kind of grit and moxy in his soul which made him as well suited for the chaos and smoke of a battlefield as he was for the heart pounding pressure of a 18 hole playoff.  It is a testament to the bloodline to point out that my brother, Tommy Armour III, currently holds the PGA record for best total score in a 4 day tournament.  What irony it is to know stubborn determination has led two Armours - a generation apart - to set two PGA records; the ‘best’ round of golf , and the ‘worst’ hole of golf.  While his accomplishments and bravado are envious alone, it was his stubborn resolve that I found most impressive.  A single hole, nor a single tournament, was worth changing his fundamental belief to always strive for excellence; no matter how impossible a task it may seem.

I am not a golfer, nor am I half the things my grandfather was, but I have always been a good student.  Above all the great titles he held, ‘teacher’ is the one that has forever attached itself to his legacy. When I think of the collective gasps of the crowd as they watched him set the world record for ‘worst hole in golf history,’ I am reminded of ‘The Road Not Taken,’ by Robert Frost.
I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.
It is widely understood that Frost meant his decision to take the path of the few had lead him to a different destination than those who took the more popular route, but I disagree.  He tells us this with a ‘sigh’, as if to say the decisions of our past do not weight on one or two diversions through the woods – we will end up at the same clearing given the lengthy stroll of our lives.  Rather, it is the willingness to diverge – the scars we gain by foraging on through the thicket of our doubts and fears that will define us in the twilight of our lives. 

As in life, the ‘right thing to do’ can be an inconvenient observation.  It might be the knowledge that we must sacrifice for a greater good, or for the deeply instilled instinct of ‘self-preservation’.  Most men can shake it off in the name of ‘practicality.’ Most men want to make par – not to risk a comfortable life for the slim chance of a glorious one.  Most men quit when they know they cannot win, or abandoned their principles in times of great struggle. Most of us compromise, some more than others. Most men, however, are not legends.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

La Mar

image © Gabriel Burchman

He was a young man adrift in a small boat twelve miles off the coast of Moloka’i.  The faint outline of Lanai shrunk in his wake as the horizon came to life in the rays of the morning sun, burning a thin line of yellow on the endless waters ahead.  He lay sidelong on the bench, resting his head on a rolled up tarp used in sudden downpours.  His eyes, which shone bright green under his brow, were affixed on the distant peaks of a dormant volcano, the Halekala, off his stern.  He rested one foot on the steering arm of a small outboard motor, keeping it perfectly aligned on a narrow course navigated by no more than tendrils of light through the peaks and the occasionally nudge of his heel.  

            Everything about the man spoke of confidence on the open sea.  His demeanor was relaxed, his actions deliberate and resolute.  At the age of five he saw his first marlin pulled from the deep blue waters off the coast of Havana by his mentor and, in an instant, his love affair with the ocean was solidified.  The wonder and awe of that fish quickly turned to panic as it began to thrash about the tiny skiff, nearly tearing the boat to pieces and threatening bodily harm with ever swipe of the bill and whip of the tail.  With a few smooth and deliberate lashes of his club, the old man had once again brought stillness to the boat, comforting the trembling boy with a wink and a grin.  “This fish is our brother and deserves a dignified end,” he said, a fresh mist of blood coloring his face. “You must steady your mind and act out of love, not fear.  This boat is not unlike your small body; act swiftly when the time comes, otherwise fear will tear your tiny vessel apart, making you ill equipped to travel such vast expanses as the sea…or the many years of a lifetime.”

            The boat reached a point where the sun had chased away the remains of darkness causing the man to stir for the first time since leaving the channels of Lahania.  He sat up, throttled back the motor to a slow crawl and scanned the horizon.  A small plastic hula dancer near the bow cleat swayed gently at the hip in response to the change in momentum.  His cheeks were the color and texture of supple leather and they pushed up against the folds of his eyes as he squinted from the shimmer of the water, creating premature wrinkles that trickled down his face like those of a worn billfold.  Smiling, he cut the throttle and closed his eyes as his tiny boat sliced through the gentle rolls of the waters.  With a deep breath he took in the salty air and exhaled loudly, opening his eyes as he began to set himself up.  

image © Gabriel Burchman
            The first order of business was to pull up a line that been affixed to the starboard cleat and remove the small tuna that had been kept fresh in the rushing water by a line looped in the pointed mouth, out of its silver gills, and knotted off to form a tight noose.  With a few turns of his knife the man carved three chunks of meat, two of which he placed to the side and the largest of which was laced on the end of a crooked hook.  He twirled the meat overhead like a lasso and released it off the bow, sending the spool of heavy line into the air like a bolt of heat lighting chasing across a stormy sky.  The line consisted of two standard lengths spliced together by a blood knot, a technique he had learned from the old man to lengthen the reserve line.  He plunged the rod into a hollow pipe welded to the anchor mount, leaving the rig towering overhead like the mast of a sailboat.  Pleased, he sat back and reached for a small tin can nestled deep in the engine.  With the tips of his fingers he quickly removed the can, which had been kept warm by the heat of the carburetor, popped open the lid and smelled the rich aroma of coffee.  “Fish,” the man said aloud, “today is a special day and I want so much for you to join me!”  The man rarely spoke on the water, as silence was a virtue while at sea; however out here alone he felt it almost rude not to introduce his presence in some way to his fellow ocean travelers.  The smell of the coffee reminded him of home and he smiled as he drank in the warm glow of the morning. 

            As a boy, he would wake up far before sunrise and run to the kitchen, where he would grind fresh beans and brew a pot of coffee on the stovetop, filling the entire kitchen with a wonderful bittersweet smell.  His father had long since abandoned any attempt to take the boy with him to work in the sugar cane fields, as the boy was single minded in his pursuit to become a fisherman.  With a steaming thermos of hand ground coffee and a few ham croquettes saved from the previous night’s dinner in the pocket of his coat, the boy would race through the streets towards the docks, just as the roosters began to wake the rest of Havana.  The same newspaper vendor would smile at the boy in recognition as he made his way through town, darting past the drunks which littered the sidewalk outside of the all night cantina.  Once on the waterfront he would remove a stack of thimble sized plastic cups from his coat and go from slip to slip offering the strong brew of Cuban coffee to dock workers and street sweepers.  For a quarter he would pour a shot; equal parts espresso and sugar straight from his father’s fields, a nickel would get you a second.  No matter how much demand he met, he always left the last few shots for his mentor.  Together, they would load the boat with gear and he would offer the handful of shiny earnings to the old man in payment.  This ritual would make the old man smile and shake his head as they rowed out past the harbor into a golden sunrise.

            “Fish,” he exclaimed, eyes wide and animated, “I hope you have rested and are as ready for me as I am for you!”  He was in good spirits as this was his maiden voyage on the tiny boat which he had purchased from a former employer just the day before.  In his youth he would charge out of the docks and stop just a few miles off shore in eager anticipation to begin the days haul.  But now, older and wiser, he knew to avoid the competition of the shallower waters and head much further out.  The true treasures of the sea, as in life, require patience and faith found deep in the abyss of the unknown.   Now he enjoyed the journey and rested, admiring the company of spinner dolphins and breaching humpbacks as they followed him through the water.  With his line set and the coffee warming his body, he sat looking back towards the faint beacon of a buoy near land, the light blue path of his wake slowly eroding the past and joining it to the present.

            His days fishing as a boy were cut short when his father forbade him to continue learning from the old man, who had gone so long without a single fish he felt him to be truly unlucky.  His father sent him to help his uncle in the fields of a “cafetale,” a coffee plantation where his uncle taught him the hard work involved with picking the beans he so loved to smell.  Conditions were harsh and not meant for a boy with hands as smooth as his, but his father hoped he would learn structure and a strong work ethic as the calluses began to appear on his hands; just as he had gained working in the sugar fields.  The boy worked very hard which pleased his father and, over time, grew to appreciate the work as that which a man must do to provide.  Still, not a day went by that he did not dream how beautiful the sea looked when painted by the midday sun. 

When he was not lending his body to harvest the fruits of the earth, the boy was honing his fishing skills at twilight, navigating to and from port by the glow of Havana.  His eyes became accustomed to night fishing and he felt very happy to live out the rest of his days this way; earning a wage along with his father’s pride by day and rolling in the moonlit tides at night.  Although the cafeteles tired his body, he was revitalized at the onset of dusk with the hope of a big haul which he would bring to his mentor and friend who, now too old and frail for the indifference of the sea, had given the boy his wooden skiff despite much protest and insistence on paying for it.  The man loved the boy as a son and needed no great gesture or fanfare for such an act.  He felt safe and carefree adrift in that boat, every square inch of wood soaked in memories and seasoned from the oil and scales of past bounties; however the social tides of the day were making it hard to ignore the storm gathering on the horizon. 

 Just before his sixteenth birthday, the tensions of a changing state and the ever present fear of a future under Castro’s regime had driven his father to action.  The boy was awoken suddenly in the night and hurried into the bed of truck, where his father clutched him tightly as they lay amongst chicken wire and wooden crates, which shed tiny white feathers as the truck sped off.  It happened so quickly the boy might have believed it to a dream; the white feathers dancing in front of his face like a shaken snow globe as he looked up at the moon.  He tried to speak, to ask what was going on; but was met with his father’s calloused hand clamped around his mouth and a tighter, more urgent embrace.  After a short and confusing ride, the boy could be certain this was no dream as he found himself alone on a dock watching the truck drive off the way it came, his tattered shirt damp from the cold steel of the truck bed and his pockets stuffed with what little U.S. dollars his father had collected.  The boy stared at his father as the truck slowly absorbed into the darkness of the night.  They held a gaze suspended in time; a moment between them more insightful than all the moments that preceded it.  A short time later he was rushed into a small vessel that sat idle at the dock.  Known as the “Camarioca boatlift,” The U.S. coast guard had guided convoys of private boats wishing to rescue friends and family from the turmoil of Castro’s regime and bring them back to Key West.  A distant cousin had agreed to pick the boy up and they sped away in the night surrounded by the flashing beacons of heavily armored coast guard vessels, making him one of the last Cuban exports to be welcomed onto American soil.  He now traveled at night using only moonlight, so as to avoid the painful memory of his father in the bed of that truck; a stern and hopeful expression on a face betrayed by eyes that could not hold back the sorrow of their circumstances. 

            The shrill cry of a seabird broke his gaze, which had been focused on the quivering tip of his rod. 
image © Gabriel Burchman
“Fish”, he pleaded, “now is not the time to hesitate!  Take the meat and be full!”  His eyes followed the taught line down from the sky where, ever so subtly, it pulsated on the surface of the water like an erratic heartbeat.  He closed his eyes and reached out to put two fingers on the line like a harp player, using his body to resonate the vibrations from the deep and translate them into a mental image.  After a short time he opened his eyes and let go of the line, sighing as he took a piece of the tuna that he had carved and sliced it into thin strips, placing them in a shallow bowl.  “Ahhh, you must be very full or very cleaver to resist something as tasty as fresh tuna!”  He reached in a bag and pulled out a lime, cut it in half, and squeezed it over the raw strips of fish, submerging them in a mixture of citrus and saltwater.  He had found the local Hawaiians made a similar dish called “Pokē,” which substituted sesame oil and soy sauce for the citrus, but he much preferred the acidic bite from the lime.  He felt the sting of the juice as it soak into the small cuts of his palm and he brought the hand to his mouth to taste the bittersweet memories as they dripped down his forearm.

            If Havana was the soil by which the boy had begun to grow, Key West was the hard ground by which he fell onto prematurely.  Just like the small indigenous limes which had a strong bite and thinner skin than the more common variety, so too did the boy become strong and bitter on the inside; his size stunted by the sudden removal from the land which had nourished him.  The town, although limited in its industry and confined to only a four mile square radius, was a place where a fisherman could thrive.  The salvage divers and longshoremen were unlike the noble old man who taught him to revere the ocean and all her treasures; they buzzed around the docks like sharks in a feeding frenzy, setting out to sea with plunder in their hearts.  Although he had more knowledge of fishing than many men twice his age, no boat was willing to give him work, as he appeared much too small and fragile for the labor required at sea.  Time and necessity left him resigned to washing dishes and cleaning tables at a bar in the heart of Duval Street.  Days passed and the harsh smell of bleach-soaked rags began edging out the rich memories of home, sterilizing whatever youthful optimism still remained inside. 

            One of the unfortunate realities of life is that pain, both physical and emotional, acts as the catalyst for growth.  A muscle must be ripped in order to become stronger; our souls must endure darkness in order to see the full spectrum of the light.  Two years had gone by when news of his father’s disappearance reached Key West.  Castro had polarized Cuba, turning neighbors against one another and leaving many families torn apart by the militant regime.  One night his father was questioned about his involvement in the Camarioca boatlift, the next morning he did not show up for work in the sugar fields.   While the boy loved his father and missed him very much, something inside him had dried up, leaving behind a soul too salty for grieving.  He had paid his dues over the years and now worked behind the bar, absorbing the hard-bitten mentality of the fishermen who came in at night to drink and fight like drunken pirates.  Four hours passed before he excused himself out the backdoor and walked down the alley towards the water.  A hard rain caused the shirt to cling against his back and the moon shone bright, illuminating the rain all around him.  He remembered that last night with his father, his back cold and damp from the steel truck bed, feathers dancing around him like snowflakes in the sky.  He sat there on the break wall and, for the first time in a long time, felt the sea calling him to head out from stagnant waters and into her deep unknown.  

image © Gabriel Burchman
            Suddenly, and without warning, the line snapped tight causing the man to startle from his daydream and lean instinctively towards the port side, counterbalancing the heavy strain pulling from the deep.  “Brother,” he yelled, “I thought you had left me!”  The reel screamed as he steadied himself, reaching for the rod with legs set firm against the starboard side.  The line had continued to feed from the eyeholes and he knew in his heart down below was a “grander”; a monster marlin over 1000lbs found only out in deep waters.  He grabbed the rod and arched his back, bearing the strain on his muscles as he and the boat were pulled towards land, as if by a stubborn dog on a leash.

It was with similar determination that he himself had been lead towards the islands.  Although the late hours at the bar did not afford him the harmony of Havana’s coffee fields at dawn and the harbor at dusk, he had been anchored to Key West.  A part of him had hoped that, one day, his father would walk in; suitcase in hand and a smile on his face.  While the news of his father’s fate had pulled that anchor free, it did little to change his disposition.  No longer a boy, he had grown accustomed to his circumstances and made peace with it.  The regulars kept him entertained and their stories of the sea seemed to supplement his dreams of joining them.  His favorite patron; a writer with big broad shoulders and a shock of white hair, would sit at the bar telling stories until empty pint glasses lay before him like bowling pins, in danger of being knocked over by his constant swaying.  The young man would listen to accounts of backyard boxing matches and fishing adventures from the Gulf Stream upon his boat, “The Pilar”.  The stories made him smile and think of his friend, the old man who had taught him to look beyond the vastness of an endless ocean and see the treasures that wait for those with faith.  The thought of his old mentor along with the loss of his father seemed to stir something inside; like the clashing between climates that twist and turn together to bring the wind by which our sails depend. 

            The abrupt downpours of Key West brought diversity to the usual bar crowd, as tourists would rush in to avoid the rain and pass the time with drinks.  On one such night, the young man was cleaning glasses with his back to the door as the old writer recounted a battle with the biggest fish he ever hooked.  Just as he was reaching the climatic ending, he suddenly was quiet.  The young man spun around with the intention of cursing the patron for leaving him in suspense, but instead, stood breathless as he saw the reason for the sudden silence.  A beautiful girl, tanned skin with long dark hair and almond shaped eyes, had walked up to the bar and smiled at the young man, who stood as solid as an oak.  “You must excuse my friend,” the writer said, “for I seem to have bored him into paralysis with my fishing tales.”  She blushed, her eyes jumping from the floor to the young man’s admiring expression.  “Please, take my seat,” he said, as he stood and patted the bar stool, “won’t you sit and breath some youth back into this fine young man?”  She thanked him and sat down as the young man fumbled to pour her a glass of wine.  He set the glass in front of the girl and gave a smile to his friend.
“And you, can I offer you a beer?” 
“Why not,” the old man grinned, tilting his head towards the girl, “between fishermen.”  He took the full pint and gave a deep nod to the young couple, leaving them smiling awkwardly at one another.  Finally, the young man spoke.
“Hi,” he managed, “My name is Manolin.”

The fish below was unwavering and the young man fought furiously with the rod to keep control of his small boat, which had been pulled through the water for the past three hours like a matador snagged upon the horns of an angry bull.  His muscles were fatigued and sore, but his eyes remained bright and optimistic.  “Fight all you want my brother,” he growled through clenched jaws, “I many not be as strong as I think, but I know many tricks and I have resolution.”  The sun beat down on the water setting it ablaze, causing sweat to pour from his brow.  Just when he felt the struggle was too great, he heard the confident voice of his old mentor beside him; “What is to give light must enduring burning.”  He ignored the pain and smiled wildly at the impending showdown.  

image © Gabriel Burchman
            They talked until the rain had long-since stopped and all the drunks had spilled out into the night.  He locked up and they walked arm in arm down the back alley away from the crowd and lights of the strip.  The sidewalk was dark and wet, and they walked along it to the break wall at the edge of town, passing street lights which poured an amber glow onto the black, wet brick of Mallory square.  They walked out across the wet grass and onto the stone break wall.  He spread a newspaper and they sat, looking back across the dark water of the marina where they could see the faint outline of a great cruise liner. She had been at sea for two months before arriving that morning on the cruise ship, where she performed nightly as a hula dancer.  The wind was high up and took the clouds across the moon, causing the ship to loom ominously in front of them like a mountain silhouetted against the amber backdrop.  He stared out at it for a long time, imagining her on it, sailing away.  When he could no longer stand it, and tears began to gloss his vision, he turned to her and was met with her lips.  She kissed him sweetly, and he put his hand to her soft, wet face.  He sat with her there until her early morning call to board the ship and then watched the boat slip away into the grey sky morning. 

            The next evening he went about his duties behind the bar.  “What’s the matter with you?”  The writer asked, noticing the defeated look on his face.  The young man told him of their evening, how alive he felt when he was with her, and ultimately how circumstance had once again knocked him back down to the hard ground.  The old man studied him for a beat before getting up and leaving, not saying a word.
            “Thanks for nothing you old drunk!” He shouted, angry at his indifference.  Hours passed and the crowds came in and went out like the tides, until he was once again alone with his sorrow. The door opened and the old man slowly made his way to the bar, set an envelope down and stood there, his eyes searching the weathered grain of the wooden counter.
            “There is a thin line between an old man and an old fool,” he said, his voice low and measured. “I lost the Pilar six years ago in a poker game.  I haven’t been on a boat since; much less chased any marlin out in the gulf.” The young man gave him a confused look.  “There was a time when I came close to the man from my stories, fearless and hell bound.  But time has a way blurring the boarders between aspirations and actions.”  His head tiled slightly towards the stack of empty pint glasses.  “And those don’t help much any!”  The young man smiled, hoping to see his friend return the levity.  He looked up, his eyes heavy from years of regret.  “The truth is they all got away…all the big fish I’ve ever hoped to catch.  I’ve resigned myself to this stool right here, re-writing the past in my mind, night by night, pint by pint.”  The young man stood breathless as the writer smiled, got up and walked away, stopping at the door.  “When the time comes, let your actions be guided by love, not fear.  Act swiftly, or the latter will have you seated next to me someday.”  Before another word could be said he walked out into the night.  The young man watched him slip away before finally noticing the envelope before him.  Inside he found three crisp $100 bills and a handwritten note which read; “have the boy report to work tomorrow at Mallory square upon the SS Leeward, 6am sharp.  I have secured a spot for him as a deckhand until his replacement arrives on board in Maui.”  His eyes went wide, jumping to the bottom of the page with excitement.  “P.S., let me know when you want to play another game of poker!”

            The tension on the line increased exponentially, showing the erratic stirrings of a fish ready for its final stand.  The reel moaned with every swift jerk from below, unspooling itself inch by inch until only a few yards remained before reaching the blood knot connecting it to the reserve line. “Come now, fish,” he shouted, “You are in good company! Let us meet eye to eye, brother to brother!”  The line went out parallel to the water as the fish swam out towards the sun, which had fallen just above the horizon. 

The salt air filled the young man’s lungs once again as he stood on deck watching his last sunset on the Atlantic.  His sail was full and pushed him further out into the vast expanse than ever before, his past receding in the fading wake of the cargo ship as it neared the Panama Canal.  He sat and wrote a long letter to an old friend until the crimson canvas of the sky faded subtly into the dark blue palette of night.  The letter went out with the bulk mail on its way to Cuba just as his journey crossed over into warmer waters.  After arriving on Maui a few weeks later, he spent nearly all his time aboard a local charter boat, re-training his hands to tie precision knots and learning from the rich local traditions.  His captain, a stout and jovial Hawaiian man, had hired him on the spot; recognizing in the young man an invaluable reverence and understanding of the sea.  The captain spoke in short, jab-like sentences, his voice soaring high above the roaring engines in a singsong tone.  The first mate, a native of Moloka’I, protested that the young man’s presence was forbidden, or “kapu,” as the ocean and religion were all but synonymous in their culture.  They worked in silence, except for the occasional sidelong glare from the native, which was quickly broken by the captain’s sharp tongue.  The young man’s expertise and skill eventually earned him a mutual respect on board; creating a successful dynamic between men raised by the sea and respectful enough to behave in her presences.  

Four months passed before, one afternoon, the captain surprised the young man with a small brown package addressed to; “Manolin – c/o the SS Leeard port of call – Lahaina.”  The young man read the attached note and, before the captain could say a word, repaid the surprise by offering him a week’s pay for his old wooden skiff, which had been tied up and neglected at the end of the dock for months.  The captain saw resolve in his eyes and, although not sure what to make of the overly generous offer, shook his hand firmly with a smile.

His past and present had converged like the tides to bring him to this moment; adrift in a small wooden boat under the same golden sky he remembered as a boy, indifferent to our measures of time and distance.  He set his feet firmly against the bow and arched his back with a grunt, the rod digging into his ribcage causing every ounce of the great fish to resonate thought his whole body.  They fought back and forth like two brothers with opposing goals, tethered together by a mere length of line.  The water began to churn ahead, brief streaks of silver and blue glinting just under the surface as he struggled to close the distance between them.  With his left hand gripped firmly on the mid-point of the rod, he leaned back in an attempt to pry the fish closer, coaxing him to jump from the water and fill the air sacs along his back, making it all but impossible to dive back down into the deep.  He was now twenty yards away from the whirlpool ahead, when the water became suddenly still.  With eyes wide in anticipation he watched the glassy surface for the breach, but instead felt the rod jerk violently downwards; the reel a blur as the spool of line went out once again.  The boat dipped towards the starboard side and he stood straight up with one foot on the bench, shifting his weight towards his back leg for balance.  Just as quickly as it had dipped, the boat recoiled suddenly and rocked to the port side, sending the young man through the air and landing on his back in the bed of the boat.  All around him the water had become a sheet of golden glass, peaceful and serene.  He looked towards his hands, cut and bloody against the rod, and notice the reserve line still coiled in the reel; the blood knot connecting the two lines frayed just at the end where it had given way.  

image © Gabriel Burchman
He lay motionless looking up at the sky, relaxing his body and mind.  The cool water relieved tense muscles in his back and shoulders and caused a mist of steam to arise from skin like the smoldering remains of a fire.  The sun had slipped beyond the horizon, painting the day’s swan song against a gilded sky, and he sat up to take in the serenity all around him.  He took a deep breath and exhaled loudly, turning his gaze to the small brown package tucked away under the coil of rope used as the forward spring line.  With a careful hand he opened the box removing its contents; a small coffee canister, a framed picture of the sacred heart of Jesus, another of the Virgin of Cobre, and a letter. He unfolded the letter and read it slowly to himself, as he had done the day before.

I am writing on behalf of your intended recipient, Santiago.  My name is Domingo and I own the small shack which my former tenant, and your old friend, resided at for many years.  I regret to inform you that Santiago passed away some time ago.  He had very few belongings, of which I have included in this package for you.  Santiago was an isolated and quiet man, but when he did talk of a friend, it was your name he spoke.  I run a small newspaper stand in town and remember you as a boy; running through the streets of Havana on your way to the docks, do you recall?  It was your coffee that I looked forward to every morning, so rich and smooth!  If only Santiago could see what distance your letter has traveled, it would surely make him smile, as only you could.  Your youth kept him going for many years.  I cannot speak on behalf of our friend, but if I could I would say this; continue to chase what it is you seek out there in the deep, but keep an eye on the horizon.  A man makes his own path in life, each course leading towards a different ending to his story.  May your journey be filled with memories far too abundant for the confines a small box, your story remembered as more than that of our friend; an old man, and the sea. 


            He placed the letter to the side and took the canister in his hands, removing the lid to reveal the dark, ashy powder inside.  He studied it appraisingly, taking stock of all it contained; the memory of a man betrayed by a weight no greater than a handful of sand.  He thought of his father, and how much he wished to hold something tangible of his in order to say goodbye in this way.  But life is like water; we cannot control its currents, but instead must adjust our sails to navigate our way between storms.  “I had hoped our friend could join us,” he said, looking out towards the horizon. “But I am rusty, my hands cannot tie the master knots they once could…the way you could.”  He looked down towards the rod, its bloody handle surrounded by a nest of frayed line spilling from the reel.  “You taught me much about life; to have faith on the lonely journey out to deep waters.  I want you to know I have found my fish, and set my course accordingly.  Tomorrow I will go inland, towards the coffee fields of this valley isle and set down roots.”  He held the canister over the bow and emptied its contents overboard, creating a floating patch of ash contrasted against the shimmering water.  “Go now and be with your brothers.  Don’t worry old man, I will visit often.  With enough luck I will bring with me that which I chase…she returns in 84 days.” 

He watched the ash dissolve on the surface, on its way down into the deep.  With a final nod, he started the motor and circled the boat around, aligning his bow with the faint outline of the island in the distance.  Once again he lay sidelong on the bench, his head rested on the rolled up tarp, his eyes focused towards the faint glow of Lahaina visible just beyond the gentle swaying of the small plastic hula dancer on his bow.  The surface grew still in his fading wake, except for a small patch of churning water where the ash had vanished towards the deep.  The young man sat straight up, alarmed by a sound heard over the motor and turned back towards the horizon, just in time to see a splash of water reaching high up in the air.  Something big had breached. 

 original oil on gold leaf © Gabriel Burchman     

Images by Gabriel Burcham are original oils on gold leaf.  For more info on this Maui based artist and his work visit

Saturday, January 11, 2014

My keeper

It is somewhat difficult to pin down the particular memory that I can claim to be “my first”.  Like the other “firsts” of a man’s life, I find mind myself trying to separate fact from glorious fiction as to the origin and details of the event.  When it comes to my early childhood in Vegas, there are quick glimpses of places, sounds, and smells that I can call up to piece together a rough collage…like walking through the editing room of my mind and finding my life a few frames at a time.  There are the short adventure clips of the desert lot across from our home where we would search for snakes and scorpions, the sight of red mountains dancing on the horizon from the heat of the midday sun, and the steady buzz of cicada bugs sounding the alarm that dusk was approaching.  But, no matter what memory I pick up from the back room of my mind, there is one unifying theme that has caused me to earmark an event as “memorable”; I was with my big brother, Paul.

The early years of our life are somewhat of a blur.  We lived in Las Vegas, had a home in Sun Valley Idaho, and a very nice boat in the O.C. (don’t call it that!) California.  There are snapshots of all these places but, in the mind of a youth with no reference point, they all seemed to be “home”.  I have fond memories of trying to seek out and destroy red ants in the neighboring lot by our home in Vegas, searching for small critters in the mud at our Sun Valley, Idaho place in order to wretch them from their muddy homes and toss them at my brother, and finally combing the docks of Newport Beach for crabs that I could snatch with my dinosaur-shaped grabber and smash against the docks…and no, I did not go to therapy, why do you ask? Regardless of where I was, I think at an early age I realized I had a partner in crime that was strong, much stronger than I.  In times of distress, it was clear that Paul would always be a pillar of strength to lean on and the person in my life who I could count on no matter what.  There are many examples of his strength thought those years, but one sticks out among the rest as “memorable”, probably because it rides the coattails of my mind as the first time I heard the verbalization of the “F” word.  You know it, I know it, but 6 year old Jock knew it only as “that word which shall not be named.”

 It happened on a typical weekend; no school, just a couple days filled with as much adventure as the adjacent desert lot had to offer.  Paul and I were doing our perimeter check of the lot, making sure the red ants had not staged an offensive against our home-team black ants, when all of a sudden a group of neighbor kids appeared in the distance.  Our block had a social hierarchy that would make Sun Tzu proud, and this day raised the red flag of newcomers that had not been a part of our past military etiquette, leaving us vulnerable and defensive.  We tried our best to reason, but when push came to shove, these heathens did not accept our olive branch and an all-out dust battle was waged.  We were frantically hurling stones and slabs of dried earth comprised of rocks and sand, which lay at our feet like peanut brittle baked in the scorching sun.  Between offensives, we hid behind stationary bulldozers and backhoe’s, laughing and reveling in the somewhat entertaining war game between neighbors.  And then, it happened.  A rock the size of a holiday ham hit me right in the temple, knocking me to the ground and sending a stream of blood into my eyes.  Before I knew it I was being dragged across the street from the desert to the tall gates of our home.  With dirt and blood caked to the side of my face I remember looking at my brother who was desperately leading me to safety and seeing a fire behind his eyes that I had never seen before. He had a look that did not belong to a child having fun or playing a game…this was a look of a protector with both compassion for me and utter rage towards my attacker.  When I finally asked him what they did he looked at me and, with hellfire in his heart, said; “FUCK them!”  It was that reaction that made me realize what it meant to be his little brother. 

                Paul and I were left to grow up under my fathers’ reignited hope to raise a doctor and a lawyer.  He was a great man, our father.  A graduate of Columbia university, he was a captivating man and arguably the hardest working and most revered general surgeon in Las Vegas.  He held a presence wherever he went with his infectious charm and obvious intelligence.  When I look back at a prized memory of him; such as lying on the couch in his den while he sat at his empty desk telling me stories, I have to pause and wonder if such events happened, or if my imagination simply filled in the gaps I had as a result of his all-consuming career.  Perhaps my memory betrays me in an attempt to protect the young boy who would sit in an empty den staring out at the driveway or lay on that couch while the best doctor in all of Las Vegas sat in silence at a cluttered desk wading through stacks of journals and papers.  Maybe these memories are an unfair representation of the truth and, as a result, are more likely to be among the first examples of a rich imagination rather than memories.  It is fair to say, however, that even those blurry and unclear events are memories I would not want to forget, whether they be fact or fiction.  All parents are teachers; they bestow knowledge and character on us through all sorts of lessons and events…some are pleasant and some sting.  But, in the end, the piece of armor tempered in fire comes out stronger than that which has not felt heat.

Sometimes I find myself inside my own head, reflecting on fragments of a memory and desperately trying to piece them back together.  Most of the time it is to reconstruct wonderful events such as playing with my old dogs or places like the secluded stream we named “Stoney corner;” a peaceful little refuge where Paul and I would skip stones as our mother would sit on the exposed roots of a giant willow tree, watching us with eyes filled with pride and love.  I never subscribed to the image of heaven as some floating pillow in the sky, a white and sterile place amongst the clouds devoid of the color and life with the ability to form tapestries in my mind from a single visit to the waters edge.  There was no need to supplement the idea of heaven in my heart…not after spending those many afternoons at Stoney corner.

      There are, however, times I seem to dwell on a memory that is less than divine.  Just like that scab you can’t help but pick at, these memories are scratched to the surface in an attempt to see just how red and angry they can get.  Shortly after my parents divorced we celebrated our first ever Christmas abroad.  Our mother had fixed up her cozy flat on the outskirts of Edinburgh with all the holiday comforts.  Decorations adorned the living room and the soul embracing smells of spiced teas and sizzling breakfast meats woke us on Christmas morning.  There was a rustic feeling to that place which cannot be recreated without the brick roads and quaint village down below our drive which captured all the simplicity and beauty of an old impressionist painting.  Under our tree were a mound of gifts, spilling out from the corner of the room and covering the floor like a big, shiny throw rug made of ribbons and bows.  Our mother was a master of the “Norman Rockwell holiday;” she has always had the knack to make every holiday feel like the most important day of all time.  Paul and I began ripping into the shiny sea like sharks on a feeding frenzy.  Our mother sat back in her chair enjoying the only gift she wanted; spending time with her boys.  We finally came to the gifts in the corner our dad had sent us.  Paul opened his to find a build-it-yourself model rocket or building kit…I can’t remember exactly.  All I know is he looked a little confused as this was not on his, nor any kid his ages’, list.  Attached was a note: “To my future architect!”  I remember being nervous as I peeled back the paper to my gift, hoping it was not do-it-yourself tax worksheet or a stack of graphing paper.  What I found instead was the one and only Nintendo Gameboy!  Oh, how happy I was and teased Paul for his dud gift as games like “paperboy” and “Metroid” were spilling from my tiny hands like square silver bullion.  The bittersweet lining came much later, as an adult looking back.  I had no note attached, no lofty ambition present in the subtext of my gift.  I pick at this memory because I wanted to see our reflection in his eyes; two sons…the doctor, and the boy who plays games.  Two boys; Calvin and Hobbes.

It is easy to let a memory like this twist and fester in your side. My conclusion was routed in a self-deprecating mood I happened to be in when I decided to call the memory up.  That is the dangerous thing about memories; they are objective…we are not.  The truth is, I got exactly what I asked for, and Paul got something very similar to his usual box of Legos.  I seemed to always get what I wanted, even on Pauls’ birthdays our parents would also get me a gift, so as to be “fair,” leaving him convinced I got the better gift and thus I was the “favorite”.  I was, but that is beside the point.  The close proximity of his birthday to the holidays would also result in the occasional single gift with a note that would let him know “this also counts as your birthday present”.  A more accurate account of what those two gifts represented would be an example of the pressure put on Paul at such a young age and the freedom I was given to follow my own path.  Paul had the grades and study habits that would surely lead him to big things; such as being a doctor…which he is.  I, on the other hand, would drawl all the wrong kind of attention from my early teachers and boarding school administrators.  There are plenty of stories and examples I could go into, the best of which is “the boards.”  At Loretto, the boarding school Paul and I attended while in Scotland, there were two boards posted in the common area listing everyone’s name next to a grid.  One board had red marks filled in next to the names which were awarded for outstanding academic achievements or an act that exemplified the conduct of a young gentlemen, which Loretto prided itself on producing.  The other board was reserved to make an example out of trouble makers…those who did not make their beds in the morning, argued with the teachers or would sneak out after dark.  The two years we went to that school Paul and I were constantly at the top; he lead the red board, and I the black.  You could put that board up at any point through our adolescent life and it would tell the same story.  Two young men; Apollo and Dionysus. 

                          Last summer I had a chance to look back on our past and spend time with memories such as these.  It was just a few days before Paul and Jamie, his amazing fiancé and wonderful sister in law, were to be married. Being the A type personality that he is, Paul was busy combing over the many details involved with the wedding.  In front of him lay a seating chart made of construction paper and color coded name tags which he was shuffling and evaluating with the concentration of a military general.  I sat on his couch and watched as he poured what seemed to be 100% of his energy into ensuring all these names sat at the ideal table based on their relationship to one another, their age, their interests…ect.  He always seemed to pour his entire being into small details like that, a trait I admire in him, although, judging by the stress and anxiety it caused him, he surely saw as a curse.  My only duty was to give the best man speech.  Any attempt to fit my words on note cards or in bullet points was quickly abandoned, as I have no problem recalling memories or positive words about my brother.  I thought about the journey we have been on together and how lucky I was to have his guidance through life and, when the time came, I spoke from the heart.  Standing there at that table looking down at my brother and sister-in-law, then across the room at all the smiling faces brought together to celebrate their future, I felt overwhelming pride for the life Paul had led.  His worries for a little brother with a star gazing personality that might impede a fulfilling career were no longer needed, as I had found my stride in life.  My worries that he would work and study his way through life and miss out on the more important things were long gone as we all watched he and Jamie take their first dance.  The night left me with a memory that I will surely call on for the rest of my life.  Two men; equal in fortune and fortitude.  

Also, today is his birthday…so this counts as his gift.