Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (10/19) — Chapter Ten, Camellia (4/5)

MY FAVORITE CAMELLIA BUSH is one whose pink blooms I’ve enjoyed every winter since boyhood. For the past week, it has been covered with blossoms and buds that should be blooming well into March.


BOONE, N.C. (Feb. 10, 2020) – I’m afraid that our camellia is cursed, and I’m not sure I should forgive Lowe’s Garden Center for selling it to us. After last week’s mild weather, I just knew that one huge bud, the only big one on our spindly little Kanjiro, for which we had paid $10.98 plus tax three months ago, would be open in all its roseate glory when we got off the mountain. But no. That bud was a dud.

The information card that came with our camellia—and is still attached to it—says it needs three to six hours of morning sun and moist soil its first year to bloom in the fall and winter of Planting Zone 7. We—or, rather, Timberley—had followed all the planting instructions, and I’d checked on its progress each weekend so that I could record that first beautiful pink blossom on our camellia, not on someone else’s.

CLOCKWISE FROM UPPER RIGHT: the bud that bit the big one; our little camellia against blooming daffodils; and half of perfection, from the Wilmington (N.C.) area’s Tidewater Camellia Club website before the organization’s annual show on Feb. 22-23.

A plant purchase at Lowe’s does carry a one-year guarantee, but I’m not sure I can find the receipt from our purchase, and we don’t register our phone number with every transaction, or swipe a Lowe’s loyalty card of some sort when we buy things there. I mean, why give Lowe’s our sales history to use or sell if the company isn’t going to give us something monetary in return as drugstores and grocers do?

The other day when I showed Timberley the disembodied bud, her immediate response was, “Oh, well. I guess it’ll bloom next year.” She was disappointed, but she hadn’t been counting on photographing the flower and using it to illustrate this very essay, as I’ve been planning to do for the past, oh, I don’t know, three months, ever since we bought the little booger. Yes, I actually plan these chapters carefully.

I imagine that’s one danger of having expectations of something or someone—in other words, of taking for granted situations that I can’t actually control (as if anything or anyone is within my actual control). Maybe it makes more sense to play the information card I’m dealt and just hope for the best. Maybe it’s better to be hopeful and then forgiving when I’m disappointed than to hold onto failure and frustration.

So Lowe’s, if you’re listening, I forgive you. We’ll be patient and wait until next year to start whining. We still love you, and we hope you still love us—considering that you’ve supplied all of our major appliances.

Maybe, as the old Don Henley song says, “I’m trying to get down to the heart of the matter … I think it’s about forgiveness … even if you don’t love me anymore.” The pop hit from 1989’s The End of the Innocence fades out with the lone Eagle basically chanting the word forgiveness over and over. Some 30 years later, forgiveness is still what we need most in this age of perfect lies and Teflon-coated shafts.

CLOCKWISE FROM UPPER LEFT: the second-ever weekly cover of Sports Illustrated; article on Morganton’s Billy Joe Patton featured in that edition; my collection of golf books and a photo of our favorite golf partner.

It’s like the game of golf. If you’re as bad as I am on the golf links, you’d better be forgiving—mainly of yourself—if you want to keep playing a sport that can be as frustrating as life itself. One of my favorite sports stories is Steven Pressfield’s The Legend of Bagger Vance. Its subtitle is A Novel of Golf and the Game of Life. It was published in 1995; the movie, directed by Robert Redford, was released in 2000.

When I read Bagger Vance for the first time about 15 years ago, I immediately recognized the story as an American Depression Era retelling of Hinduism’s most sacred text, the Bhagavad-gita. That wasn’t evident years earlier when we’d seen the film, starring Matt Damon, Will Smith and Charlize Theron. Without going into detail, the protagonist, a shell-shocked World War I hero and washed-up local golf champion, reluctantly battles golfing legends Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, with the help of Bagger Vance, an itinerant caddy who teaches the hero to find his “authentic swing” in both golf and life. The relationship is like that of the Gita‘s reluctant warrior who receives a visit and help from a Hindu god.

After reading the book, I sent Pressfield a quick email to express my appreciation and ask about some similarities in his story to various aspects of my novel, Night Lights; or, Golf, the Blues, and the Brown Mountain Light. We ended up exchanging a couple of notes, with me giving him the best short synopsis of Night Lights I’ve ever written, noting characters and settings similar to some in Bagger Vance. In his reply, the best-selling author and Duke alumnus wrote, “I guess your book shows that great minds think alike. (Or is it mediocre minds?) Anyway, that’s really wild.” I’m not sure why I never wrote to him again. I should have.

Beyond the religious implications, his story’s golf sequences reminded me of exploits by Morganton’s own local golf champion, Billy Joe Patton, a life-long amateur golfer who led three rounds of the 1954 Masters at the Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Club. Patton fell one stroke short of a playoff between next-generation pro legends Ben Hogan and eventual winner Sam Snead. After leading the first two rounds, Patton was trailing by five strokes at the start of the fourth and final round. A hole-in-one on the front nine put him back into contention. He took the lead entering “Amen Corner” on the back nine, then lost it as he left that stretch of sacred holes covering part of the 11th, all of the 12th and part of the hexed 13th.

In layman’s terms, Billy Joe had the choice of playing it safe or going for broke on his second shot on the par-four 13th hole, where a creek crosses in front of the putting green. If he laid up—hit a short ball to ensure he didn’t go into the creek—he’d have to land his next shot fairly close to the flagstick, then sink the ensuing putt to make par, keep his overall score the same and hold onto the lead. That wouldn’t have been too hard for him to do, but he had been playing loosely all week—as if he were back home at Mimosa Hills Golf Club—and his game, as well as the galleries of fans following him, had responded as never before to his folksy approach to this most buttoned-down of sports at its most revered course.

So Billy Joe went for the green with his second shot in hopes of birdieing the hole and extending his lead over Hogan and Snead, or, at worst, two-putting for a par and holding onto a share of the lead if Hogan later took the same chance for a possible birdie. The Morganton lumber dealer’s shot landed in the creek, causing him to double-bogey the hole and fall one stroke behind Hogan, who played it safe and parred the 13th. Billy Joe finished with a birdie, bogey and three pars to end one stroke behind the co-leaders. Snead won the next day’s playoff round by one stroke to claim the Masters green jacket.

That summer, months after his exciting near-miss at Augusta National, Billy Joe Patton was featured in the second-ever weekly edition of a new American magazine, Sports Illustrated, which, like most print publications, is now fighting for its printed life after a half century as popular sports’ premiere journal. Long-time SI editor Coles Phinizy authored that particular golf column, which the previous week, in the magazine’s debut edition, had featured Bobby Jones, golf’s greatest champion and, like Patton, an amateur his entire career. Also, Jones founded and helped design Augusta National and co-founded the Masters. He is the only golfer ever to win the Grand Slam—the top four tournaments—in one season.

Billy Joe, my hometown golfer, never claimed a major PGA title, although he did win multiple North and South Amateur, Southern Amateur, and Carolinas Open championships, just like the fictional local hero in Bagger Vance. In 1982, the United States Golf Association gave Patton the Bob Jones Award, the USGA’s highest honor in recognition of the Morganton native’s distinguished sportsmanship. Award winners since 1955 include the sport’s most famous names from Francis Ouimet, William C. Campbell and Babe Zaharias in the award’s earliest years on through the likes of Arnold Palmer, Byron Nelson, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Annika Sorenstam and 60 others to present day—a veritable Hall of Fame.

I wish that I had taken the time to meet Billy Joe, especially when I was a local journalist in our shared hometown. I knew who he was, and I think he might have been a member of our church—his funeral in January 2011 was held there, anyway. But I never wanted to bother him, not even after I had learned how great a golfer he’d really been and after I’d decided to name him and female amateur champion Aggie Morton Woodruff of Linville as two role models of my novel’s first-person narrator and golf-playing protagonist, Val Galloway. I didn’t try to retell the Bhagavad-gita or any other sacred writ; I tried to write a modern version of an Arthurian legend, like Perceval or Gawain and the Green Knight.

In Night Lights, Val Galloway learns to play golf on a humble par-three course in Brunswick County—much like the old Goose Bay Golf Links on the N.C. coast that I’ve mentioned before—and then she spends a summer in the mountains after suffering a tragic loss for which she feels responsible in part. Her quest isn’t for the Holy Grail, the cup of Christ; it’s to play historic Linville Golf Club, one of the state’s oldest courses, and to find forgiveness for what she had done—or not done—in her tragic past. So maybe Val is searching for a grail of sorts, as one of Christ’s messages was that we all can receive forgiveness for whatever transgressions we’ve committed against our fellow man if we ask for mercy.

My own history as a golfer is much like that of my Night Lights protagonist: I took up the sport in order to fill the emptiness left in my life by my younger brother’s death, not only to give me something to do by myself at home—hitting practice balls in the front yard with a stray six-iron I’d found somewhere—but also to provide an activity that might help me get past my loss and make new relationships. As I’ve said, I’m not a good golfer, never have been, and, in fact, I’ve never even cared much about my score or about establishing a handicap. But through the years I’ve had fairly good times playing with friends and family, except for ones who took hooked drives, sculled iron shots and missed putts much too seriously.

The subtitle of that old Sports Illustrated article about the ’54 Masters is: “Billy Joe Patton, the North Carolina lumberman, has proved it is possible to play good golf and still have a good time.” His ability to forgive himself for hitting into the water on the 13th hole at Amen Corner and then moving on was what “transcended golf,” according to Phinizy, who reported that Billy Joe saw his second shot sail into Rae’s Creek, then looked at some crest-fallen fans and said, “This is no funeral. Let’s smile again.”

In later years, I’m sure Billy Joe was smiling as he drove golf balls off mile-high Grandfather Mountain from the tee box named for him. It was a promotional stunt that allowed everyone from hackers to scratch golfers, as well as baseball slugger Mickey Mantle once, the chance to hit a ball for at least a mile. And it’s how Val Galloway’s story ends in Night Lights, a denouement I had settled on before plotting out that novel and writing even its first word.

Billy Joe’s admonition is worth repeating. “Let’s smile again.” Yes, we all need to “smile again” in this age of perfect lies and Teflon-coated corruption. Maybe it would help if we all spent more of our time on the golf course and less time navigating those other kinds of links. Maybe then we could learn to be more forgiving—of others and ourselves. After all, as another favorite writer, William Hallberg, said of golf’s allure for him, “It was a sport where you could never achieve perfection. There’s infinite room for improvement.”

Like in life. So let’s be forgiving. And let’s smile again.

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