July 6, 2009
John and I met in 1979 at a writer’s party, shortly after my first novel came out. My impression was clouded by nervous awe, but luckily it was summer and our conversation turned to golf, John’s passion, and my sport at our shared alma mater, Harvard. A week later I was out on a public golf course playing behind two carts full of beer-swilling guys whose swings seemed converted from hockey. There had been a mistake and we were a five-some. A six-some, actually. Another young writer, married, had brought along his petite blond girlfriend and spent a lot of time in the woods with her while we played on. Reappearing, flustered, they would walk along with her arm around his waist, her hand tucked neatly into the hip pocket of his jeans – a true Updikean touch.
You can tell everything about a person by the way they play a sport. In 30 years John and I spent at least 5,000 hours playing golf. We had a regular foursome, but often it was just John and I, walking along side-by-side, bags on our shoulders, talking. In golf, John was meticulous – our scorekeeper, cherishing those little yellow golf pencils; frugal, picking up pencils and tees; steady as a fair Christian but for an uncontrolled deviance into the raw sensuality of woods, briars, swamps, lakes, and sand traps; reliable on the greens; capable of astonishing flights of golf poetry and sudden crashes into golf trash – and really funny.
Once when he and I were teamed up against the other two and I complained of a bad back, he said: “I want you to know if helping the team means hurting your back, I want you to hurt your back.’’ Always on the fourth hole he would ask for medical advice; always the eighth fairway saw our “literature and career’’ chat, what we were reading and writing, the folly of both popular and literary taste. Often he would repeat something I said, and I knew I would soon see it in a book. He had an astonishing eye. One fall day he walked off the course to identify the last tree to turn color – I believe ash, or hickory.
Holes 10 through 18, with the wet, hot sun beating down, frayed our youthful start and saw a slippage of conversation. Despite the sudden heaviness of the bags and soreness of the joints, I never saw fatigue in John, never saw him yawn – he was just too damn interested in golf, and life. The 19th hole, in the cool, woodsy men’s bar, was jovial, John tallying up who owed what. We celebrated The Most Humiliating Moment of the Round, each of us offering an example – from someone else’s round. This John often won.
The last few years were not on the golf course, but at lunch. He timed our lunches to his delivery of boxes of his papers to Harvard’s Houghton Library. He always seemed shy announcing himself there – John was modest, but with a rock-solid confidence. Once, after a novel had gotten panned, I asked how he handled it. “They’re talking about my novel, not about me,’’ was his reply.
Last summer we had a belated joint-birthday lunch at John’s exclusive old-Yankee golf course, at which he never seemed quite comfortable. I noted his old man’s wrinkled, scarred face – but then in his eyes I saw the boyish joy at being alive and at play for another great day. He and I, two small-town boys sitting there in a grown-ups’ exclusive club eating our BLTs off bone China on a starched white tablecloth. The sun shone hot on the 18th green, lighting it up as if it were made of crushed emeralds.
Over lunch we laughed, hard, happy to see each other again and delighted with our good fortune in life, talking about everything as best friends do, and then parting, he with his gentle handshake and slight stammer. As I drove off I turned and saw him walking away slightly stooped, snowy hair shining in the sunlight, but with a bounce in his step as he swung his putter along, heading toward the green to practice.
That was the last time I ever saw him.
Stephen Bergman, MD, is a guest columnist. Under the pen name Samuel Shem, he is the author of “The House of God’’ and “The Spirit of the Place.’’