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DOUG DIED

He said he thought it was likely.

"Been to the best doctors around, and they mostly agree," he said

with about the same resignation

as when he missed a three-footer for par.

We met every year for golf.

Sixteen of us, sometimes more,

boys in men's clothing

still chasing fulfillment of a sort.

The date was chosen with precision --

crisp fall days and chilly nights,

leaves of every color on a canvas of evergreen,

a Renoir on every mountainside,

Good Kentucky bourbon or maybe just a light beer

on the deck,

cooking burgers

as crickets and whip-o-wills began their music.

Doug was always, "Chef",

The "Burger King" --

originally appointed because no one else wanted the job,

but he turned it into a five-star experience.

We might be inside watching football

or arguing over a rule of golf,

but Doug never left his post at the fire,

treating each morsel with great respect.

There were loud voices throughout dinner,

but none of them were Doug's.

He would quietly eat his royal burger and saintly beans

and ask about your family.

He knew the name and history of every man there --

knew the right questions to ask, the best old stories to tell again.

and, in some amazing way, he was aware

of every conversation in the room.

If a remark seemed a bit too strident

or a friendly insult crossed the line,

Doug would ask an "off the wall" question

or bring up a strange current event to divert the talk.

This was the signal to settle down, and we knew it.

It might take a newcomer several gaffes

before he, too, learned the rules.

It paid to be a quick study.

Doug was the Dean of a small Law School somewhere in Ohio

I never got it straight,

but he paid no attention to my unenlightened state,

and I never felt patronized for it.

When he mentioned Hemingway or Dos Passos

or maybe Justice Holmes,

it was always to nail down a point --

never to name-drop.

He could laugh uproariously,

but most times wore a wry smile

even when attempting, once again

the subjugation of a fickle, seductive game.

It was a bond we all shared -- chasing the dream,

walking around in Paradise, pretending nonchalance

bent on performance,

the mastery of an illusive art-skill.

Slowly, we learned humility.

Over the years, the jokes were more self-deprecating.

We never learned surrender, though.

It would have amounted to dishonor.

Sixteen men, sometimes more --

maybe in our daily lives, some were more upright than others --

didn't matter on a golf course --

you honored the game, or you weren't asked back.

And though we often talked of quitting,

we knew it was a bluff;

it was part of the bond-

curse your fate, but never give up.

Which is why the look in Doug's eyes

was so haunting

during that last weekend in October

in the North Carolina mountains.

"I have to make a decision, boys,"

was the off-handed way he put it,

but his eyes were different

and couldn't bluff

"It's chemo and radiation and all that crap

and no promises, either.

Even if it works, I won't be me.

This may be my last round for a while,

So, I'm just going to savor this one,

and probably make a decision when I get back home.

Anyone who brings it up for the next two days

gets an automatic two stroke penalty. "

It was bad --

worse, even, than he let on.

Surrender was not in his vocabulary, we knew.

You honor the game, no matter where your ball lands.

But, those eyes!

The burgers were unimaginably wonderful,

the bourbon tasted of charred Kentucky oak,

and on that last night, we drifted one by one

out on to the deck to just stand together

around a fire that Doug built.

-- by Noble Collins

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