When he was in his 30s, my friend Vince Solano could hit a golf ball 300 yards. He was thick, had huge arms and the strength of a weightlifter. Now, 35 years later, he is trim -- much slimmer -- but he still loves to golf.
I’ve known him since I was 12 years old and possibly the worst caddy in the history of the sport. Oh, I knew my yardages and carried the bag well enough -- often two bags, actually, and I had a great deal of acuity reading greens. Planes made sense to me, because I drew a lot, and this helped.
I just didn’t give a fuck about golf.
I liked caddying because it was cash money, right here and right now. Because golfers told dirty jokes, bitched about their bosses, wives, kids and politics -- and in a very real way exposed the secret life most men live. On the golf course, guys didn’t have to keep their guard up or be polite. They could and did gamble with abandon, drink, swear -- and in four hour increments, be free men. They could walk out in nature without their phone ringing or their boss carving on their dick. It was a place to shut out the noise.
I learned a lot from these guys: how to win with grace and how to lose with honor. Guys who won or lost badly were often left only to play with each other. On Saturday mornings, the good guys were never wanting for a foursome -- they were always welcome to play in any game -- whereas the assholes would be nagging everyone in the locker room, desperately wondering whether anybody needed a fourth.
I met characters I’ll never forget: Joe “Rotten Red” Solari, who gargled with toilet water every morning to insure a tart and vulgar vocabulary and discourse throughout the rest of the day, as rumor had it. I once saw him whisper something into a lady golfer’s ear, and after he walked away snickering she turned pale and said, "I think I’m going to be physically ill." So profanely vulgar was Joe that I once heard another golfer say, "This is a guy who should wipe his mouth with toilet paper after every sentence.”
Naturally, I loved this guy -- he would give us beer and cigarettes and warn us about the perils of the “clap” and “snatch-crickets.”
There was Vince Castelli, for whom I caddied steadily through puberty and beyond. He looked like someone had shaved a gorilla -- and his conversation offered assurance that they hadn’t shaved the smartest gorilla. He was a 36 handicap who took four-foot divots, and his golf swing called to mind an Eskimo beating a baby seal to death. Every time he’d walk by the greens-keeper, the man would mutter, "Fucking Menace.” Castelli was a hairy guy -- so much so it looked like he had fur from a distance. Rotten Red used to say he had hair in his farts. He was a purely awful golfer who hacked the shit out of the course -- each luckless swing ended with, "Where’d the ball go? I never saw it!"-- and oftentimes neither had I, because the ball would ricochet off nine or ten trees. He would often ask me what he was laying, to which I’d wise-ass him: "Count the cuts in the fucking ball!” Then he would shout, "WHAT AM I LAYING?" and I would double-down with, “Probably someone like Helen Keller.” He would laugh and tell me I was a shitty caddy -- I’d tell him he was a shitty golfer and that we deserved each other.
Then there was George Hammerschmitt, or just “Hammer,” a funny and charming guy who played with Rotten Red and Vince Solano and would cringe every time Rotten Red opened his mouth. Affter one particularly putrid remark, Hammer once shook his head and said, "Joe, you’re the William F. Buckley of filth. Really. Do you eat with that mouth?”
Then there were our caddymasters. My first one was an Irish alcoholic named Jack Smith who’d tell us if we swept the shack, "I’ll get’cha’s all out, no shit, you’ll see." Jack was not a proponent of higher education -- like high school -- and would encourage us to ditch. He’d park his car near school to hustle truant caddies off to the course, telling us, "Hey, somebody will go to school and save the fuckin’ planet -- It won’t be any of YOU assholes, but somebody will. So in the meantime, you’s might as well make some scratch.”
Then there was Mayno -- he was tough, fair and the best friend troubled young kids ever had. He knew if I wasn’t caddying I’d be running the streets, he knew I wanted to be an artist and he let me paint murals on the caddy-shack walls. I did portraits of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Cat Stevens and anything else my deviant mind could think up. He understood that every kid was different, and had the patience of a saint. He’d also tell us to straighten the fuck up when we were being jerks -- I don’t know anyone who was not better for having had him in their lives.
The guys I caddied with are still, to this day, among my best friends; I wish I saw them more often. The guys I caddied for were a different breed as well. For every Doctor or Lawyer there was a self-made business guy who was a working guy --† like Bob Rivan, an immigrant from Germany who worked his way up from tool & die maker to having his own shop. Tony Junta sold fruit and produce; Jimmy Kozinski was a butcher -- there were all kinds of guys and they each measured ideas about success differently. I learned something from all of them: "Free your ass and your mind will follow," and "decide right now, kid, who is going to say what you do with your time: you, or somebody else.”
Most of those guys are gone now. My friend Vince Solano misses those days. The Country Club started accepting the spoiled yuppie class -- the butt-wipes who think that dollar-bills and brain-cells are the same thing.
So Vince opened his own course -- a place where guys like me and him can do whatever the fuck we want. The driveway is about a quarter-mile up from a giant rock -- nobody who is a pain in the ass gets past the rock. This is the Black Sheep: it’s a bit about golf and a whole lot more about freedom.
TONY FITZPATRICK is an artist from Chicago. For his blog, click here.