My old club in Virginia, The Highlands, is the antithesis of a stuffy country club. The members there come from all walks of life – constables, retired and active military (Ft Lee, a key logistics base, is located nearby), employees of Dupont and Phillip Morris.
The guys and gals from Phillip Morris are an interesting group consisting of folks from executive level to IT geeks to factory shift workers. From the latter group, I came to know a fellow named Vern.
Vern was the least likely person one would ever expect to see on a golf course. He sported a pony tail, usually had a cigarette dangling, and his standard wardrobe on the course was an untucked golf shirt worn over a loud pair of shorts. But the man had some game. He was remarkably flexible and could hit his 3-wood farther than most of us could drive it.
Vern was what they called a “fixer” at Phillip Morris – he was a mechanic who made sure the machines kept running – and alternated 12-hours shifts two weeks at a time (day vs night), with a few days off in between. That kept him from being a consistent player, but he was capable of shooting rounds in the 70’s on his good days (as well as in the 90’s in his not so good ones).
But what struck most people about Vern was his quiet, friendly nature. A native Virginian, he had a pretty thick drawl (guys used to tease him when he referred to his late father as his “diddy”) and almost always wore a squinty, bemused smile. He was the quintessential good ol’ boy who enjoyed his George Dickel on the rocks and could get more mileage out of a couple of words than most guys do in a paragraph.
A few years back, Vern retired from Phillip Morris at the age of 55 – he’d worked hard and benefited from a strong retirement plan that his union negotiated – and began playing more golf. Around that time, a former member of The Highlands had organized a tournament in Bluffton, South Carolina to benefit the Wounded Warrior Project. I asked a few of the guys at the club if they wanted to get a team together to play in it; Vern was one of the first to say yes, and offered to drive us in his brand-new Ford F-150 King Cab [if you’ve never rode in one of those things, imagine a first-class seat on an airliner, only with more room].
So the Frenchman, Donnie the Plummer and I climbed into Vern’s truck and headed down to Bluffton together. Other members from The Highlands participated, as well. We played the tournament and met some of the troops who were wounded overseas. Vern was very moved by the experience, and when we returned from the trip, he pulled me aside one day and said to me, “Poppy, I’d really think our club should do something to benefit those guys.”
As I was president of the golf association at that time, I had become a master of delegation. “Fine, Vern,” I replied, “I’m putting you in charge of coordinating that.”
“Damn, Poppy! I knew you’d do something like that.”
(“Damn, Poppy,” by the way, was a phrase I often heard from Vern – and of course, “damn” was stretched out to two sylables. On a different golf trip to Pinehurst, I took him over to a house that a college friend was building in the area. The place was designed to be about 11,000 square feet, and as we moved from room to room, I mentioned some of the features that were in the plans. All he could say was, “Damn, Poppy.”)
Vern put out a challenge to our membership for donations for the following year’s tournament, and was able to deliver a nice check to the Project. But when he returned, he seemed a little disconcerted.
A bunch of us were having post-round drinks in the 19th Hole. Vern mused, “You know, it’s nice to help out those guys, but I’m sure there’s plenty of veterans right here in the area who could use some help.”
We all nodded. We’ll find a local charity. So what should we do?
Vern thought it over a bit.
“Weeeelll,” he drawled, “if we can raise twenty-five hundred dollars, I’ll cut off my pony tail.”
The rest of us looked at each other, and money immediately came flying out of everyone’s wallets. A few of us happened to have checks on us and wrote out good-sized amounts (fueled, no doubt by liquid generosity) – the net of all this was that we were half-way there.
Vern had a look that could be best described as grateful with a slight mixture of concern – after all, he’d had that pony tail for years – but gratitude won out, and he chuckled a bit. We bought another round of drinks, and then someone among us (it might have been me, but I honestly don’t remember) suggested that if we got to $5,000, Vern should shave his entire head.
We all looked at Vern with evil grins; his eyes opened wider than I’d ever seen them (normally, they were two slits) – but the George Dickel was speaking for him at this point, and he blurted out, “All right, I’ll do it!” He then looked at me and muttered, “Damn, Poppy!”
Word of this spread like wildfire throughout the club, and eventually donations rose to double the stated $5,000 (someone suggested that if we reached $10,000, Vern should submit to a full body shave and parade himself around the club; fortunately, cooler heads prevailed on that one). A local charity that assisted returning wounded veterans in finding housing was identified and happily received a nice check.
And so it came to pass that on Memorial Day weekend, a rather large crowd gathered on the club patio to watch Vern’s wife Martha snip his pony tail, and his son Jason shave his head. He wore a sheepish smile throughout the entire proceeding and waved off the ensuing applause and cheers. And then disappeared for a few weeks.
It’s become an annual tradition for a large number of Highlands golfers to play in the Dick’s Place Invitational, a three day tournament/party that’s been held at a variety of locations. Earlier this month, Vern and the boys made their way down to play in it; upon returning, Vern began to feel rather poorly. Martha checked him into the hospital; it was thought he might have pneumonia. It turned out to be much worse – lung cancer, inoperable. He starts chemo next week.
I remember a conversation I had with Vern when I told him I’d be moving to the DFW area. He and Martha visit there frequently; he has a longtime friend who lives over in Granbury. “You and he would git along just fine, Poppy,” he told me. “He’s the only other liberal Democrat that lives in Texas. We’ll look you up when we git down that way.”
Damn, Vern. Take your time, buddy. Take your time.