By Ed Staskus
“It’s a hell of a good day for it,” said Dwight Eisenhower, smiling broadly.
It was going to be his first full round of golf since June. He’d had a heart attack last year. Then when summer rounded itself into shape, he needed surgery for ileitis. The past week had been filled to the brim with the Republican National Convention at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, Even though he had been unopposed, no need for a stampede, there had been some hard campaigning to drop Dick Nixon from the ticket, to no avail.
Ike was president because it was his duty. Richard Nixon wanted to be president. He wanted it for himself.
“Any man who wants to be president is either an egomaniac or crazy,” thought President Eisenhower.
The Negro singer Nat King Cole had spoken at the Cow Palace yesterday, the last day of the convention, to some jeers. Ike made it happen, no matter the carping about it. He knew he had to give in on the Vice-President, who was a hard-line anti-Communist, who the rank-and-file supported with cheers. But he knew he didn’t have to give in to Jim Crow. He could take the high road and leave the contrivances to Tricky Dick.
They drove up to Pebble Beach before the convention ended, before the Nixon’s could invite him to dinner. Richard Nixon’s father was seriously ill, besides, and Ike urged him to go before it was too late. There were three cars full of Secret Service fore and aft. Charlie Taylor, who’d been at it for years, was in one of the cars.
One night when Ike was having trouble opening his safe, and asked for help, his agents told him safecracking wasn’t part of their training. Ike was beside himself until Charlie Taylor got the cranky combination to give with no problem.
“I won’t know whether to trust you, or not, after this,” said Ike, glancing at Charlie.
He was driven to his golf outing in a black Lincoln Cosmopolitan. It was one of ten presidential touring cars. They all had extra headroom to accommodate the tall silk hat he wore on formal occasions. The cars were almost 20 feet long, V8’s with Hydra-Matic transmissions, and heavily armored, weighing in at close to ten thousand pounds. One of them was a convertible, a 1950 model built for Harry Truman. It had been fitted with a Plexiglas top since then.
Ike called it the Bubble-top. Charlie Taylor called it a pain-in-the-ass. Mamie didn’t like sitting under a dome, but she put up with it.
It was a high blue sky day, sunny, dotted with seaside clouds.
“It’s a pleasure, Mr. President,” said Turk Archdeacon, his caddy.
“Why, that’s fine,” said President Eisenhower.
Turk had been caddying at Cypress Point since he was nine-years-old, almost 40 years since. He and Ike walked to the practice tee. It was a cool morning. Ike started whacking balls out into the distance. He played with Bobby Jones woods with the official five-star general insignia engraved on the heads. At the putting green he lined up three balls down on the ground 20-some feet away from the cup.
He sank all three.
“I should quit right there,” he laughed.
He’d been practicing on a green on the White House grounds, and been hitting wedges, irons, and 3-woods, sometimes hitting balls over the south fence. Whenever he did, he sent his valet to retrieve them.
The squirrels that prowled the lawn dug up his putting green, burying acorns nuts hardtack. They left small craters behind. One morning he finally had enough. “The next time you see one of those goddamned squirrels go near my putting green, take a gun and shoot it!” The Secret Service asked the groundskeepers to trap the squirrels, instead, and release them in a park somewhere far away.
In a week August would be come and gone. He would be 66-years-old soon. “I’m saving that rocker for the day when I feel as old as I really am,” he said, pointing to the rocker in the Oval Office. More days now than not, he felt like that day was drawing close.
His birthday was on October 14th. CBS was planning a “Person to Person” style TV show the night before. Eddie Fisher was going to sing ‘Counting Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.’ Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel were going to sing ‘Down Among the Sheltering Palms.’ Nat King Cole, with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, was singing ‘It’s Just a Little Street Where Old Friends Meet.’
He was looking forward to it.
In six weeks he would be throwing out the first pitch for the first game of the World Series. There were five or six teams in the hunt, although the New York Yankees looked like a lock at least to get there. If he were a betting man, which he was, he would be putting his money on the Bronx Bombers.
He liked Cypress Point because it was set in coastal dunes, wandered into the Del Monte forest during the front nine, and then reemerged on the rocky Pacific coastline. The 15th, 16th, and 17th holes played right along the ocean. He’d played golf on many courses around the world.
This was one of the best of them.
On the other coast it was hot and humid in Hell’s Kitchen. It was in the 90s and stagnant. The heat was trapping the humidity in the air. Dottie was playing stickball in the street.
The street wasn’t West 56th. Her father had told her to never play stickball on their own street. The fronts and windows of buildings were ruled home runs. Stan didn’t want any broken windows near where they lived. Dottie and her friends always played on West 55th or West 57th. A boy bigger than her had once teased her about it, pushing her to the ground.
“You always do everything your old man tells you to do?” he said, curling his lip, looking down and straddling her.
She still had the stickball broom handle in her hands. Looking up from the gutter she whacked him as hard as she could across the shins. When the boy’s father showed up at their apartment that night to complain, her father threw the man out, dragging him down the stairs by his collar, threatening him and his son and any of their neighbors with harm if they ever laid hands on his daughter again.
“You did the right thing Dottie,” he said. “If somebody says something rotten to you, be a lady about it. But if somebody pushes you, or grabs you, or hits you, you hit them back as hard as you can. You always do that. That’s so they won’t push you down again.”
“OK, dad,” she said.
It was a good day for stickball. Eight kids had shown up, they had made their teams, and Willy, her friend from Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic School, had brought a new pinky ball. It wasn’t a Pensy, either. It was the cream of the crop, a Spalding Hi-Bounce.
They drew a square rectangle with chalk on the brick wall at the back of a vacant lot on West 55th to represent the strike zone. The buildings on both sides were the foul lines. They chalked first and third base on the building walls and second base was a manhole on the sidewalk. If the ball hit any of the buildings across the street, it was a home run. If it hit a window they would run like hell. If it hit a roof it was a home run-and-a-half.
“There ain’t no runs-and-a-half,” a snot-nosed kid from Chelsea, visiting his cousins, sneered.
“If you’re going to play stickball on West 55th, you better learn Hell’s Kitchen rules,” gibed Willy.
Dottie was batter up. She smacked a hot grounder, but it was caught on the first bounce, and she was out. Willy got as far as third base, but three strikes and you’re out finished their inning. By the time they came back up in the second inning they were behind by five runs.
Dwight Eisenhower looked out at the par-5 10th hole. He had taken off his tan sweater, but still had a white cap on his head. Seven months ago Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, living legend professionals, had taken on Ken Venturi and Harvie Ward, amateurs, but talented and skillful, in a friendly foursome at Cypress Point.
The same 10th hole turned out to be the key to unlocking the contest.
“I bet they can beat anybody,” said San Francisco car dealer Eddie Lowery about the two amateurs, who were his employees. He was talking to fellow millionaire George Coleman. The bet and the match were on.
Harvie Ward was a two-time U.S. Amateur champion. Three months later Ken Venturi came within one stroke of winning the Masters. The cypress-strewn rolling dunes of the course on the wind-swept coast, the deep ravines, knee-deep grass, sand on all sides of the fairways, weren’t redoubtable, not to them.
Ben Hogan won the day on the 10th when he rolled in a wedge shot for a 3. The eagle and 27 birdies testified to the unfriendliness of the match. The drinks at the bar rubber-stamped the camaraderie afterwards.
Ike was playing with Harry Hunt, the president of Cypress Point, Sam Morse, a one-time football star who had developed Pebble Beach, and John McCone, a businessman who had been the undersecretary of the Air Force. Dwight Eisenhower was partnered with Harry Hunt. They were playing a dollar-dollar-dollar Nassau bet. It was even-steven at the halfway mark, even though Ike had stunk up the 8th hole.
“Where is it?” he had asked getting there, looking for the green across the dogleg.
He sliced his tee shot into sand. When he got to it he hit it less than ten feet further on. Then he hit it fat, the Ben Hogan ball soaring twenty feet, and falling into somebody’s heel print.
“I’ve had it, pick it up,” he said.
“Having a little trouble?” asked Sam Morse.
“Not a little,” said Ike, “but a lot.”
“All right, all right, let’s pick it up, let’s get some roofies,” yelled Willy, urging his team on. “But chips on the ball. I mean it.”
He meant that if his new Spaldeen was roofed, and couldn’t be found, everyone would chip in to pay for a new ball.
Hal came up to the plate, wagged the broom handle menacingly, and planted his high-top rubber-soled Keds firmly in the unravelling asphalt. They were new and felt like everyday’s-a-Saturday shoes. His batted ball hit the side wall at third base where the wall met the ground and bounced back to home plate in a high slow arc.
“It’s a Hindoo,” he shouted.
“No, that ain’t a do-over, foul ball, so it’s a strike,” shouted back Dave Carter, who everyone called Rusty because his hair was red.
“What do you know?”
“I know what I gotta know.”
“Go see where you gotta go,” said Hal.
“No, you stop wasting my time,” said Rusty. “It was a foul ball.”
“Ah, go play stoopball,” shouted Hal.
Stoopball was throwing a pinky against the steps of a stoop, and then catching it, either on the fly or on a bounce. Catching the ball was worth 10 points. Catching a pointer on the fly was worth 100 points. A pointer was when the ball hit the edge of a step and flew back like a line drive, threatening to take your eye out. When you played stoopball you played against yourself.
“You got a lotta skeeve wichoo,” Rusty shouted back at Hal.
“All right, already, strike one,” said Willy, finally.
He knew Rusty would never give in. He was a weisenheimer, besides, someone you had to keep your eyes on, or your Spaldeen might grow legs. It wasn’t that Rusty was a thief. He just kept his nickels in his pocket. Willy had heard he was such a tight-wad he still had his communion money from two years ago.
Rusty had been born in Philadelphia. That was his problem.
Hal hit a cheap, a slow roller, but when Rusty let his guard down, reaching leisurely down for the Spaldeen, it went between his legs, and the next second Hal was standing at first base, smirking.
“Comeback stickball,” he whispered to himself.
Eleven batters later Dottie’s team was on the plus side of the scoreboard, nine to five.
On the tee of the 17th hole Ike lined up his shot. Sea lions on the rocks below him barked. “It’s hard to hit a shot and listen to those seals at the same time,” he said, but not so either of the Secret Service agents with them could hear him.
Dwight Eisenhower was accustomed to having guards around him, during the campaign in North Africa, and later as commander of the Allied Army in Europe. The Nazis had tried to kill him several times. Secret Service agents near his person nearly every minute of the day was like a second skin. He knew what it took to save his skin. When he moved into the White House he didn’t mingle mindlessly, shake hands in crowds, or do anything foolish.
“Protecting Ike works like clockwork,” said agent Gerald Blaine.
Mamie Eisenhower gave her agents nicknames. One, who was a good dancer, was “Twinkletoes.” He asked Mamie to keep it between themselves. Some of the agents called her “Mom.”
“You don’t have to worry about me, but don’t let anything happen to my grandchildren,” Ike told Secret Service chief U. E. Baughman.
The Diaper Detail guarded the four kids. Dwight Eisenhower changed the name of the presidential retreat in Maryland from Shangri-La to Camp David in 1953. “Shangri-La is just a little fancy for a Kansas farm boy,” he said. He renamed it in honor of his 5-year-old grandson, David.
When Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union leader, visited the retreat he said the name sounded like a place where “stray dogs were sent to die.”
Ike looked for the fairway on the 18th hole.
“Where do we aim here?” he asked.
“Keep it away from the left,” said Harry Hunt. There was a stand of pine trees on the left. “That’s the Iron Curtain. You’ll never get through that stuff.”
Ike laughed and hit a long drive. His next shot was a 4-iron and he nailed it onto the green, 20 feet short of the pin.
In 1954 eighty people were convicted of threatening the president, and sent to prison or locked away as madmen. In 1955 nearly two thousand credible threats were made against Dwight Eisenhower’s life. The year before, the Russian KGB officer Peter Deryabin, after defecting, told the CIA about a plot to kill the president in 1952.
“We were preparing an operation to assassinate Eisenhower during his visit to Korea in order to create panic among the Americans and win the war in Korea.”
Shortly after Mother’s Day the Secret Service investigated a threat to plant two boxes of explosives at a baseball park where the president was planning on taking in a game. Whenever he played golf, stern-faced men with good eyesight and high-powered guns took up vantage points on hills, surveying the course with telescopic sights. Other agents, dressed in golf clothes, carried .351 rifles in their golf bags as they tagged along. In the parking lots the “Queen Mary,” an outfitted armored car, was the rolling command center.
“Demoralize the enemy from within by surprise, terror, sabotage, assassination,” Adolf Hitler had said not many years before. “This is the war of the future.”
Dwight Eisenhower and the Allied Army derailed the Nazi night train. No one was going to take him by surprise. He was planning on sitting in his rocking chair one day, rocking back and forth, watching over his grandchildren.
The woman sitting on the stoop across the street watched Dottie and her friends walk away down the sidewalk, their stickball game over, one of them bouncing his pinky, all of them talking happily.
“We killed them, just killed them,” said Willy.
“We sure did,” said Hal.
“What a game!” said Dottie.
“Yeah, first we were down, came back big, you put some Chinese on that ball between Rusty’s legs, they slipped ahead, and then we score fourteen just like that, and it’s all over.”
“Did you see Rusty, the putz, pulling that long face?” asked Hal.
“Oh, he’ll be back, he loves stickball,” said Dottie.
Dwight Eisenhower had served in the armed forces from one end of his adult life to the other. After he retired he was dean at Columbia, and then president. He was still the president and, he was sure, he was going to defeat Adlai Stevenson better than he had four years ago.
Dottie was so glad her team had won.
Even though he’d commanded millions of men in the last war, Ike thought war was rarely worth going to war for. He hated it. “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”
They had scrapped for every run. It was worth it. She didn’t mind losing once in awhile, but she liked winning better.
“Didn’t you once say that we are going to have peace even if we have to fight for it?” asked Harry Hunt.
“When we have to, but always remember, the most terrible job in the world is to be a second lieutenant leading a platoon when you’re on the battlefield. There‘s no glory in battle worth the blood it costs. When people speak to you about a preventive war, you tell them to go and fight it themselves.”
Dottie stripped off her hot sweaty clothes, rubbed down with a cool sponge, and put on a fresh pair of shorts and a t-shirt.
The Cold War wasn’t as hot as it had been ever since Nikita Khrushchev had denounced Joseph Stalin’s cult of personality earlier in the year, as well as admitting the Man of Steel’s crimes, the crimes committed against Mother Russia. A door had been cracked open. Ike had long thought war settles nothing, even when it’s all over. He was afraid of the arms race, the march towards a nuclear catastrophe.
“You just can’t have that kind of war,” he had told his inner circle. “There aren’t enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the streets.”
Dottie put her stick bat away in a corner near her bedroom window. In the summer she loved her friends, no matter what team they were on, and stickball more than anything in the world. She even liked Rusty a little bit when it was sunny and warm.
“Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative” is what he had written and wanted to say at the Cow Palace, but didn’t, not with Dick Nixon and the Red Scare and the military hand-in-hand with industry. He wanted to call it what it was, a military-industrial complex that was always crying “fire” in a crowded theater.
But he couldn’t, at least not until after he was re-elected.
In the meantime, he planned on speaking softly and carrying a big stick, even if it was only a long shaft wood driver, the biggest club he had in his bag.
Excerpted from “Stickball” at http://www.stanriddman.com.
Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”