golf range art

"Earth Vs. The Golf Balls"

By Jeff Owenby

Before reading this: remember to watch the skies, always watch the skies...

On an idyllic summer afternoon in 1964 not a soul had been braced for the terror about to be unleashed upon our quiet neighborhood. The day was ideal, complete with cloudless blue skies. Lawnmowers spit turf from spinning blades, birds engaged in chirping competitions, and kids were out playing and laughing. It was the perfect day for an invasion.

Hundreds of white round objects sailed across the sky. No one had seen them flying overhead as they were too fast and flew under our radar. The objects invaded the skies. The first one crashed onto the playing field at Barlow Elementary School. At this point, the police had yet been alerted. Elite government agencies including the Army and Air National Guard, The NSA, The CIA, and even The President of the United States were likewise kept in the dark. No one was called since the UFO's in question were of earthly origin.

The evac and salvage operation commenced almost immediately, but at this point, the problem had escalated to an uncontrollable level. In order to keep from alarming the local citizenry, it was best to keep the problem quiet, and handle it as quickly and easily as possible. In short, it was time to bring out the big guns: the neighborhood kids armed with baseball mitts.

And with this sixties sci-fi preamble is perhaps one of the strangest, yet most delightful stories of my growing up. A local entrepreneur by the name of Bill Cooper opened up the first mini-fun center in our neighborhood. The U-Drive Golf Range, Go-Kart Track, and Dairy Queen was a proprietary installation known as Powell Park. This bit of paradise and excitement roughly spanned a three-block radius along Southeast Powell Blvd.

The driving range's nets couldn't contain most of the balls. Therefore, the golf balls were launched into space by the powerful swings of anyone who had 75 cents for a "bucket of balls". They traveled upwards at light speed, flew over the nets with ferocity, and then descended to the ground without just the slightest thud. Whether it was poor construction or bad planning, we weren't sure. All we knew was there was opportunity in those little white balls.

Hundreds of these little white balls were found spotting the green pastures of backyards and on the hallowed grass of Barlow School's softball field. Naturally, these missing balls were of great concern for the owner of the driving range. He was losing hundreds of them a day. The only options: close down the range and build newer, taller nets, or put a "bounty" on any returned balls.

The latter seemed to be the most economically efficient and us local kids were presented a very interesting offer: a free Go-Kart ride for every three golf balls that were returned. Needless to say, the Go-Karts were unlike anything we had ever seen before and we were prepared to do just about anything for a ride. They became the local obsession; they were loud, fast, and steered around labyrinthine race tracks lined with tires.

The Go-Karts had a fifty-cent admission, far more than most of us kids on the block carried in our pockets. In 1964, fifty cents was a considerable amount of change. It bought two comic books, pop, and a dump truck load of penny candy. Fifty cents was half a monster model; a bag of army men; a movie admission, or several trips to McDonald's. To toss the whole five dimes on a two-minute Go-Kart ride was just plain reckless. Therefore, the new "deal" was by far the greatest thing that could ever happen in our little corner of the universe.

Soon the school grounds were filled with kids armed with baseball gloves. Like soldiers lying in wait for an enemy assault, we took our positions. We all assumed that the enemy was the little white ball flying recklessly toward our mitts. We were wrong; we were the enemy! It was like a gold rush, and each kid scrambled, and nearly killed the other to lay claim to one of the small white nuggets."Golf ball fever" had set in. It was every man for himself, and it didn't take long before there were more bounty hunters than bounty.

The center of the ball field was the best spot. It took a while for many of the other kids to figure out why I could collect so many balls. Perhaps it was the odds, or the direction of the swing that had something to do with it, but most of the errant balls went straight out over the nets to land dead center in the field. A short time later, centerfield was filled with catchers. After that re-grouping of kids, I only caught a few while others caught many. Then something miraculous happened. A new discovery! Blame it on wind currents, aerodynamics, earth forces, or the luck of the Irish, but a fortune in golf balls landed in our backyard. They were everywhere, and nobody knew about them yet. I went out and scooped up perhaps a hundred balls and placed them in a box for safe keeping.

My sudden windfall then took a darker turn. It didn't take long for the golf balls to start hitting our house. We weren't the only ones affected. Many neighbors had balls bouncing off their houses, narrowly missing windows though some windows did get broken. My brother Pat was struck on the wrist by a stray ball while playing in the back yard. It was at that point that my mom took serious action. In order to avoid a lawsuit, the owner came to our house to strike a deal. Instead of 3 golf balls, it only took one to get the same deal everyone else got. Upping the ante a bit, he made another offer: each ball was also worth a nickel at the Dairy Queen.

Soon after that, newer, higher nets were being built. Naturally, a panic spread among the local kids; a valuable neighborhood resource was running dry. The golf balls would eventually be ensnared by their nets. Greed and "Golf Ball Fever" became worse. Kids were scaling our fence to get the balls in our yard. Our collie Bonnie usually scared them off, but other security measures became a necessity.

My brother Mike, who was in high school, had a good friend named Harold. Harold was tall; perhaps six feet or more. He played football, and agreed to work security in our yard for some of the profits. The best part of all was that Harold was black, and hid in the shadows of our house. When kids scaled the fence at night, he rose up from the dark yelling at the top of his lungs "What are doing out here?!" It was hilarious to watch from a distance, or opened window.

Until the great golf ball enterprise came to its sad demise, I was literally living in a Garden of Eden. I could buy soft ice cream cones at Dairy Queen using golf balls for money. We kept all of the balls we found in a large wooden box. When I asked if I could get an ice cream cone, my mom, regulating me to the small size cone, would reply: "go ahead and take one golf ball."

Dairy Queen offered several sizes of cones at the time. You could choose from plain vanilla, or get a new innovation called a "dip cone". These were soft vanilla ice cream with a hard coating of chocolate, cherry, or butterscotch! The most incredible of all was the giant twenty-five cent cone. This thing was a monster! My mom would never let me get one of those.

I was practically drooling over the idea of a twenty-five cent chocolate dipped cone. One day on my way to DQ, I had my usual "one" golf ball for a small nickel-size cone. Nearly hidden in the blackberry bushes halfway down the hill were two white objects: golf balls! I then found a 10 cent pop bottle in the dirt which I cashed in at Food Fair. I finally got my twenty-five cent chocolate dipped cone at Dairy Queen. It proceeded to melt all over me halfway home due to the heat of the day.

The epilogue to this marvelous chapter came that summer that summer almost as quickly as it entered. The invasion was over and the golf balls returned to their home planet. The new nets were containing most of the balls, so the deal was eventually called off. After that, seeing a white ball partially hidden in the grass was just a pleasant memory, or something fun to bounce until we lost it. The invasion of man vs. commerce, of nets vs. go-karts, of earth vs. the golf balls was alas no more. All that remained was the scarred battlefield, where blood, carnage, and baseball mitts once ruled our world. This event was one of the most wonderful adventures I ever had from that beautiful summer of 1964.