September 26, 2021

FTV: The Golf Ball Caper


     If the statute of limitations for trespassing is six years (and yes, I looked it up for the sake of accuracy), it is probably okay for me to tell this story nearly fifty years after the fact.  Sticking with first names will suffice to tell the following tale so nobody will be put on the spot beyond yours truly.  Back then, we viewed our actions to be no more than youthful hijinks.  We also rationalized  we were helping support an under-employed friend, but as you will see, there were benefits to be had for all parties involved.  Being the son of a detective, I learned early on that honesty was definitely the best policy as my dad had an uncanny knack for knowing what I was up to, sometimes even before I did anything.  There was no use shucking and jiving because a) I never did develop a good poker face, and b) leveling with dad was my main way of learning how the world works without having to find out the hard way.  I remember explaining what we were up to at the time and promising we would follow pop’s advice to the letter:  “Don’t get caught,” (more on this later).

     Back in our college days, we all did what we could to pay our way through school.  One of my summer kitchen worker buddies at the Huron Mountain Club was always looking for ways to add to his cash flow when the summer job was over.  John mentioned that he and another friend used to occasionally sneak into the golf club at night and fish balls out of their pond.   As the word ‘sneak’ implies, this was a covert operation mounted well after nightfall.  When asked if I wanted to tag along for one of these midnight raids, I even volunteered to drive.  Being the new guy in the crew, I followed John’s lead.  We parked a few hundred yards down the road from the entrance to the golf course.  The pond was located north of the street that separated seven of the original nine holes from the clubhouse on the southside.  With our neoprene dive vests, goggles, fins, snorkels, net bags, and a couple of underwater flashlights (I had to borrow one), we walked across two fairways to reach this tear drop shaped lake.  The grounds keeper made the rounds setting up the sprinklers on a noisy utility cart so we had plenty of warning when he was coming.  We could also track his movements by watching his headlight bobbing along the other fairways.

     Snorkeling in the dark is a strange affair to say the least.  To prevent the groundskeeper from seeing our lights, we would dive to the bottom before turning them on.  When it was time to come up for air, we would turn off the light and break surface as quietly as possible, just in case.  There were a couple of times when the guy in the cart would stop at the edge of the pond before driving away, but with only his cart headlights shining over the water, he could not see our heads poking out of the middle of the pond.  I had to borrow a black snorkel for the occasion because mine was bright white.  We cherry picked the balls sitting on the bottom as they glowed like pearls in our flashlight beam.  When we had a little more than half of our net bag filled, we left the same way we came in.  There were three of us the first time I participated in a night dive and we collected three hundred or so golf balls.  The next day, we met at John’s house to scrub the mud off them with toothbrushes.  I do not remember how much the golf club paid for these balls.  They may have suspected the source, but never did  ask where they came from.  Most were destined for their driving range and the nicest ones were put in a basket and priced at a buck a piece.  What they paid for the lot, I have no clue –  I donated my services the first time.

     John made some cash for his trouble but the golf club did even better.  Repeatedly ‘renting’ these used balls on the driving range and selling the best of the lot was a good deal for them.  The next summer, John decided it was time to go big time.  As a scuba and snorkel diver, he reasoned there must be a lot more balls in the middle of this 12-15 foot deep water hazzard. He negotiated a deal with the club to let him do a daylight dive in exchange for giving the club an even better deal.  John reasoned that with the right equipment, he could make more money by collecting a larger volume of balls without risk of getting caught.  The club’s lowball price was no match for John’s plan of action.  After recruiting a couple of friends with scuba gear and me armed with my trusyt fins, mask, and snorkel, we arrived in the middle of the day with John’s secret weapon:  an inflatable raft!  We got a lot of strange looks from the golfers passing by and at least one guy threatened to call the police.  We assured him that we were there with the club’s blessing but he wasn’t buying it:  “Sure you are!” was his parting shot (the police never did arrive).  More than one golfer splatted a ball in the pond while we were diving so we had to keep our eyes peeled when we were at the surface.  More than one asked if we could find their ball for them.  We lied and told them, “The club told us that we can’t do that.”

     During this daylight dive we realized there was a  bonanza of balls located below the easy pickings.  Without a flashlight in hand, one could reach into the mud at the bottom and pull out handfuls of balls that had accumulated over the years.  When our netbags were full, we would empty them into the raft and go back for more.  We were not sure how many balls we would be able to collect in the two hours we were given, but suffice to say we had a hard time pulling the raft over to my truck parked near the road.  If memory serves me correctly, we pulled more than 4,000 balls from the pond which John took home and power washed before we started the toothbrush fine cleaning.  We all got a piece of the action, but it was John’s baby so we were fine with him getting the biggest cut.  

     Now that he had a handle on this new business venture, John called the Ishpeming golf club and offered them a similar deal.  None of us realized the ponds at the Ishpeming course were not so much ponds a cattail ringed mud holes less than six feet deep.  We dove a couple of them near the clubhouse but gave up because these small ponds did not collect balls as well as the much bigger Marquette golf club pond.  We thought, “Hey, this is great.  We can help do this once per summer for pocket change.”  The club thought differently and the next time they were approached, they said they were no longer interested in having anyone harvest balls from their pond!  We figured perhaps it was farmed out to a relative of a board member.

     We were disappointed about the loss of John’s golden goose.  Jim remembers we were sitting around a table at The Office in downtown Marquette when we decided we would just have to do one more cloak and dagger raid.  We were a little smarter this time as we recruited my brother to drop us off instead of just parking down the road.  When my dad found out we were going back for one more night raid, he said it reminded him of poaching deer back during the depression and World War II.  Having never heard this story before, I asked him if he was worried about getting caught back then.  He said, “Nah, everyone was doing it because you had to put meat on the table.  Those who enforced the law either looked the other way or gave you tips where to hunt so you wouldn’t get caught.”  As an afterthought, he added, “Don’t you get caught.  You know you are trespassing, don’t you?”  Actually, I had never thought of it that way.  I shared this bit of advice on the way to our dropzone and got a bit of nervous laughter.  John said, “Yeah, it would be a shame to get caught the last time we do this.” 

     We had a feeling the club had let the groundskeeper know that we had been turned down in our request to do another day dive.  Our extra cautious approach was proved out because there were at least three occasions when the groundskeeper’s little cart came speeding up to the edge of the pond.  He would stand gazing over the water for several minutes.  We would just sit with as little of our heads sticking out of the water as possible and wait for him to go away.  He even did a feint at one point where he started to drive away and spun right back to try an suprise any visitors.  I remember this well because I was sitting just below his perch near the shore and there were little fish bumping into my chin while he scanned the surface.  As he drove away, an idle thought entered my head:  “What if he misjudged the edge and drove into the pond.  Would we get a reward or a jail term for fishing him out?”   We did not make as good a haul on this last trip as we did on the previous summer’s day dive.  I am not sure if John was even able to sell this batch to the club, but it was more of a ‘so there’ gesture on our part anyway.  “You won’t let us do it the legit way?  Take that!”

     Jim liked the idea that we were diving with a purpose.  He got interested enough to take the scuba diving class.  A few summers later, he invited me to come along when he was asked to retrieve a pair of glasses that had been dropped off a boat in the Marina in Marquette’s lower harbor.  It was still rather early in the summer and the lake was still a bit cool.  Jim donned his wet suit and tank while I just wore my neoprene vest, mask, and snorkel.  The glasses were a piece of cake, so as long as we were in water anyway, we took some time to explore the rest of the marina.  To say there were a few anchors on the bottom would be an understatement.  I wish we had taken an inventory of all the stuff we hauled up and plunked on the marina dock that day.  Who knew people could drop that much stuff overboard and not bother to retrieve it.  

     Jim said the first time he did a retrieval dive at the same marina, it was in search of a wallet.  He donned his wetsuit and lowered himself to the bottom where he actually stepped on the missing billfold.  “This was too easy,” he recalled, “so I sat on the bottom for a while.  I dabbed a little mud on my suit and came up looking a little like the creature from the black lagoon.  The guy was so happy he gave me a nice reward for my ‘trouble’.”

     Jim and Dan made other dives in the harbor and to this day Jim marvels at the things they found.  I asked him recently if he remembered these salvage dives and he sent back the following description of their treasurers:  “We pulled all kinds of stuff out of the lower harbor including a sail bag (with an expensive sail inside), and a small outboard motor.  We went down on a couple of Thursday afternoons after the Wednesday regattas.”  Interestingly enough, there is a group of divers in the Marquette area who do an annual harbor cleanup these days so maybe Jim and Dan were pioneers.  The group doing it now make it a point to get news coverage.

     John had planted the idea of doing a golf ball dive when we were doing a similar search and retrieve mission in the Pine River at the Huron Mountain Club.  The Pine River cuts through the heart of the HMC and both banks are lined by cottages and boathouses.  John and his boss Stu had been asked to take a snorkel hunt to find something that had been dropped off a dock near the car bridge between the main office and the clubhouse and dining rooms.  They asked if I wanted to come and look for stuff.  Their secondary goal was to search for old chamber pots and china that had been tossed in the river in years gone by.  Chamber pots were not big on my agenda, but it was always fun to watch Stu and John haggle and trade their collected treasures post-dive.  I didn’t find anything notable but I did collect two ‘scares’.  John had mentioned that when he had been diving in the Cayman Islands, they were warned to be careful of the circling  Barracudas:  “They said if one looks at you with one eye, they are getting ready to attack.”  John laughed when he pointed out, “but when they are swimming around you, they always look at you with one eye.  I wonder if Northern Pike also do that?”  

     Sure enough, my first pass across the river and I encountered two very large Northerns.  They swam warily ahead of me with one eye watching my every move.  When they had enough of me following them, they turned and sped upriver passing no more than five feet in front of my nose.  I did not think they were in attack mode, but John’s words still popped into my head.  A little farther up river, I was rounding a bank of weeds growing in the middle of the river when the biggest snapping turtle I have ever seen stuck its head out of the waving green wall.  His head was the size of a softball and I was not about to stick around long enough to see how big his mouth was.  I kicked hard and made a right turn while he took off in the other direction..  We couldn’t see each other after that as we both were churning up an impressive cloud of silt behind us.  

     It never dawned on me to ask John if there might be snapping turtles in the golf pond during our golf ball capers!  On the other hand, It was probably better to have one less thing to worry about besides not getting caught.  With the size of the pond and the amount of balls we were able to retrieve in a few hours time, I can only wonder how many thousand of those dimpled little devils are still down there just waiting for the next generation of adventurous pickers. 

Top Piece Video:  I am betting you are not terribly familiar with a band called The Arrogant Worms, nor that they have a Golf song . . . .but now you are!