Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Morning: Time to Fight Eggs

Michael fighting Easter eggs at Sugar Hill.
Boys didn’t really go to Easter Sunrise Services where I came from in the most rural part of western North Carolina. While moms and daughters dressed themselves in the new handmade dresses and hats they spent months sewing, the guys spent weeks gathering and coloring eggs to take to the annual Easter egg fight at Sugar Hill.

There’s not really a marker or road sign that tells you how to get to this place in northeast Cleveland County. You just have to know how to get there, and the farmers and factory workers who populate this rural area of the state have managed to gather there every Easter morning to fight eggs, to tell stories and to renew old friendships.

It’s near the tiny town of Fallston, which was known to most people as the home of the Stamey General Store and Funeral Parlor – real slogan: “We Serve You from the Cradle to the Grave” – and to me as the location of my childhood dentist, the meanest person who ever lived. He walked around all day like he was trying to birth a unicorn without using an epidural.

About three miles from downtown, there is a back road called Sugar Hill that for some unknown reason has hosted these annual Easter egg fights for more than 100 years. It sounds messy, of course, but “egg jarping” is a traditional English folk game that still survives. It even has a world championship, held every Easter morning in Peterlee, England.

No one knows when the unique contest began at Sugar Hill. Joe Stamey, the owner of the general store and funeral home, was its unofficial ambassador for decades and the guy everyone wanted to have at least one fight against. He claimed to have been at Sugar Hill every year from the 1920s until he died sometime in the 1990s.

The game is simple, really. Two competitors face off against each other, with one holding his egg tightly in the palm while the other taps the end until one of the eggs break. Then, you turn it around and do the other end. When both ends of one egg is broken, the loser surrenders his egg. Usually, two contestants will fight a half-dozen eggs before moving on. People showed up with as many as 70 or 80 dozen eggs to fight.

God only knows what people did with all those broken-ended eggs after Easter. It was hard to trust just how old some of the eggs were, but some people still pickled them to eat later. Most of them were fed to pigs back home.

Because the game is simple, it’s harder, but not impossible, to cheat. There was always someone who tried to pass off the extra-hard egg of a guinea hen as a chicken egg. Try pulling that on some of the old timers, and you would find yourself rolling in the dewy grass with a basketful of broken shells.

Every now and then, someone would show up with an elaborately decorated wooden egg that they tried to pass off as real. Someone even brought a glass egg they found at the Gay Dolphin in Myrtle Beach, S.C., but was shamed into putting it in his pocket early in the day. I always wondered if the wooden one would splinter before the glass one chipped, but it’s one of those chicken-and-egg questions that will probably never be answered.

The farmers knew how to build in their own advantages. Throughout the winter, they would feed their game chickens ground up oyster shells in the hopes that the extra calcium would produce a thicker, harder shell. Some would even breed chickens that produced hard shells or bought exotic chickens that laid light-blue eggs.

One thing you didn’t want to bring was store-bought eggs. Their soft shells were pulverized in short order and the eggs were quickly surrendered.

While some of the competitors took care to decorate their eggs, most of the people who showed up with crates of competition eggs boiled them with onion skins or some other natural dye. They were generally chocolate brown and uglier than a yard gravel.

For me, going to Sugar Hill was one of the few chances to spend time with my maternal grandparents, Harse and Mary Ethel Gales. They lived on a farm far away by our standards – practically 10 miles. Since my other grandparents lived on land nearly connected to our house, I spent more time with my dad’s folks, who had a well-used creek with a swimming hole, an apple orchard for making pies and fewer chores to do on a daily basis.

My other grandparents’ farm was small and basic. I still remember when the house got indoor plumbing. For years, they didn’t even have an outhouse. But it was our farmer’s market, a place for fresh vegetables and pure, unpasteurized milk, which we brought home in heavy glass jars and had to shake well before using because all the cream was at the top.

We made weekly trips during the summer to have lunch with them, usually on Wednesdays. They didn’t have a lot, but my grandmother would spend hours making a spread for my mom, my sisters and me. She would kill and fry a chicken, cook a little ham and serve baked macaroni and cheese. There would be lots of fresh vegetables, including my favorite, black-eye peas. It was served with squash, okra, candied yams, fresh tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, all of which they grew in the garden. For dessert, she had an egg custard, banana pudding and maybe a chocolate or lemon pie.

Sometimes it was hard to appreciate, because she had everything on the table and ready to serve at their normal lunch time of 10:30 a.m. That was six or seven hours after my grandfather got up to milk the cows and feed the other animals, but it was usually only a half hour or so after my mom was able to get me out of bed. Those lunches were always my breakfast.

On the day before Easter, I would go to the farm to spend the night. I stayed in the guest room with Henry, our mute and mentally disabled great uncle who served as their farmhand. He was sweet-spirited but mysterious to us, a Boo Radley in Oshkosh overalls and a white T-shirt.

Their farmhouse was simple, a couple of bedrooms, a sitting room and a wide front porch where my grandmother was always finding a copperhead or a blacksnake lurking in her hanging plants. There was an old barn and a new barn in the backyard, a toolshed where my grandfather hid his silver money, a natural spring and a tin dipper for drinking water and an unholy tree in the front yard where we had to cut our own switches when we misbehaved.

It’s hard to believe that they are only a couple of generations removed from my kids and their electronic-filled, suburban lifestyle. My kids, who have never known a callus, wouldn’t have survived one switching from my snuff-dipping grandmother.

They had electricity and a television, but the black-and-white screen was smaller than the one on my laptop. Whenever I stayed overnight, we were in bed by 9 and up at 4:30. My grandfather never let me milk the cows – I had weak hands and I always overslept.

On Easter mornings, however, I was up as early as them and ready to head out the door. We packed up our colored eggs in the bed of his old farm truck and head off to Sugar Hill. My memories say that it was always foggy and cold and I’m sure the drive wasn’t as long as I remember. We spent what seemed like hours fighting eggs, but still made it home in time to get dressed in a new suit for 11 a.m. church service.

I taught my kids how to fight eggs and we even went to Sugar Hill a few years ago. They look forward to renewing the tradition. My youngest, still caught up in the frenzy of March Madness, even made a double-elimination tournament bracket for our family egg-fighting battles later this afternoon.

What I love about the holiness of Easter and the coming of spring is that it a time to celebrate resurrection and rebirth, of the Risen Lord, of plants, of animals and of ancient family traditions.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A Round Unlike Any Other

I love my wife and kids to death, but I think even they will understand that when I go to the great clubhouse in the sky and St. Peter asks me to list the best days of my life, that I will I include April 11, 1994, along with our anniversary (June 12, maybe?) and the boys’ birthdays (sometime during basketball season).

Clearly, the caddie was getting frustrated. There we were, standing in the middle of the 15th fairway of Augusta National Golf Club, and in four quick swings we were barely 20 yards from where we started. There were two beaver pelt-sized divots on this pristine fairway of golf’s most meticulously groomed course and two balls in the pond just ahead of us.

That was exactly 20 years ago, the only time I had the opportunity to play Augusta National Golf Club, one of the world’s most exclusive private courses, which opens its gates to the public one week a year for golf’s first major tournament, The Masters. It was the day after Jose Maria Olazábal won the first of his two Masters titles, and the luckiest day of my life.

I was covering the tournament for only the second time, as a pretend golf writer for the now-defunct Greenville (S.C.) Piedmont; yet my name was pulled in the famed Monday media lottery, in which 20 print journalists and 20 television journalists are invited to the play the course with the final-round pin placements. When the lottery results were announced Saturday morning, I was anything but interested in writing about The Masters’ second most interesting Spanish champion.

At the time, when your name was pulled for the media lottery, you got one shot to play the course and then your name was tucked away in a filing cabinet in a folder that read something like “Never Again.” I believe that policy has been relaxed in the meantime but since the last Masters I covered was in 1998, it probably won’t change for me.

The Monday after the Masters is also when CBS shoots its promos for the following year and when all the television executives and other famous people are on the course on one of the rare days the club allows non-members to play en masse. So Olazábal was on the front nine when we started off on the back.

Basketball legend Julius Erving played that day, as did all the members of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. Then-Duke athletics director Tom Butters, chair of that group, was in the foursome behind us.

It was a spectacular spring morning, a little nippy, but no hint of rain. I didn’t exactly fit in, with my faux-leather Bud Light bag, muddy shoes, a disposable camera and the perpetually sad look of a sportswriter who missed deadline on a daytime event three of the four previous nights. Despite the traffic from three days of practice rounds and four days of competition, the course was a perfectly maintained sea of two-inch grass, back when the course had no rough and the groundskeeper felt obligated to outline any two-square-foot patch of clover far away from any fairway and put up a “Ground Under Repair” marker.

On this day, I was randomly assigned a caddie, a second-shift worker at a local cookie factory whose primary skill in life was reading the elephant cemeteries Augusta National uses for greens. And as lumpy, fast and slick as they seem on television, I can assure you, they are lumpier, faster and slicker.

Like most of the guys in the caddie corps at Augusta National, my guy was good. I’m convinced he could, between long draws of an unfiltered Camel, detect the break on a perfectly balanced billiard table. On the 16th hole, the par-3 Jack Nicklaus made famous in 1986, I chipped onto the green after a dreadful first shot and was about 30 feet uphill from the flag, which was in its traditional Sunday placement on the front lefthand corner. He pointed at a spot on the green about five feet from my ball and said “Make it die right here.” 

Never mind that when I lined up on that spot, my back was to the hole. I hit it where he told me and one second after the ball seemingly died on the ridge, it took one more roll, gained momentum and trickled in an arching path to the hole. It rimmed out at the last second.

“Didn’t hit it where I told you to,” he said after I tapped in for bogey.

So he was good. What he didn’t deserve that day was me, a well-known hacker whose game makes Caddyshack look like a History Channel documentary. I had been playing golf for a few years, but had only recently begun taking lessons. In the words of my instructor, I had a high-powered swing that he described as “incorrigible.”

I don’t believe that means “accurate.”

Of course I’ll never admit this to myself, but my frequent playing partners can attest that I am a horrible player who has committed a lot of felonious golf on some of the world’s great courses. I once won a bet in which I received a stroke a hole for a full round and still lost by three strokes. I once hit a condo at Linville Ridge Country Club so hard my playing partners actually walked up to the building to see if the ball was embedded in the Hardiplank siding. At Royal Dornoch in Scotland, Donald Ross’ home course, had I not climbed down a 40-foot gorse-covered embankment on the 16th hole to retrieve a lost ball I spotted out of the corner of my eye, I would have been unable to finish my second round of the day, which I had started with five sleeves of brand-new balls.

At Pinehurst No. 2, the site of this year’s men’s and women’s U.S. Opens, I made a 16 on the par-3 sixth hole without a penalty stroke. You wanna know how? I rolled in a 12-footer to save it.

So here we were standing in the middle of the 15th fairway, after I murdered a drive, easily reaching the go-zone that non-PGA Tour rakers like me dream about on 495-yard par-5s. I was way ahead of where Gene Sarazen hit his paltry 265-yard drive in 1935, when he made the famous double-eagle that turned the two-year-old tournament into golf's most anticipated event. Our foursome had made a pact at the beginning of the day that we would aggressively go for any greens we could reach in two. For me, that meant all the par 3s, 4s and 5s. I was about 180 yards from the middle of the green and when I walked up to the ball, all smiles, the caddie was waiting on me with a 5-iron.

“Nice, easy swing,” he said. “Make good contact, and the ball will land right in the middle of the green.”
The problem, however, was that go-zone was on a slight downhill slope. I hate hitting a ball on a slight downhill slope, with my shoes just above the ball. I have virtually no chance of hitting a good shot from that kind of lie. Back in the day of soft-covered balata balls, I could put a smile across the dimples that would scare the bejesus out of a clown.

So on the first swing, I dug too deep. The divot may have actually flown further than the ball. I slammed by club into the ground, replaced what grass I could salvage and glared at the caddie when he quietly handed me a 6-iron.

“Nice, easy swing,” he said. “We can still get there in regulation.”

The second divot was bigger than the first and the ball finished dribbling down the fairway about the same time I finished, wife-like, cursing my inadequacies. I replaced another divot and nodded wordlessly when the caddie handed me a 7-iron. This club was my friend, one I could easily hit 150 yards to the middle of the green and still leave myself a chance to make par.

He might has well have handed me a ladle, because I chili-dipped the next two shots right into the middle of the pond that protects the 15th green. Now laying 7, I dropped a ball with determination, looking like a one-year predecessor of the “Tin Cup” character Roy McAvoy.

No way was I hitting a third ball in that pond. I did, however, nearly dump it to lake behind the green. 

Luckily, the ball struck the well-girded scoreboard that stands near the 16th tee box. It caromed back onto the green, leaving me an easy one-putt (even for me) to finish the hole.

It’s not the way Jack or Arnie would have played what is traditionally Augusta National’s easiest hole, nor was it what designer Alister Mackenzie had in mind when he built it.

"It is not only an interesting three-shot hole, as one will be maneuvering for position from the tee shot onwards, but also a magnificent two-shot hole, as a skillful and courageous player will, aided by a large hillock to the right, be able to pull his second shot around to the green,” he wrote in the first Masters’ program. “A pond in front of the green provides the penalty for the long player who fails to make a perfect second shot.”

That’s me, “skillful” and “courageous”; though, technically, neither my second, third, fourth nor fifth shot was “perfect.” Few were that day. I made one par the entire time, on the azalea-ringed 13th hole, a par-5 that has pine straw to the right and Rae’s Creek to the left. I hit into both of them on my first two shots.

I eventually found my ball sitting up on a sand bar in front of the green, down where the water moccasins are known to squiggle. I played it like a really wet bunker shot, was up on the green in regulation and easily two-putted from 15 feet.

I did okay on the hardest shot in golf, from the tee box at No. 12. The intimidating par-3 isn’t very far, barely 155 yards, but it does have a creek in the front and a rock wall in the back. I landed in the middle of the green, but the ball rolled off the back, up against the rock wall. I felt pretty good when I chipped up to within four fee of the hole, but equally miserable when I missed a stupid putt for par on golf’s most intimidating hole.

To be honest, other than hitting the media tent with my drive on No. 1 (our 10th hole of the day), the front side was kind of a blur. It was getting hot. I was playing poorly. I was feeling rushed. I had to leave early in the afternoon to make sure I made it from Augusta to Salisbury, N.C., at 6 p.m. that night for our annual Rotisserie League Baseball draft, which takes a little over three hours with no South Carolina Highway Patrol in the way.

I didn’t fully appreciate that this would be the only time I would ever see this course from (mostly) inside the ropes. There were times, standing over my third putt or looking for the ball hidden deep in the cathedral of pines, I completely forgot to tingle.

As always when I’m on the golf course, my desire to play finished long before the round did.

Somewhere in my cluttered home office, I still have the the press pass from the tournament, all the newspaper clippings from the stories I wrote that week and the scorecard from the only round I’ll ever play at Augusta National.  I rarely come across them among the media guides, folders, books, notes and other little mementos from 30 years in writing about sports.

But you know what happens when I see them? A little tingle.