Nantucket Essays

Summer Education

• by Robert P. Barsanti •

Education ends and begins in the spring. The high school had its graduation in the auditorium; the parents and well-wishers watched as the students moved their tassels from one side to the other and then it was done for them. They went home to parties and presents, firm handshakes and Instagram posts that faded into a gentle Sunday at the beach and then another day of work.

Another education begins on the job. The Honor Society will find itself on registers, behind counters, and manning the back of the Santos trash truck as the summer starts. As real as any other apprenticeship, the young would learn the ways of the lawnmower and the cash register. More importantly, the privileges of youth dropped away to the duties of the adult. You were an equal to the other dishwashers, responsible for all that everyone else was responsible for. You came to work just like everyone else, left with everyone else, and drew a paycheck like everyone else. If you skipped out on work, everyone else had to pull your weight. Your mother couldn’t wipe it away with a note.

As Nantucket has become more of an International Resort, our tolerance for high school workers seems to have slipped. They arrive too late in the season, leave too soon, and don’t present the appearance that an International Resort demands. Our clientele demands top shelf service, whether it be on the Westmoor Tennis Courts or on the strip. Further, the perceived demands of the elite colleges make internships and special projects more desirable. Our sons don’t learn to maintain the lawnmowers, they build orphanages in Guatemala. Harvard’s admissions office prefers Central America to Middle America.

And they may be right. The world changes while we look backwards into the gauzy beloved past. I am sure that rebuilding a Tibetan village is more valuable than shotgunning Miller Lites and watching “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” on VHS in the lifeguard station. My summer education generally encompassed holding boredom at bay with a mop and a book.

I have had more than my share of menial jobs. I was a lifeguard and a prison guard, I was a bouncer and a bartender, I painted houses (poorly) and made plastic coffee stirrers. I had a dozen other jobs as well, all of which have disappeared like t-shirts into the Take It or Leave It. Of all of the jobs, the one that comes back to me the most was Golf Caddy.

Golf is going the way of the glaciers. Almost two hundred golf courses closed last year and the number of rounds played is half what it was twenty years ago. The great marketers are chanting “Time for Nine” but nobody has picked up the song. Out here, in the great golden heart of the plutocracy, golf remains popular with a municipal course charging more than a hundred dollars for a round. The rest of America yawns.

Golf has become to expensive for most people to countenance. Although bargains can be found, it remains a sport with five hundred dollar clubs, twenty dollar golf balls, and really ugly pants. Further, technology has not made the sport all that easier. A morning lesson can make a klutz a skier, and two days can give him some fun. Golf requires a lifetime of patience and pain; golf balls will still be lost at an amazing rate. After years of hitting practice balls and playing several rounds a week, you can play around with the same ball you started with. Finally, and most importantly, a round of golf requires five hours before you get to the bar. America doesn’t have the time. If you don’t have to work on the weekend, you probably want to see the kids for a few minutes.

I caddied in an older America, when men could leave their houses at six in the morning and return at six in the evening after a day playing golf, bridge, and “shut the box.” Then they could come back on Sunday and do it again. In that America, I caddied for men who sold vacuum cleaners, used cars, and life insurance. They drank beer, ate burgers, and brought their wives to Bushwood on Friday nights.

To them, caddying was a moral decision. You chose to walk the course because that was exercise, after a fashion. Golf carts were for the old and sick who “needed” it. Some of the men hired a caddy because they wanted a servant on the course, but most saw us not quite as sons, but as nephews. We wound up being the audience for their sport; our youth enforced civility and the rules. The golfers were always conscious of us and of their roles. They showed us way things were done. We were the future of the game: they knew this. Most of them had carried bags on the same course back in the familiar past. I remember the best of them for their grace and good humor in the face of a frustrating game. They smiled often and tipped well.

At its worst, I spent four frustrating hours with a mean tempered jerk who tipped less than a dollar. I learned the invaluable lesson that your work doesn’t often get appreciated by others, that keeping your mouth shut will prevent problems, and that all things eventually come to the eighteenth hole. At its best, I spent four hours paired up with an older man who was not my father, but whom I could admire. So much of what I know about being a good man comes from watching putts fall in, either to win or to lose.

My summer education may have been far better if I had been in Andes digging wells than it was walking eighteen holes with two golf bags on my shoulders. My education was not about privilege and giving back, rather it was about drudgery, arcane rules, and finding lost golf balls in the stream. But my adult career has had far more of the frustrations of the golf course than the pure achievement of fresh running water to a dehydrated village. I have had far too many bosses who would throw their clubs, too many days trudging in the high grass, and far too few who greeted each round as a gift. It may not have been the best education, but, at the end, I got tipped.

Articles by Date from 2012