With summer here and Benjamin out of school, I’m thinking of a place my brother and I spent many hours each week of our childhood summers. It ties in with a funny moment during my 10-year high school reunion weekend, which I’ve been recalling because my 20th is only about a year away.
A classmate’s girlfriend said she was anxious to go to the dinner at the country club. Her life up to that point apparently had not included trips to such places, and her eyes danced in anticipation of regal surroundings.
My friend laughed and said, “No, you don’t understand, this is a country club.”
The hometown crowd cracked up because we knew exactly what he meant. I knew a little better than most because my family had a membership.
Don’t go thinking that meant we were rich (but I know that’s a relative term). Let me tell you what set our club apart from what your mind conjures up when you hear “country club.”
First, one of the primary attractions for paying members was the bar. We lived in a dry county, meaning no liquor stores, no beer stores, no wine stores — period. The nearest place to get all that was about a 45-minute drive. The law also meant no bars unless they were private clubs, and restaurants didn’t serve alcohol. I suppose there was a dining area, but I don’t remember ever using it.
That brings me to the establishment’s name: Thunderbird Country Club. Yes, it shares its moniker with a low-end fortified wine. I suppose it’s better than Night Train Country Club. Ripple, however, has a nice ring to it. (those who want to spoil my fun might point out that it could have been named after an older, much nicer club in California, whose introductory web page you can’t get past without being registered)
Regardless of its name’s origins, many of us affectionately called it the Thunder Chicken.
The sports facilities were not top tier. The golf course consisted of nine holes — 18 if you went around again and started from the alternate tee boxes. To have anything nicer demanded more money, and at that time golf was not the popular sport it is today. I think there were a couple of tennis courts nestled in a patch of pine trees near the pond on the ninth/18th fairway.
There were two features, however, that are pretty much the same no matter where you go — the swimming pool and the billiards room. Sure, the fancier clubs dress them up by adding high diving boards and more tables, but the sensation of cooling off on a hot summer day or putting the eight ball in the corner pocket isn’t enhanced by higher monthly fees or Mercedes in the parking lot.
The most popular poolside game was rag tag. The two taggers wadded up a soaked t-shirt (the “rag”) and stood on either side of the deep end, turning the diving board into a gauntlet for every soul that chose to use it. The often unwitting targets used various strategies to avoid being tagged. Covering the eyes was always a good idea, because invariably the rag would come partially undone in the air and grow whips.
I still remember the sloppy fwop as the rag hit its target. Hitting someone put you back in the rotation, where you then had to hope their revenge shot missed.
Snack time was a favorite for me. Almost always with a friend, I exited the chain link fence around the pool and walked barefoot up the sidewalk to the pro shop. The 100-degree days often sent me off the blistering sidewalk into the grass.
I walked through the door to a patient white-haired lady who merely tolerated us. Dripping wet, I shivered as I gave her my candy bar order. She took my quarter, turned slowly to open the refrigerator, and then handed over my sweet reward. I hurried back out the door, hoping the pro shop’s brief, frigid blast and the candy bar would keep me cool for that half hour I waited to get back in the water. To do otherwise meant certain death.
Chilled Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups always hit the spot. Sometimes I went for a Butterfinger, or the now-defunct Marathon Bar. Its braided caramel remained remarkably brittle in the hot sun, thanks to the arctic refrigerator, but it was delicious.
The most dangerous moment was the day that “Mel,” a friend of ours, was climbing up the ladder from the deep end. The number one tee box was beside and a little behind the pool. Someone hit their shot right off the toe of the clubhead and the ball zinged over the fence and hit Mel in the middle of his back. He didn’t wail until he knew what had hit him, and obviously either from his shriek or word of mouth the powers that be heard about it; the fence was higher soon after.
When the chlorine sting in my eyes or the sunburn got bad enough, I retreated to the lone pool table on the premises. My pruny fingers readily absorbed the blue cue chalk, and if I wasn’t careful I started looking like a Smurf. My wet swimming trunks felt like ice each time they brushed against my legs, and my hair was a cold mop on my head. When not playing, I watched as the older kids mixed international terms like “English” and “massé,” but seemed unable to demonstrate them with any regularity. They also peppered their speech with what they jokingly called “French,” but that I knew as “cussing.”
After pool became tiresome and my lips started turning blue, it was back outside to the pool.
Ah, yes, the Thunder Chicken. Country club living for those who weren’t rich (but they were welcome, too).
So, what was your favorite childhood summer hangout?
(Note: Before my brother retorts, I must point out that the golf course was a source of many memorable moments and, although still only nine holes, has improved since our glory days.)