The PGA Championship just finished up right here in Rochester, and although I’m really just an occasional golf fan, it was pretty exciting to have such an important tournament take place in our back yard. (I almost mean this literally. My mom and my aunts grew up in a house that was a two minute walk from Oak Hill Country Club. It’s been rumored that when she was a teenager, my Aunt Lisa and her friends used to sneak onto the grounds after dark and scrawl inappropriate words in the sand traps. My grandmother finally sold that house three years ago, so Oak Hill is no longer actually in my family’s back yard… But, still, there’s a connection.)
Back in 2003, the last time that the PGA Championship was hosted at Oak Hill, Nick and I happened to be visiting the lake from our home in Westchester County (outside of New York City) . Through his employer, Nick was able to secure a job as a walking scorer, and spent several days traveling around the course, pencil in hand, following some of the world’s best golfers and relaying their scores to the official score-keeper people (yes, that’s the technical term) at the end of each hole. He had a blast, and even managed – after his official job was over – to slip me his all-access pass, so I was able to watch the play from inside the ropes. With that as my benchmark, my experience as a golf spectator kind of went downhill from there.
This year, although Nick wasn’t given the opportunity to be a walking scorer again, his company did have a corporate tent, so he spent three days working there – meeting clients, talking with advisors – right alongside the 18th green. Not such a bad week at the office.
He asked if I’d like to work the PGA, too, but I wasn’t convinced. Sure, getting to potentially see golfers I’d heard of (Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson sound, you know, familiar), or maybe glimpsing that delicious Aussie, Adam Scott (if you don’t know him, do yourself a favor and say g’day), held some appeal… but I wasn’t really sure that I was interested.
Then, Nick’s company decided, during the Tuesday practice round, that they would work with the PGA to donate their tent to some local veterans’ organizations. It would be an opportunity for armed service personnel, both active and retired, to see some great golf – for free – while also having access to a nicely-appointed tent and a chance to win some cool, auctioned-off, golf-related prizes. A relatively small gesture, to be sure, but a kind one nonetheless – a chance to thank those who have served our country and allow them to get away and have fun for a while.
Although we, as a family, try to support veterans and veterans’ organizations as often as we can, I often feel like our gestures are greatly inadequate. And so, when I was asked to volunteer as the event’s photographer, I jumped at the chance.
Nick (who was volunteering as well) and I left the lake around 8 a.m., leaving Ella and Annie with my aunt, and told her we’d probably be done at Oak Hill by 3:00. It was a beautiful summer day, perfect for golf – perfect for just about anything – not too hot, not too humid, not too windy. The course was packed with spectators, and even though I don’t consider myself “into” golf, the air of excitement and anticipation that was contagious. We made our way to the corporate tents, watching as the golfers played through the 18th fairway, and then I got down to work.
My instructions were to take mostly candids of the military personnel as they chatted with one another and with the PGA staff and Nick’s colleagues, with a few “official” shots thrown in for good measure. I did so, but even more than that, I was eager to speak with some of those in attendance, to thank them, to try to let them know how grateful I am for all they do.
The conversations ran the gamut, from the Vietnam-era vet who had stayed stateside, test-jumping out of helicopters so that those actually in Vietnam would know what to do, calling those years “the most fun of his life,” to the young soldier who had been wounded in Iraq, rehabbed his shoulder for six months, and then hastily married his fiancee when he discovered that he’d be shipped out again, this time to Djibouti and Uganda. He’d been home for only a few weeks, and his wife – who became teary several times during the conversation – couldn’t stop holding his hand, telling us over and over again how wonderful it was for them to be able to have a day on the golf course like this.
Nick and I spent a great deal of time talking with a burly former soldier/ NYC police officer, who was so blunt and jovial, even as he described the times he’d been shot at from close range (as a cop, not a soldier), that we couldn’t help but laugh along with him. There was a delicious buffet, some short speeches, and several news crews on hand who had taken an interest in what they termed a “charitable effort” and decided to document the event.
Photos. Conversations. Food. Watching a few golfers play through. Photos. Conversations. Repeat. By early afternoon, nearly all of the veterans had had their fill of lunch and were out walking the course, and the tent was strangely quiet. Despite myself, I started to get antsy. When we discovered that the auction wouldn’t take place until 4 p.m., I began to become downright agitated. I knew that Annie and Ella were fine, but I felt terrible leaving them for so long with my aunt – and now we’d be home much later than we’d anticipated. I’d already spoken with the soldiers and told them I was thankful. I’d snapped a lot of photos. The most famous golfers had already played through.
I was bored. And annoyed. And couldn’t wait to leave.
As I fumbled for my phone one more time, cursing the poor wi-fi connection in the tent, a young, slightly-built man came through the door. He was carrying a large black leather case – a portfolio of some kind? – and plopped it down on the table. Without any introduction, he looked up at Nick and me and asked if we’d “like to see some artwork by veterans.” Intrigued (and, honestly, I was eager for anything to break the tedium), we said yes. He opened the portfolio and, staring back at us, was incredible sketch after incredible sketch — pencil drawings, oil pastels, charcoal etchings – mostly of soldiers, some of civilian life, but all done by someone who clearly has a gift. Turns out, this quiet man was a soldier who had returned from Afghanistan less than a year ago (after having joined the National Guard, not expecting to actually be sent out on active duty), and he had created every one of these amazing pieces of art.
Some had been done while in Afghanistan, scraping together whatever supplies he could, and some had been done after he returned, but he credited the artwork with getting him through the war and back again. One of his pieces was a photograph of a bicycle in an Afghani courtyard – a gorgeous photo, radiating peacefulness and contentment, so beautifully composed that it took my breath away… until the young man pointed out the IED, completely hidden to us, buried in the ground just in front of the bike. He casually estimated that by removing that IED, they’d saved at least a thousand lives. It’s an image I will never forget.
While we were mid-portfolio, another gentleman came into the tent. Apparently, he and Nick had chatted earlier about our raising CCI dogs, and he’d come to ask if we knew how he could become a certified dog trainer. As we talked, I learned that he’d also been deployed to the Middle East and, upon returning home, had been unemployed for 99 weeks. Nearly all of his buddies had PTSD, and several had committed suicide or become alcoholics since their return, and he knew he was going down the same path. Then, unexpectedly, he adopted a Siberian Husky who, in his words, “became his best friend and saved his life.” After seeing how his Husky affected him so profoundly, he knew that the pup was unique, so he went through the training necessary to certify his dog as a therapy dog; they visit loads of people each month, and nothing makes him happier than seeing his dog bring people joy. He is now looking to start a business with a “pack” of therapy dogs living in a special house, where soldiers suffering from PTSD can come and stay a while, allowing the dogs to work their healing magic and help the soldiers re-enter society.
Our conversations were finally stopped when it was announced that it was time for the auction — 4 p.m. already. I couldn’t believe how quickly the rest of the afternoon had flown. Neither the artist nor the dog trainer won a prize, but both left the tent with smiles on their faces.
It was not lost on me that if I’d left two hours earlier, when boredom seemed to be overtaking me, I would have missed out entirely on meeting these men, and I never would have heard their stories, stories which will stay with me forever. Sometimes, the universe works in funny ways.
As we walked back to our car, Nick and I marveled at how, really, these folks just wanted to talk. Not necessarily about their time in the military (although that was obviously the reason they’d attended the event, so some discussion about their service was a given), but about anything. Their passions, their dreams, their childhoods. Their other jobs, their marriages, their artwork, their dogs. The subjects kept changing, but one thing remained the same: they just wanted to be heard. And all we had to do was listen.
Which, when you think about it, is a fantastically easy thing to do. To listen.
I wonder, if we all did it more often, if the men and women of our armed forces would have an easier go of things. It seems so simple… But I think it’s time to try.
I’d started out working at the PGA so that I could give back. In the end, of course, I received far more than I gave… Which made the entire thing so very worth it.
That… and these backside shots of Adam Scott.
Hey – a girl’s got to have a dream too, right?