Friday, July 28, 2006

Never let go of your hose: Today in Friday hose blogging today: License to drown gophers: Golf course diary-uh entry number I've lost count

Synopsis: Just as the Internet depends on a series of tubes, a golf course depends on a network of hoses. (And a team of hosers, eh?)

It's a good thing I worked on the United States Navy's goddamn golf course outside North Chicago 20 years ago instead of now, because this fucking hot weather would definitely kill me. It's bound to kill me as it is, and I'm in an air conditioned room right now (knock on wood -- power outages are not unlikely in these situations).

One way we dealt with the heat was to start work insanely early in the morning -- 6 a.m. on weekdays, and 5 a.m. on weekend days when a tournament was scheduled. Another way was to focus on light duty -- driving a Cushman around towing a couple 55-gallon drums full of water to dump around newly planted trees being one example. Then we'd spend most of the afternoon repeatedly dunking our arms into the barrels of cold water, on the theory that your wrists have a lot of blood flowing through them close to the surface, so it would cool off your whole body. At any rate, it felt pretty good.

"Uh, hello Mr. Gopher. Yeah, it's me, Mr. Squirrel. Yeah, hi, just a harmless squirrel, not a bucket of water or anything, nothing to be worried about."

Watering the trees also gave us plenty of chances to rampantly quote our favorite Caddyshack lines ("Correct me if I'm wrong, Sandy, but if I kill all the golfers, they'll lock me up and throw away the key") while pestering varmints -- yes, gophers, and there were millions of the critters scurrying around that place. ("We can do that. We don't even need a reason.") We would never kill 'em -- in contrast to the whole purpose of the Great Lakes installation itself (which purpose is, let's be honest, training people in the business of killing), none of us golf course hippies were into the destruction of life. We weren't opposed, though, to a little comic disruption of life -- of varmint life, at least. People are always appalled when I talk about this -- and in retrospect it seems a little cruel -- but I still can't help but laugh at the angry little furry faces on the gophers when we'd chase 'em into their holes and then dump a five-gallon bucket of water down after them. I seriously doubt any of them drowned or got damaged in any real way, but boy were they pissed off. A second or two after the dousing, they'd pop back out of the hole, soaked, shooting us a glare that couldn't have been rendered funnier in a Tex Avery cartoon, and chattering the varmint equivalent of "you motherfucking ... cocksucking ... ooh!" Then they'd sing a little Kenny Loggins and get back to their varminting business.

But back to the main subject of today's effort: Hoses.

Another example of hot-day light duty was "syringing the greens." Golf course maintenance geek alert: Grass, especially the delicate bentgrass varieties used for putting surfaces, can quickly dry out and, well, die under intense sunlight. It's a bad idea, however, to fully irrigate greens during the sunny parts of the day, because any quantity of standing water can magnify the sun and burn the grass up before the water has a chance to soak in.

A solution to this problem is called "syringing" -- spraying the greens very lightly, to cool the little bitty blades of grass off without getting the ground really wet. With the antiquated irrigation system in place at the time at Great Lakes, this required hauling a big rubber hose around and plugging it into various outlets in the ground and squirting water on the greens by hand, so it wasn't totally light duty, but it beat driving a tractor around and straddling a hot engine all day. It was much more pleasant to straddle a rigid hose, spewing life-giving high-pressure wetness.

You might think this job offered the opportunity to engage in a little bit of human-soaking to go along with the gopher soaking -- and there's nothing I'd like more than to be able to tell some golf course tractor operator "hose fight" stories right now. But the water for the irrigation system was pumped out of the water hazard on the 7th hole -- a nasty, muddy, dirty pond full of snapping turtles, goose shit, and god knows what-all runoff from the golf course (pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer, motor oil, golf balls). Nobody wanted to get that shit sprayed on him -- and it was particularly horrifying when, one season, I noticed that some Seabees who were on-site building some additional sand traps to please the newly installed golf-crazy Base Commandant were DRINKING from those hoses. That was fucked up. But that's the navy for you.

Like any well-oiled killing machine, I guess, safety and health were not primary concerns of the navy. Which brings me to the last, and best, hose-related anecdote.

"This is what happens when you fuck a hose in the ass, Larry! This is what happens, Larry! This ... is what happens ... when you fuck ... a high-pressure fire-hose ... in the ass!!!"

The navy may not have much regard for human life, but it does care very much about its ships. If something happens to the ships, after all, how can the navy use them to kill people? This is why all recruits go through training in fighting fires -- when a fire breaks out aboard ship, I would have to guess that's the classic "all hands on deck" situation. Everybody has to know how to do it.

Today, the Great Lakes Naval Training Center has a very modern, state-of-the-art indoor training facility for this purpose ... but until about 1990 or so, the Fire Fighters Training School was located outdoors -- smack in the middle of the golf course.

This made for constant hilarity. For one thing, keep in mind that this was a hands-on thing, not just a classroom, theory deal, which meant that the school was always setting big gasoline fires for the scrubs to put out. Which meant that, depending on wind patterns, at any given time, a big black dense oily cloud of smoke was bound to be rolling across one of the fairways. And if there's anything with a funnier facial expression than a wet gopher, it's a retired admiral who can't find his golf ball -- or his breath -- because he's standing in the middle of a choking smokescreen.

There was never a shortage of pure slapstick gold going on at the Fire Fighters school, especially among the poor, hapless recruits, and I got a kick out of watching those jahoobs during every idle moment. Since it was, after all, the Reagan era, and I couldn't be too sure the draft wouldn't be reinstituted at any time, I was a little leery of laughing too hard at the recruits, for fear that someday I'd be in their place. No, that's a lie. I loved to laugh at those poor fuckers, every goddamn day.

The school was run by a few of the stereotypical grizzled and tattooed enlisted men whose characteristics you can well imagine. The types of career military guys who are cool enough to invite the golf course civilians over to the classroom on a cold late-Fall day to watch some 8-mm stag flicks ("fuck films," as Ted the Head Greenskeeper preferred to call them) while eating some leftover Government Issue franks and beans for lunch -- but who also derive their most consistent perverse pleasure from torturing the hell out of the young swabbies misfortunate enough to fall into their hands for the day.

The trainees would be brought to the school -- which immediately adjoined the golf course maintenance barn area -- every day in big gray school buses, and loaded out, greasy, wet, and exhausted at the end of the day in the same buses, but the motor transportation itself was the only consistent procedure. They never treated the trainees the same way twice -- the trainers seemed intent on coming up with every variation possible in wrangling sailors. One day, they'd line them up in ranks and make them march in step. The next day, they'd just roust them around at random. Next day, single file line. Day after that, they'd just cuss them out while they stood around looking stupid. Which, judging from the frequent amplified screaming at them to pay attention ("No skylarking!" being the somewhat curious much-repeated order blasting over the school's P.A. system), they apparently were.

One of my favorite jobs on the course was garbage detail -- not just because it was easy duty to drive around picking up trash, but also because emptying the haul into the dumpster was always good for some yuks. The dumpster was located next to a weird, sick little concrete building that was -- no bones about it -- a gas chamber, where they'd teach the swabbies how to use their gas masks. They'd herd the poor morons into the chamber, shut the iron door behind them, and pump the building full of tear gas. Then, after a little while, they would open the doors to let the fools out -- but first, so the lesson would be reinforced properly -- with the chamber still full of gas -- they made the recruits take off their masks and walk out, both arms extended, coughing and crying. (I think they made them extend their arms because the natural tendency of a dumbass recruit would be to rub his eyes, and that would only make things much worse. Of course, a few idiots would always do that anyway, which only added to the comic effect, because then the trainers would make them do the gas-chamber drill again.)

The tenor of this whole post is making me wonder if I'm not some kind of sadistic bastard. So far, we've ridiculed flooded gophers, smoked-out retirees, and tear-gassed sailors. Oh well. If you're going to tell me you wouldn't have laughed at all of them, you're a liar.

The most visually spectacular part of the fire training was not in this cruel vein, though -- but it did involve hoses. Naturally, the bulk of the training process involved recruits learning how to handle hoses -- and not the wimpy little irrigation hoses we used to syringe greens. Full-sized macho fire hoses.

Now -- as a little aside -- I grew up among volunteer fire-fighters and spent a lot of time hanging around the fire house in Lake Villa, Illinois, and I got to ride on fire trucks pretty often (not to actual fires, but around town on errands, etc.) and stuff like that. A big recreational activity for the volunteer firemen (and women) in the northeast Illinois and southeast Wisconsin area at that time (and today, too, I think) are the "water fights" at the various summer carnivals and town founders' days and the like. (Hey, small-town Americana doesn't get any more Americana-ish than that.)

What they do is they put an empty beer keg (the fire house basement bar being the convenient place for getting those kegs empty, of course) on a concrete slab. Then a team constructed of one town's biggest fire people (men's and women's teams were kept separate) would line up on one side, and a similar team would line up on the other. In Lake Villa, they would park a fire engine on the beach next to Cedar Lake and pump water out of the lake and pressure up both sides' hoses, and at the screech of a whistle, the teams would open up on the barrel, with the object of driving the barrel past the opposite team's end line. Rivalries got pretty heated -- I recall the Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, team being particularly fierce competitors.

My uncle, whose bad back prevented him from water fighting himself, used to serve as emcee and play-by-play commentator, and I used to help set up the review stand and hang out there under the tournament scoreboard for the event. (Showbiz, quasi-sports, AND firefighting geekery -- all in one aside -- very nice, eh?)

Anyway, the point is that I grew up with a healthy respect for what a big hose can do. Apparently, the average navy recruit was not credited with that respect, so the Great Lakes Naval Training Center's Fire Fighting Training School -- being based, as we've seen, on a pedagogical construct of Learning Things The Hard Way -- had to teach them.

I don't think I can capture this in words, but believe me, this was really cool to watch every time. To demonstrate in no uncertain terms to the trainees What Will Happen If You Let Go Of Your Hose, the Fire Fighters school had a rig that consisted of a length of hose attached to a short pipe and tethered to the ground via some clamp-like apparatus. After delievering a short and typically yelly lecture over the P.A., they'd turn a crank and pressure that baby up. Then they pull a lever and let that sucker go free.

Instant visual comedy.

I'm not sure of the 100% soundness of this teaching technique, because I for one would always be tempted to drop the damn hose just to see it thrash around that way. A loose and unfettered hose is kuh-rayzee, man, kuh-rayzee. It is the funniest damn thing I can imagine that doesn't involve a gopher or a person suffering -- although, I guess, the brass hose fitting would kill you very dead if it clonked you on the skull. But, damn if every time I heard that lecture I didn't stop whatever important golf course shit I was working on and watch that stupid hose thrash around like the most spastic and ill-conceived fountain ever built. There's something about seeing a loose, 20-foot-long fire hose shoosting water in random directions and spaz-dancing like a drunken Des that makes you want to exclaim, every time you see it, "Whoaaaaa!!!" while imagining madcap piano music from some kind of deranged Mack Sennett picture blasting in the background as a scurry of ground squirrels erupt in a custard-pie battle.

So there you have it ... I think that's the best 2,300+ words I can write about hoses at this time. I think I'm going to do just one more golf course post (probably late this weekend or early next week) and then move onto something else. There are just a few details left to relate about Ted the Head and my punk rock mentor Ralphie. Until then, keep cool, and no skylarking.

No comments: