I was too young for military service in World War II. Between Pearl Harbor and the Japanese surrender in August of 1945, I became a golf course caddy at a club catering to New York City golfers who came north to enjoy the well maintained public courses of Westchester County.
The corps of caddies at Sprain Lake Golf Course consisted of men in their 50s, a few men judged 4F by their draft boards, and teenagers like me.
Mr. Bill Dee worked in the pro shop and was also in charge of the caddies. Dee was a man in his late 40s who made the selection of who would caddy for a given customer. He did not tolerate any excess noise or horseplay but otherwise treated our group fairly.
On weekends, most of us rose early and walked to the golf course or hitched a ride with golfers anxious for an early tee time. Rain and early morning fog sometimes created delays, but most of the time we could expect clear skies and warm weather. The caddy shack, a lean-to of log construction, dominated the place where caddies waited to be assigned a golfer.
When the day began, caddies wanted an early assignment, as this would enable them to carry bags for eighteen holes in the morning and repeat the five mile hike around the course in the afternoon. With luck they would get to carry for two golfers at the same time. On a good day, a caddy could easily clear $5 for carrying doubles for two rounds. It was hard work, but we all hoped to get the double carries.
To make a little more money caddies always walked in the rough, scouting for golf balls lost by previous players. A Titleist or Dunlap Maxfli without serious cuts or scrapes could easily fetch 35 to 50 cents each. Once in a while a golfer would claim ownership of a ball found by the caddy, so one had to quickly ask the golfer, “What were you playing, sir?” If his reply didn’t match the discovered ball, the caddy could declare ownership and either pocket the ball or offer it for sale to the golfer.
As one gained experience, a caddy’s assignments would gravitate toward the best golfers, who also tended to be the most generous tippers.
But after a year or so on the job, I became convinced that we were underpaid and should ask for a raise. Caddies were in short supply, and most courses in the county were paying $1.50 per round as compared to our $1.25. It was a continuing topic of conversation in the caddy shack. After a couple of weekends of talk, we grew bolder and agreed to force the issue. After all, caddies at other county courses were enjoying their raise. We even went so far as to agree to go on strike if our request wasn't met.
I volunteered to talk with Mr. Dee about the raise, and the group readily supported. I was pretty confident that Mr. Dee would see the logic of our position and agree to the suggested increase in pay. I felt I was on solid ground with the higher pay scale of other county courses.
When the caddy master next came into the yard to select a caddy, I approached him and told the man we wanted a raise for our efforts. He stopped, got red in the face and exploded, “George, you’re out of line, and you’re through here as a caddy! You get your ass outta here, and I mean right now!”
There wasn’t a murmur from the other caddies as I hastily got out of there. Looking at my fellow caddies, he ranted, “Anybody else thinking about a raise can also get out down the road with George.” It got awful quiet. Not one person made a move.
I left Sprain Lake to become a caddy at Sunningdale Country Club, a private course several miles north of my former employer. It turned out to be a much better deal, as the golfers were faster, better players and far more generous in tipping. I concentrated on learning the game, avoiding any discussions on pay scale or working conditions. My organizing, labor relations days were over.
The Sprain Lake firing also taught me an important lesson that stayed with me for the rest of my life — to be a leader, one must have followers.
This article originally appeared in Roadrunner Extra!, the resident newsletter of Beatitudes Campus.