Remembering Pa-Pa at the top of his game

by Brian Clarey

I’m sitting in a bar on the southwestern end of town, taking up a whole table all by myself during the cocktail hour. I’m sitting here and looking at a piece of history.

It wouldn’t mean much to any of you out there, but it means a lot to me ‘— a nearly sacred artifact from my family’s past and evidence of the way things used to be.

It’s not very big, perhaps six by eight inches of well sanded and stained wood. Affixed to it is a silver rectangle with letters and numbers on a grid, with the number ‘“1’” circled heavily in the upper-right quadrant. Off to one side, one the front, is attached an ancient, yellowed golf ball. A Dunlop. Number 3.

It’s a plaque, of course, awarded to my maternal grandfather, Lewis Pagano, in the year 1967 when he hit his first hole in one at Springbrook Country Club in Morristown, NJ.

We called him ‘“Pa-Pa.’” We still do, though things haven’t been going so great for my Pa-Pa these last few years. A combination of age, idleness and poor lifestyle choices have robbed him of much of what he once was, but this scorecard gives testament to the greatness he once possessed.

I could wax on here for pages about my grandfather’s largesse ‘— how as a child of Italian immigrants he sweated his way to a free ride at Penn and went on to finish dental school there; how he fixed the teeth of the nuns at the Villa Walsh convent for free and proudly took his front-row seat in their beautiful chapel every year at midnight mass; how he loved children and used to wake up sleeping grandchildren to play with them whenever they visited his home.

There’s much more I can assure you, but when I write about my grandfather today, sitting in the bar while the band does a soundcheck, I want to talk about golf.

Pa-Pa loved golf. I asked my grandmother Josephine just how much.

‘“You remember, Brian,’” she said over the phone. ‘“All those family picnics and parties’… he was always there but he was always late.’”

It’s been years since my grandfather last shot 18 holes, but I hear in her voice traces of the slighted golf widow she once was.

‘“The first time he played golf was at Fort Meade,’” she recalls, at the behest of some of the other Army dentists who thought he should take up the game, probably as a lark or maybe to make fun of the little Italian man with the hairy forearms.

‘“He had never had a golf club in his hands before,’” Grandma says.

Pa-Pa did well on the course that day, shooting in the 80s his first time out. I’ve heard the story hundreds of times: Pa-Pa was a natural. And a junkie.

‘“He was hooked,’” my Grandma says. ‘“He never gave it up.’”

He used his Army privileges to join the club at the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, but it wasn’t long before he upgraded to the club at Springbrook, then (and probably now) regarded as the best in the area and a club that, a generation earlier, might have refused him membership due to his swarthy coloring and true Italian blood.

They joined Springbrook when he was 32, in 1952.

‘“We were about the youngest people in the club at the time,’” Grandma remembers. And he played every day.

‘“He got very good,’” she says. ‘“The lowest his handicap got was three.’”

You golfers out there can understand the significance of a three handicap, but for those who don’t it means that he routinely shot 18 holes at an average of three over par. For the whole loop. Not quite good enough for the PGA Tour, but certainly adequate to make a living hustling on the public courses.

Like I say, he was a natural.

On Oct. 28, 1967, Pa-Pa was shooting with a five handicap. He was 47. And he hit his first hole-in-one.

It was the autumn after the Summer of Love, the year my parents got married

When he told the story he always talked about the front nine: three double-bogeys, two bogeys and three holes hit for par.

‘“If it weren’t for the front nine,’” he would say, ‘“I would have had a pretty good day.’”

The ace came on the back nine, on the 14th, and the guys in his foursome that day ‘— Dick Malone, Duncan Talbot and Harold Lotz, all dead now, according to my grandmother ‘— had never seen one before. Neither, of course, had my grandfather, a man who grew up in the junkyard business in Morristown and was the first in his family to master English (truth be told, some of them still haven’t).

But this wasn’t Pa-Pa’s last hole-in-one. He shot another two years later, similarly documented. His last happened sometime during the ’80s, when these things were not so rare.

He put down his clubs for good about five years ago. I think it broke him.

I saw my Pa-Pa this past Christmas, when my Uncle Tom trotted him out from the geriatric psych ward where he now lives. It had been a couple of years, and he hadn’t yet met my daughter and may have forgotten about my second son. I caught him giving me quizzical looks during the day a couple of times, but we never sat down and talked.

I wish we had. I may not get another chance.

But I’ll always have vivid memories of Pa-Pa: the smell of cigars; his maroon Cadillac, his tan lines from his hours on the golf course that made him look when he undressed at night like he had dipped his forearms in bronze save for the one white hand where he wore his glove, when he was large, dynamic and beautiful, at the top of his game. And I’m not necessarily talking about golf here.

All of that’… all of it’… is gone now. But somewhere in there I know he remembers that first hole-in-one, how he raced to the cup to see if it was really true, the hours in the clubhouse bar afterwards when he bought the obligatory round of drinks, the story ‘— told and retold so many times that for me it has the essence of legend.

He’s still got all of that, and so do I.

And if I ever need proof I can always look to the plaque, which will be hanging near my desk on my office wall.

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