The End of Sand

I have an article in this week’s New Yorker about sand—and there’s some actual golf in it. Here’s an excerpt, about a round I played in Dubai:

One day, I played golf with an Australian who worked for a major real-estate developer. The course, like Dubai itself, had been built on empty desert, and I commented that creating fairways and greens in such a forbidding environment must be difficult. “No,” the Australian said. “Deserts are easy, because you can shape the sand into anything you like.” The difficult parts, paradoxically, are the areas that are supposed to be sand: deserts make lousy sand traps. The wind-blown grains are so rounded that golf balls sink into them, so the sand in the bunkers on Dubai’s many golf courses is imported. Jumeirah Golf Estates—on the outskirts of the city, next to the desert—has two courses, Fire and Earth, both designed by Greg Norman. The sand in the bunkers on the Earth course is white (the most prized color for golf sand) and was bought from a producer in North Carolina. The sand on the Fire course is reddish brown—more like the desert across the road. Norman’s company bought it from Hutcheson, which mined it at its quarry in Ontario, sifted it to make it firmer than volleyball sand, kiln-dried it, dyed it, and loaded it onto a ship.

Bonus golf-related sand trivia (not in the article):The white sand in the bunkers at last year’s U.S. Open, at Oakmont, and Ryder Cup, at Hazeltine, came from a single quarry, in Ohio. It’s a trademarked brand called Tour Grade Signature Blend, from Fairmount Santrol, a Michigan company that also produces sand for molds used in metal-casting.

The photographs above and below are of an Army Corps of Engineers beach-nourishment project on the Jersey Shore—which I also wrote about. The metal boxes in the photo below are for unexploded munitions, which the Army dumped off the coast after the Second World War and the dredges sometimes slurp up.

Useful Golf Terminolory

From “The Rules of Golf [Revised],” edited by Francis Ouimet, 1948.

The word stymie—which means “prevent or hinder the progress of”—was originally just a golf term, having to do with a ball that blocked another ball’s path to the hole. The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1857; it concerns wooden putters, which, apparently, could impart enough sidespin to a nineteenth-century golf ball to cause it “to pass the stimy.” The rule book changed in 1953, the first year a player could require another player to mark and lift an obstructing ball. My Sunday-morning golf buddies and I have kept stymies alive, sort of, by employing them in playoffs.

We also have added several terms of our own to golf’s lexicon. An Underwood, for example, is a shot that appears to be heading into the trees or out of bounds but hits a branch, root, stone, golf cart, squirrel, or low-flying aircraft and ends up in the middle of the fairway. It was named for a many-time club champion, who has a long, bothersome history of lucky bounces (in addition to a long, bothersome history of being the club’s best putter, chipper, driver, and so forth). The rest of us will often shout “Underwood!” just before a shot of ours reaches whatever trouble it’s heading for; sometimes, that works. Fifteen or twenty years ago, a member named Pickett resigned after deciding he had used up his lifetime’s allotment of Underwoods and therefore had no reason to continue playing. He thus became the first member of our club to be Picketted—in his case, self-Picketted.

Underwood, Royal Birkdale, May, 2010.

A Gillen is the opposite of a skin—it’s a negative skin. It’s what you get, in our version of the game, if you make the unmatched worst score on any hole. Gillens were invented by Tim, who had been irritated by Gillen’s habit of playing miserably for nine or ten holes and then scooping up all the carryovers with an improbable net birdie. The most astonishing Gillen ever recorded was earned by Gillen himself, on a day when five of us were playing together. On our seventh hole, a short-par-three, Gillen hit a good tee shot and made an easy par, while all four of the rest of us—after a remarkable succession of long bombs and chip-ins—made birdies. Gillen thus became the first person ever to receive a Gillen for a three.

Tim, inventor of the Gillen, Old Course at St. Andrews, May, 2008.

On that same hole on a different Sunday, I played in a group that included Schoon. He had a one-foot par putt, which, for some reason, no one had given him. He made a bad stroke and advanced the ball just four inches. The remaining distance—0.2032 meters—is now treated locally as a unit of golf measurement, called a Schoon. (A two-foot putt is three Schoons long.) Schoons are especially useful in setting the official gimme distance. Before we tee off, for example, Hacker (real name) might announce, “Mulligan on the first tee, play everything down, and Schoons are good for everyone but Schoon.”

Easy Way to Gain Unbelievable Power

Wrestling match held in 1938 in Sikeston, Missouri, a legendary power vortex.

My right hand felt heavy when I woke up one morning, and my fingertips tingled. The tingling persisted through breakfast. I shook my hand, did a few pushups, and squeezed a rubber ball. The tingling persisted through lunch. I consulted a medical website and discovered that I was suffering—as I had suspected—from poor circulation, heart attack, stroke, diabetes, a herniated disk, a tumor, Guillain-Barré syndrome, and multiple sclerosis.

I paced nervously through my house, and thought about how much I love my children, my wife, and our furniture. I fretted about whether to call my doctor. It was Sunday afternoon, and he was probably playing golf. Should I page him on the course or drive directly to the emergency room and schedule my own M.R.I.?

Thinking about golf and my doctor made me think of something else. With a flash of insight possibly comparable to Pasteur’s realization that moldy bread can cure pneumonia, I was suddenly able to diagnose my malady as pseudo-carpal-tunnel syndrome brought on by sleeping in an awkward position while wearing one of those copper wristbands that Seve Ballesteros used to endorse. I removed the wristband—which was crimped against the underside of my arm like a staple in a stack of papers—and within an hour all my symptoms had disappeared.

Despite the side effects, I loved that wristband. It was made by a company called Sabona of London, whose headquarters are in Sikeston, Missouri, a legendary American power vortex. (Also in Sikeston: Lambert’s Cafe, “The Only Home of Throwed Rolls,” where waiters throw fresh-from-the-oven dinner rolls at customers all the way across the restaurant.) Pretty many of the golfers I saw on TV wore copper wristbands; wearing one myself seemed like an easy way to become exactly like them.

When my wife first saw my wristband—which she called a bracelet—she laughed out loud, and I took it off for a while. But then I put it back on. I lost it eventually, but several years ago, at the P.G.A. Golf Merchandise Show, in Orlando, I persuaded various merchants to give me new wristbands, and ever since then I’ve worn them in rotation, with occasional replacements. Most are made of “surgical-grade silicone,” rather than plumbing-grade copper, (One, which a woman in Bogota, Colombia, gave me after I’d admired hers, looks liked barbed wire.) Several have proven power-boosting components, among them magnets, titanium pieces, ion-emitting discs, and holographic images like the ones on credit cards (also a well-known source of power). The effect on my golf game has been, quite literally, unbelievable, as you will see in the video below, which we made at the show.

A First for the Sunday Morning Group

A nearby muny reopened on the last day of February, making this past winter the shortest one ever, but then almost immediately we got a couple of feet of snow and everything shut down again. Now, finally, my home course is open for good. I missed the official first day, last Friday, because I was traveling, but I was there on Sunday for the first 2017 meeting of the Sunday Morning Group. The best thing about being home again was that we could play in less than three and a half hours, instead of the five and a half hours our last off-season round took.

Our course was in great shape, and a number of improvements had either been implemented or were under way. Our seventh hole, at 120-140 yards, has always been a surprisingly challenging par 3—in a four-man scramble once, my team’s best tee shot was short of the front bunker, which is well short of the green—but the back of the tee box is being pushed ten or fifteen yards, onto what used to be a cart path:

More important, S.M.G.’s dining-and-beer-drinking terrace is being enlarged, and will soon cover part of the executive parking lot. When the stonework is finished, we’ll have a second sitting area, a built-in grill, and a butt-high stone wall that guys who’ve had too much to drink can fall off the back of:

Opening Day lunch was provided by Keith and his father, Jim. Because Keith is a new member, he didn’t know that we have a rule against salad:

But a few guys tried it anyway, maybe figuring that if they did they wouldn’t have to eat anything green for the rest of the week. And the salad turned out to be good! Keith and Jim also brought hors and chocolate-chip cookies. So Hacker (real name) told them they have to bring Opening Day lunch from now on.

Shouldn’t We Just Get Rid of Golf?

I traveled to Colorado, Arizona, California, and Utah without my golf clubs recently, promoting my new book, Where the Water Goes. Among other things, I gave a talk in the Mark Taper Auditorium at the Los Angeles Central Library.

There was a Q & A period at the end, and one member of the audience asked, in effect, whether a good way to cope with drought in the West might not be to get rid of golf. I gave my usual defense (“Blah, blah, blah, blah”). Later that evening, though, I thought of a different answer: Why not cut down all the palm trees in Los Angeles? None of them grow there naturally, and they consume a lot of water. Most people assume that palm trees (and citrus trees) are indigenous to L.A., but they’re not, and they’d die without irrigation. Here’s a photo of a palm-tree planting project in the city in the nineteen-twenties:

Better get rid of the gardens, too:

Nothing you see in the photo above is a native species. The climate of Los Angeles is semi-arid, and without irrigation the city would look like the set of “Rawhide.” There are places in the United States where watering fairways is clearly irrational, but if we’re sane about costs and trade-offs most regions can manage a variety of irrigated outdoor recreational facilities, including parks, athletic fields, and golf courses. More about that in my book.

When You Make the Turn, Pause a Moment to Order a Copy of My New Book

It’s called Where the Water Goes, and there’s even some golf in it. Two reviews, and then I’ll leave you alone:

From The Wall Street Journal:

From the first lines, Mr. Owen owns our attention. We have a lot to learn, but this is not a textbook. What Mr. Owen offers is a detail-rich travelogue, an amalgam of memoir and journalism and history, moving across a watershed that sustains 36 million people from Wyoming to Mexico. This wonderfully written book covers issues that will, or should, give you a headache. But it is a good headache, one that makes you a more informed person. Mr. Owen writes about water, but in these polarized times the lessons he shares spill into other arenas. The world of water rights and wrongs along the Colorado River offers hope for other problems. We all want our fair share of water, but maybe, just maybe, we can get it without draining our neighbor’s pipes.

From NPR.org:

Owen is effortlessly engaging, informally parceling out information about acre-foot allotments alongside sketches of notable, often dreadful figures in the river’s history. And though his sympathies are clear, he doesn’t shy away from the reality that these problems resist simple solutions; every data point raises new questions, and governments, activists, and old guard are only beginning to work together to answer them. Where the Water Goes doesn’t pretend to solve the problems Owen acknowledges are overwhelming and, in some ways, impossible. It’s a restless travelogue of long-term human impact on the natural world, and how politics and economics have as much to do with redirecting rivers as any canal. But with its historical eddies, policy asides, and trips to the Hoover Dam, at heart Where the Water Goes is about water as a function of time, and a reminder that we’re running out of both.

If you do read the book, you can follow along on the book’s page on my non-golf website, where I’ve posted a couple of hundred photographs from my trips along the river.

Before You Watch That, Watch This

From 2:00-3:00 EST on Saturday, immediately before the regular tournament broadcast, be sure to watch The Masters: Legends of Magnolia Lane, starring Bill Macatee, on CBS. (I helped write it and put it together.) There’s so much cool historical material about the tournament (of course) that we didn’t have room for everything. I was sorry to lose a couple of Jack Nicklaus’s reminiscences about his first Masters win, in 1963. (Maybe everybody else already knows these stories, but I hadn’t heard them.)

Nicklaus on his third round that year: “We got on the eighteenth green and Willie Peterson is my caddie and I’m color-blind, so I couldn’t tell whether it was red or green on the scoreboard. I kept looking up at the board. I saw all these ones and I said, ‘Willie,’ I said, ‘how many of those ones are red?’ He said, ‘Just you, Boss.'”

Nicklaus on throwing his hat in the air the next day, after winning: “I looked at that on film, and I said, ‘What an artificial move.’ You know, everybody always threw their hat, so I figured maybe I’ll throw my hat. You know, there wasn’t anything spontaneous about it. . . . I just said, ‘Well, I gotta do something.'”

And that’s just the stuff we left out!

Masters (Weekend) Countdown: Who Was Clifford Roberts? (Part Four)

Charles, Clifford, Alpheus, Dorothy, Key, John, and Rebecca Roberts in 1907.

[Clifford Roberts was the co-founder, with Bobby Jones, of Augusta National Golf Club, and he was the chairman of both the club and the Masters from their beginning, in the early 1930s, until his death, in 1977. It’s often said that Jones conceived of the club and Roberts financed it, but that’s not the case. Roberts, unlike Jones, grew up poor, and during the club’s early years he was close to broke. But Roberts idolized Jones, and he was determined to help him fulfill his dream of building a golf course in the South that could host a U. S. Open. That the club and the Masters survived the Great Depression and the Second World War is a tribute mainly to Roberts’s determination to keep them going. Time, as Roberts measured it, began the day he met Bobby Jones. But the years leading up to that encounter are in many ways as interesting as the years that followed it. They are the years that shaped the man who shaped Augusta National and the Masters.]

In May, 1915, a little less than two years after their mother’s suicide, Clifford Roberts’s sister, Dorothy, began to keep a diary of her own. She was fourteen years old. Her father had married a considerably younger woman, from Missouri, and had moved the family to Kansas City, where he continued to pursue a bewildering variety of ill-considered business ventures. Clifford’s older brother, now called Jack, had married about a year earlier; he and his wife were living in Kansas City, too, but would soon move to California. Clifford made occasional appearances at home but spent most of his time selling men’s clothing on the road in a territory that covered much of the Midwest. His salary in 1916 was $1.30 a month plus commissions, and he did so well that he frequently was able to make substantial gifts to members of the family—especially to Dorothy, who had long looked up to him as more of a father figure than her father.

At different times over the next decade, Dorothy, Key, and Alpheus followed Jack to California, and all eventually settled permanently on the West Coast. Only Clifford looked east. As he traveled around the Midwest and South selling suits, he was planning a new life for himself. He studied the biographies of wealthy men, hoping to learn the secrets of their success. He decided—as he later told a relative—that he would rather be a little fish in a big pond than a big fish in a little pond. He assessed the advantages and disadvantages of living in various cities, eventually deciding that he would need to move to New York because New York was where the money was. He invested much of his earnings in nice clothes for himself, because he had decided that in order to make his way in the big city he would have to look the part. He memorized information about leading colleges and universities, so that he would not embarrass himself when introduced to men who had been far better educated than he. With the same unblinking focus that would later characterize his planning for the Masters Tournament, he studied the life he wanted to lead and then set out to lead it.

Clifford’s assault on New York was not an immediate success. In 1917, when he was twenty-three, he sold his share of some Iowa property that he and the other children had inherited from their mother’s side of the family, and with that money as a stake he set out to make his fortune in the East. Before the end of the month, he was back in Kansas City again and probably close to broke. “Think Cliff is going to make some money real soon,” Dorothy wrote. “Surely hope he does, for he has had so much hard luck.”

Shortly afterward, he tried again, and this time he stayed. He rented a room in a small residential hotel, and by early April, 1918, he was working for what Dorothy in her diary called “the Oklahoma-Wyoming Oil Company” and expecting “to make a small fortune.” One month later, the draft intervened. He was trained as a private in the Signal Corps. at Camp Hancock, in Augusta, Georgia—his first exposure to the small southern city that would come to dominate his life. He was shipped to France in October, 1918, roughly a month before the Armistice, and was shipped home six and a half months later, following an entirely uneventful tour of duty. (He passed some of the time by learning French from a Canadian soldier.) He was discharged on May 7, 1919.

After his return, he at first divided his time between New York and Chicago, where he was involved in a variety of investment deals. None amounted to much. A little over a year later, in a Christmas letter to Dorothy, he wrote, “1920 has been a rather rough and terrible year for me—the stock market has been shot to pieces and general business badly upset.” He was spending much of his modest income to help support various family members, including his father, who had suffered a stroke and would soon die. (Charles was buried in Kansas City. Of the five siblings, only Clifford and Alpheus—who was still living in Kansas City with their step-mother—attended his funeral. Dorothy scarcely noted the death in her diary.)

By 1922, Roberts was a principal in a struggling partnership called Roberts & Co., which that year had income of less than a thousand dollars. His net income the following year was a little more than $2,400. He made a little more than $7,500 in 1924. By 1925, he was associated with a New York firm called Banta & Morrin and was calling himself a “financial negotiator” and “stock-and-bond broker.” A nephew has said that Roberts in the early twenties put together an oil-and-gas deal that made him $50,000. That didn’t happen, but the nephew may be thinking of 1929, when Roberts’s tax return shows that he was paid a $55,000 commission by an investment-banking firm called F. A. Willard & Co. That year, his total net income amounted to just under $70,000—by far his most successful year up to that point.

Unfortunately, 1929 was a disastrous year in which to make a fortune. Roberts invested much of his windfall in securities that turned sour during the October Crash or in the dreary years that followed it; his 1929 tax return lists a number of stocks that he bought shortly before Black Thursday and sold at substantial losses shortly after. In 1930 and 1931, trading losses more than wiped out all his other income, leaving him with a cumulative net loss for those two years of more than $21,000. By way of comparison, in 1931, the year the club was formed, Bobby Jones had net income of more than $140,000—far more than Roberts’s total earnings during the fourteen years he had been in New York. The popular conception is that Roberts was rich and Jones was scarcely employed when the club began; in fact, the reverse was true.

During that difficult period, golf was a part of the New York social milieu to which Roberts was striving to belong. He had first encountered the game as a youngster in California, where he and his brother had caddied for fifteen cents a bag. He taught himself to play as caddies always have, by hitting found balls with abandoned clubs during the idle hours between loops. When he started to make some money in New York, he joined Knollwood Country Club, in Westchester County, and worked on his game and social connections there. At some point in the mid-twenties, he attended an exhibition at Knollwood in which Jones played—an exhibition that may have been the occasion of their first meeting. “Each time I saw Bob or read his public comments, I respected and liked him more,” he wrote in his book about the club. “I watched part of the final of the 1926 USGA Amateur Championship at Baltusrol, in New Jersey, in which George Von Elm defeated Jones two and one. Shortly afterwards, I was one of some half-dozen who were having a drink with the loser and trying to think of something comforting to say to him.” Jones’s effect on Roberts was similar to that, two decades later, of, Eisenhower, who also became a close friend. In an interview with a researcher at Columbia University in the late sixties, Roberts said of Eisenhower that “people just instinctively want to help him and to gain favor in his eyes by doing things that might please him.” Roberts could as easily have been describing his initial attraction to Jones.

Jones in those years often spoke of his desire to build a championship course in the South. One day in 1930, Roberts suggested building the course in Augusta, where both men coincidentally had played winter golf while staying at Bon Air-Vanderbilt Hotel, which was run by a mutual friend. Roberts, after his stint in the Army, had returned to Augusta for occasional golf vacations; he liked the city in part because it was warm in the winter yet far enough north to be easily reachable by overnight train from New York. Jones liked Augusta’s mild winter climate and believed that a club there might afford him some privacy—a scarcity at home in Atlanta. (“It had got so that he couldn’t even plan a weekday game without feeling like he was playing an exhibition,” Roberts told the Saturday Evening Post in 1951.) They agreed to proceed.

The notion of engaging in any sort of continuing project with Jones must have held extraordinary appeal for Roberts. Not many years before, he had been selling clothes and living out of a suitcase in a territory that extended from Chicago to New Orleans. Now he was living in the biggest, richest, most exciting city in the country and helping to implement a dream of one of the most celebrated athletes in the world. Years later, Roberts reprinted for club members a chapter from the book Farewell to Sport, by Paul Gallico. The chapter, called “One Hero,” was about Jones, and it was probably Roberts’s single favorite text. He quoted from it again in his book about the club: “I am, by nature, a hero-worshipper, as, I guess, most of us are, but in all the years of contact with the famous ones of sport I have found only one that would stand up in every way as a gentleman as well as a celebrity, a fine, decent, human being as well as a newsprint personage, and who never once, since I have known him, has let me down in my estimate of him. That one is Robert Tyre Jones, Jr., the golf-player from Atlanta, Georgia. And Jones in his day was considered the champion of champions.”

Roberts was, by nature, a hero-worshipper, too. He took enormous personal satisfaction from making himself indispensable to Jones (as he would again later with Dwight Eisenhower). Roberts’s deep, genuine, and enduring commitment to the game of golf did not predate their friendship. He said himself in later years that if he had never met Jones he would never have been more than a weekend golfer. He adopted the ideals of his hero and made them his own.

The Augusta project must have had a further powerful appeal for Roberts: It gave him an opportunity to become acquainted with and make himself useful to a large group of lesser heroes, the successors of the pioneering capitalists whose lives he had studied as a young man. Some of those same men would later become investment clients of his, but any personal financial gain would have meant less to Roberts than the growing ease with which he was able to move within their once inaccessible world. The club was so time-consuming from the start that its net effect on his investment business was probably negative. But he did not regret the loss. It was the life, not the money, that he wanted.

I’m Blaming Trump for This, Too

Ordinarily I’m not a language snob. Does it truly matter if people incorrectly refer to concrete as “cement,” or say “fortuitous” when what they mean is “serendipitous,” or use “enormity” as a synonym for “immensity,” or complain about their “arteriosclerosis” when what they actually have is atherosclerosis (unless it’s the other way around)? Life is too short for brooding about the vocabularies of strangers.

And yet.

Surely you, too, have noticed that at least half the people in America unashamedly use golf as a verb: Do you golf? My brother-in-law golfs. Did you ever see Tiger Woods golf? My wife and I golfed on our honeymoon. I’m thinking of teaching my cat to golf.

The problem has been exacerbated by having a president who, even by presidential standards, spends a remarkable amount of time playing golf. When reporters who aren’t sportswriters report on his weekend activities, they say that he “golfs.”

People who use that word in that way are almost always non-players or neophytes. It’s your great-aunt, not Jordan Spieth, who asks you if you “golfed” over the weekend. The pro at your club doesn’t “golf.” The other members of your foursome don’t “golf.” And Ben Hogan never “golfed” in his life.

This linguistic form is unique to our game, incidentally. Nobody tennises, or baseballs, or billiardses, or soccers. The people who use golf as a verb could cite the dictionary in their defense, but the dictionary is not enough. Using golf as a verb is like using sex as a verb (a usage permissible only for people who hold certain unglamorous jobs in the poultry industry). Using golf as a verb demeans golf.

I don’t mind golfer (although a few purists insist on player). I can even stand an occasional golfing. But the entire conjugation of to golf makes me want to grab a four-iron and golf somebody in the head with it.

While we’re on the subject of golf-related annoyances, let’s spend a moment on ball washers. Beginning players are always easy to spot: They keep their tees in wrist bandoliers, and they can’t pass a ball washer without using it. You hear them pumping as you tee up your first drive of the morning; you hear them pumping as you consider your final putt of the afternoon. These new golfers need to be told that ball washers serve a decorative function only, and are never to be used. Real golfers clean their balls by spitting on them and rubbing them on their thigh, making a permanent stain near the pocket, and identifying them as players, not as people who golf.

Masters Countdown: Who Was Clifford Roberts? (Part Three)

Charles, Clifford, Alpheus, Dorothy, Key, John, and Rebecca Roberts in 1907.

[Clifford Roberts was the co-founder, with Bobby Jones, of Augusta National Golf Club, and he was the chairman of both the club and the Masters from their beginning, in the early 1930s, until his death, in 1977. It’s often said that Jones conceived of the club and Roberts financed it, but that’s not the case. Roberts, unlike Jones, grew up poor, and during the club’s early years he was close to broke. But Roberts idolized Jones, and he was determined to help him fulfill his dream of building a golf course in the South that could host a U. S. Open. That the club and the Masters survived the Great Depression and the Second World War is a tribute mainly to Roberts’s determination to keep them going. Time, as Roberts measured it, began the day he met Bobby Jones. But the years leading up to that encounter are in many ways as interesting as the years that followed it. They are the years that shaped the man who shaped Augusta National and the Masters.]

Late in 1909, Charles Roberts received fifteen thousand dollars for the family’s old farm in Kansas and was able to pay off a number of debts. But his financial situation remained precarious, and a year later it took a sharp turn for the worse. On October 30, 1910, Clifford, who was sixteen, went to Sunday school at the Presbyterian church and then escorted his mother to the regular service. On the way, he realized he had left his gloves at home and ran back to get them. He lit a kerosene lamp in his and John’s dark room—which the two boys had just begun to set up for themselves in the attic of the family’s small house—and dropped a match on the floor, starting a fire that consumed the house. The twins sounded the alarm. “We got back to see its finish,” Rebecca wrote in her diary, which someone had the foresight to rescue. Charles dragged the family’s cherished player piano out of the house by himself. Almost everything else was destroyed, and there was no insurance. The local dentist, who had been doing dental work for Rebecca and Dorothy, “made us a Christmas present” of his fee.

The fire marks the beginning of Clifford’s life as an adult. He promised his mother he would try to make up for his negligence by doing as much as he could to help out. He was sixteen years old and had left school for good the previous spring. He continued to work on the family’s farm—which was failing—and to help his father with various business ventures. He began to work as a clerk in a dry-goods store in Blessing, a town several miles to the north. (“He actually sold more goods during their 10 days sale than any other clerk or the two owners themselves,” his mother noted with pride.) In July, he went to Galveston for a three-week course in business skills. He talked about teaming up with an acquaintance to run a meat company in Blessing. His name began to appear less often in his mother’s diary—which she continued to keep for another year and then abandoned—because he was now spending more time away from the rented house that had become the family’s home.

In that house, not quite three years after the fire, Rebecca Roberts rose quietly from her bed at four o’clock one morning, crept downstairs without waking her husband or her children, walked behind the house to a spot near the garage, and shot herself in the chest with a shotgun. It was three days after her forty-fourth birthday. No one in the family heard. Charles found her body when he awoke, at five. “The coroner’s verdict was that the deceased came to her death by her own hand,” an article on the front page of the Palacios Beacon said. “Letters afterward found written by Mrs. Roberts addressed to each member of the family showed that the act was premeditated. Each of the letters was an expression of affectionate farewell.” The letters, which were brief, were written in pencil in steady script on small sheets of lined notepaper.

Dear Dorothy —
Mama’s love goes on just
the same & you must be a
good girl & do as Papa
says. Stay with friends
I chose for you in life.
            Love Mama

The tone seems chilling, especially when compared with the tender informality of Rebecca’s diary: “Dorothy often draws me to rocking chair & when she’s in my arms—then she takes up my fingers in left hand & taps end of one with her small one—meaning that she wants me to sing.”

Rebecca’s note to Clifford was equally restrained:

Dear Clifford
I write to beg you to
not grieve but be a
man in time of trial.
Papa will need you.
 Be a sober upright
son & all will be well.
I know Ma wants you
to come to her.
         Love Mama

“Ma,” in the last sentence, is Maria Lyman Key, Rebecca’s mother, with whom Clifford had lived during much of the family’s seven-month stay in California nine years before. Clifford must have been considering a move or a visit, but there is no indication in the family’s records that he ever went. Charles, with Rebecca gone, would have needed him close at hand. Maria Key died in early 1915, a little less than a year and a half after her daughter’s suicide.

What a desolate experience it must have been to read those flat, emotionless notes on the morning of Rebecca’s death. Since the fire, Clifford had felt a disproportionate share of responsibility for the family’s misfortunes; Rebecca’s brief note would not have lightened his burden. Late in his life, he commissioned a portrait of his mother based on an old photograph and hung it in his apartment in the Bahamas. In 1904, when he was ten, he had made her a small paper heart and inscribed it to his “dear Mama.” Dorothy found the heart among their mother’s things one day and sent it to him. “What a sweet person Mother was!” Roberts wrote back in wistful acknowledgment. “I’m glad to be reminded that at least on one occasion I let her know how I felt about her.” The years in Palacios had become a void in his memory. Once he left, he never went back.

[to be continued]