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Miniature Golf


August, 2019. Quantico, Virginia

Keith Monroe hadn't worn his uniform once since retiring from active duty almost five years to the day, but this was an occasion that called for it, so he'd gotten a regulation haircut and put on the uniform he'd worn for 30 years.

As he walked toward the reviewing stand by himself, he was saluted numerous times.

"Good afternoon, sir!" one Marine after the other said as they snapped a salute at the colonel they didn't know was no longer on active duty.

He returned each one of them and asked how the Marine or junior officer was doing knowing every answer would be, "Outstanding, sir!"

Perhaps if his wife, Beth, was still alive, it might be an even more enjoyable occasion than it was. But since her passing three years ago, nothing gave him any real joy anymore. He wasn't depressed, he just couldn't get excited about anything without the love of his life by his side.

But today, his son, Neil, was graduating from Officer's Candidate School, and the 57-year old retired Marine colonel felt pretty good. He felt even better when the commanding officer of OCS, an officer he'd know many years ago when he was a major and the younger colonel was a lieutenant.

"Colonel Monroe, it's good to see you," the younger officer said as he shook hands with the man who was now his peer in terms of rank.

"You, too, Dave," his former boss said.

"You've gotta be awfully proud, right, Dad?" Colonel David Duncan said, knowing the answer.

"I am. I just wish his mom could be here to see this."

"I, uh, I'm really sorry about Beth."

"Thanks. Me, too," the older man said.

"Come on. The parade won't start until I'm in place so we should probably get seated."

Keith Monroe understand completely, and as they moved toward the reviewing stand where he'd be joining the OCS commander as the graduating class passed in review in front of them, he recalled the many times he'd either been in a parade like this one or standing as the reviewing officer himself. The last time, of course, was at his retirement ceremony with Beth dutifully by his side looking as beautiful as he could ever remember.

Neil had been there, too, happy to take a day off of school to attend his father's retirement. He'd had no interest in the Marine Corps at that time, and his dad had never pushed him in any direction other than attending college. That wasn't optional. The only question had ever been 'where', and when Neil agreed to attend Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, his father's alma matter, the elder Monroe was secretly thrilled.

Neil was a sophomore in high school when the family relocated to the city where his parents had met and fallen in love when Keith was a junior in college. The lure of flying had attracted him to the military, and when Keith learned about a program called PLC which stood for Platoon Leader's Course, the Marine Corps had won his business.

The PLC program allowed those enrolled in it to attend class with no obligations whatsoever. No classes, no meetings, no uniforms, no haircut or grooming requirements. No nothing other than maintaining a minimum 2.0 GPA and attending a 10-week OCS stint in Quantico, Virginia, after one's junior year. The other option was attending a six-week course twice following one's freshman and junior years. Even then, those who successfully completed the course had no military obligations whatsoever, and could refuse a commission right up until the day they graduated from college without penalty.

The elder Monroe had flown CH-53 helicopters his entire career, less those years he was attending some professional school like Command and Staff College, also located in Quantico. In fact, it was 'just down the street' from OCS.

"Have you found your son yet?" Dave asked after being introduced as the reviewing officer and commanding officer of Officer Candidate's School.

Keith laughed as they looked out at the sea of green where nearly every graduating officer candidate looked the same.

"He's in third platoon," Dave said.

That was enough of a clue for Keith to find his son's platoon where a young captain was standing at attention in front of it as the parade got ready to start. As much as they all looked alike, Keith's still-20/20 eyes spotted his son in the second squad of third platoon, and the salty veteran of two wars briefly felt a lump in his throat.

"Got him," he said as a very young candidate marched out and called, "Sound, attention!"

Less than thirty minutes later, the roughly 250 graduating candidates marched passed the reviewing stand, executing a movement known as 'eyes, right' as they did.

Keith stood next to Dave, and returned the salute of each passing platoon, until the emcee told everyone that was the end of the ceremony and that family and friends were now free to find their loved ones.

Rather than walk toward Neil and end up having to salute a hundred candidates, Keith waited knowing his son had already seen him. He had another unusual emotion. Keith felt a knot in his stomach as his son ran toward him, stopped, saluted smartly, and said, "GOOD AFTERNOON, SIR!" as he tried not to smile.

His father returned the salute, then grabbed his son and hugged him.

"You look good, son," he told his boy as he held him close for a few extra seconds.

"You, too, Colonel," his said, now better able to appreciate the silver eagles on his father's collar.

"Your mom would be really proud of you, you know," he told Neil. "And so am I."

"Thanks, Dad. Come on. I want to introduce you to a couple of my friends."

One of them was a prior-enlisted Marine who'd been a staff sergeant who'd served two tours in Afghanistan. Keith asked him how his son had done, and the former Marine answered him honestly.

"Sir, he didn't know his ass from his elbow when we got here, but I'd be honored to serve alongside him anywhere in the Corps now."

Unlike Neil, who wanted to fly, this young man wanted to be an infantry officer more than anything else on earth. Keith wished him luck, then returned a second salute before asking his son what was next.

"I change out of this monkey suit into some civvies, and we fly home," Neil told him.

Two weeks later, Neil Monroe was back at school for his first day of class just like nothing had happened that summer. Well, other than the white sidewalls on his head that were nearly already covered with dark hair.

"How was your first day of class?" his father asked when his 21-year old got home that afternoon.

"Fine, Dad. How about you?"

His father had no interest in working, and as much as his son wished he'd find something to fill his days, the older man instead he enjoyed staying home and hanging out with the dog.

"Good. Things were...good," his father said the way he always did no matter how things actually were. "So, what? Nine months and counting, right?"

Neil laughed and said that was pretty close, as graduation—and commissioning—were now just a tad under nine months away. He was a liberal arts major, and had breezed through his first three years, maintaining a 3.72 GPA while working about 20 hours a week at a miniature golf course in town.

It was the only mini-golf course in Bellingham, and in spite of the often-cold, often-rainy weather, it managed to turn a profit year after year. Neil didn't know exactly how much the owner made, but the man who ran it had dropped a few hints here and there. The only thing he did know was that he was grateful to have a steady, part-time job.

It wasn't like he needed the money. His dad had a ton of it, and rarely spent a dime. That wasn't exactly true, as he'd recently dropped over $50,000 on a new Jeep Cherokee with all the bells and whistles, but he typically spent less than $50 a month on himself.

So the issue wasn't money, it was more an opportunity to get out of the house where his father left the television on all day long as a way of keeping him company. It drove Neil crazy, so any opportunity to have some time away from the quiet madness was a blessing.

"So, you workin' at the golf course tonight?" he asked Neil, more rhetorically than anything else.

"Oh, yeah. Just like old times," his son said. "Can I get you anything before I head out, Dad?"

"That's a pretty sweet gig," his dad reminded him without answering his son's question. "Getting paid to sit in a warm booth passing out putters every now and then while studying the rest of the time."

"Ha! Why do you think I've stuck with it all this time?" his son asked almost as rhetorically. "It's not like I'm getting rich on minimum wage. Oh, that reminds me, I'm makin' the big bucks this year. Yep, I'll be pullin' down a cool $8.50 an hour."

His father laughed and said he agreed about the money then told him to have a good night.

"I'll be home by ten," Neil said, as though his dad might have forgotten. The course stayed open until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, but closed at 9pm every other day of the week.

"You did good, Colonel," Keith said to himself as he watched his son walk away.

Then, as he almost always did, he told his wife what he was thinking. In this case, he let her know how well she'd done raising their son. After all, it had been her doing most of the raising while he was either at work or deployed for up to a year at a time in which the occasional phone call home was about all the contact he and his son had. Even so, Neil couldn't wait to have the same kind of career for himself, and Keith told his late wife he hoped he'd be home a little more often, especially if he ever got married and had kids.

"Maybe the last of these wars will be over by then, and he'll 'only' be gone for a few months at a time here and there," he told Beth out loud, not really believing she could hear him. But it made him feel better thinking she could, so whenever Neil was out of the house, he pretended she was still there with him. The exception to the rule was when he went to bed alone, and in that case, there wasn't enough imagination in the known universe to make him think she was still by his side.

"Well, well, well. Look what the cat drug in," the owner of the course said as he shook his employee's hand for the first time since the younger man's departure for his 10-week, paid 'vacation' in Quantico, Virginia.

"How was basic?" the man asked, pronouncing the word basic 'bay-seek', and proving that nothing Neil had told him about Marine Corps OCS had sunk in. Even enlisted Marines didn't go through 'basic'. It was called recruit training or affectionately, boot camp, but never 'basic training'.

"It was...interesting," was all the younger man said, knowing his boss didn't really care.

"Good. Okay. So...nothing's really changed here. You know the drill, so unless you've got questions, I'll leave you to it."

"No. No questions. As long as the security code on the alarm hasn't changed."

"Oh, hell!" the balding, overweight man said. "Good thing you reminded me."

He gave Neil the new code then reminded him of closing time, even though there was a huge sign over their heads with the hours posted on it; the same sign that had been there since long before Neil's first day years earlier.

"Let's just hope the weather holds out," Neil said, knowing it could turn cold any day now.

"Maybe we'll have an Indian summer. Haven't had one for a few years, so we're due."

"An extra two weeks of sunshine and warmth would be nice," Neil agreed before 'taking the helm' again.

There were only three people on the course, all of them from the local high school. And as long as they didn't get too rowdy, Neil was content to let them whoop it up and smack the ball around like the putters they were holding were drivers.

The early-September sun was still bright, as was the blue sky, when around 7pm, a car pulled up. Neil glanced over and saw a boy who was maybe eight or nine get out followed by a woman he assumed was his mother.

The boy waited for his mom then took her hand, something that surprised him because the boy wasn't all that young. For a brief moment, he recalled the days when he'd held his mother's hand, and for that brief moment wanted nothing more than to able to hold it again.

"Come on, Mom!" the boy said, as he began pulling her hand.

"Kenny! Stop!" she said after he nearly pulled her over.

As they got a little closer, Neil noticed the boy had a lazy eye, and immediately his heart went out to him. Blessed with both perfect health and good looks, Neil had never experienced any real teasing growing up. And thanks to his late mother, he'd never tolerated anyone who teased or bullied anyone—especially for something beyond their control.

Making sure to look into the boy's other eye, Neil smiled and welcomed him.

"It's my birthday today!" the boy happily blurted out.

"Oh. Well, congratulations, my man! How old are you? Sixteen? Seventeen?"

His mother walked up and smiled when she heard Neil's comments.

"What? No! I'm nine!" the boy replied, not sure if Neil was kidding.

"Oh. Okay. I thought maybe you'd be driving the car home, but...okay," Neil said very seriously.

"Hi," the woman said. "Thankfully, that's still years away."

She smiled then said, "We uh...we've never done putt-putt before so...what do we do?"

Neil had seen her get out of the car, but he hadn't actually seen her until just then. Being a good-looking guy, he wasn't overly impressed with attractive women, but this woman was different. She was clearly beautiful, but there was something about her that he found immensely appealing, and he instinctively smiled back.

"Um...sure. Well, it's pretty simple," he began as the boy said rather loudly, "Can I have that one?" pointing to one of the putters.

"Kenny," his embarrassed mom said. "Let the man explain, okay?"

"But I already know how to play putt-putt," he said. "You just get the club and hit the ball in the hole."

"I'm sorry. He's pretty wound up. We just had cake and ice cream so the sugar's not helping."

"Oh, no. He's fine," Neil said as he winked at the boy who's name had to be Kenny.

"And he's right. You really do just take a putter and a ball and try and knock it in the hole."

"Oh, okay," the woman said, now feel silly for not realizing it was that easy. "I...I've never golfed, either, so I honestly don't know anything about it. Now tennis is a very different story, but that's for another day."

Her smile was infectious, and as beautiful as she was, Neil found himself smiling back again as he handed Kenny the putter he'd asked for.

"Which one would you like...Mom?" he asked, still smiling.

The gorgeous mother laughed then told him any one of them would be fine.

"And it's Madison," she added.

"And I'm Neil," he told her just as she saw him looking at the name tag on his shirt.

Now it was Neil feeling foolish.

"Um...gee. Duh, right?" he said as Madison laughed again.

Kenny grabbed a ball and headed for the course.

"I better run," she said. "He's just so excited."

She took one step then stopped.

"I just feel so bad for him."

Neil was curious but didn't ask her to continue. He didn't have to as she explained.

"He invited his entire class from school, but no one showed up for his party."

He saw the expression on her face change, and thought she was on the verge of tearing up.

"Kids can be...so mean," she said just before a forced smile returned. "Sorry. I don't know why I said that."

"No, you're right," Neil told her. "But he seems like a great kid to me."

"Thank you. He is. But..."

Madison stopped in mid-sentence, and Neil turned to look where she was looking.

The three high-school boys were already standing around Kenny, and before Madison could go through the turnstile to get in, Neil headed directly inside and then their way.

"No, not over there. I'm right here," one of them was saying to Kenny as Neil walked up.

He'd lost a few pounds that summer from all of the running and hiking, but at 6'1" and 170 pounds, he was taller and larger than any of the boys.

"I am looking at you!" Neil heard Kenny say which clued him into what was going on.

Madison was on her way and heard Neil say in a calm voice, "There's the exit."

His voice had deepened, and the look on his face was intimidating.

"We're just havin' some fun with the kid," one of them said.

"No. You're done. Get out," Neil said in a way that scared the hell out of all three of them.

"Okay, okay. Jeez," the boy said.

As the one who told Kenny to look at him when he had been looking at him started to walk by, Neil said, "Uh-uh. You stay."

"What? What the hell?" the boy said as his friends kept walking.

Neil held his hand up, towered over the boy then said in that same voice, "Apologize."

The boy's eyes were flying back and forth as he looked up at the man with the square jaw and the short hair.

"Now," Neil said quietly but in an even more intimating way. "And you better hope I believe you're sincere."

Scared...witless, the boy turned to Kenny and said, "I...I'm sorry."

"I have a problem with my eye. But when I'm older, my mom's gonna get an operation for me and fix it," Kenny said as though he'd said that more than once before.

Neil lowered his hand then nodded to the exit then kept watching to make sure all three putters and balls were returned. They'd already paid so once the clubs were returned, Neil stopped watching.

"You okay, buddy?" Neil asked as he bent down to talk to Kenny at eye level.

"I'm fine," he said, but not as enthusiastically as before.

"Hey. I'll tell you what. If it's okay with your mom, would you like me to play with you?"

"Really?" Kenny said, his smile and excitement back.

He looked up at Madison who was wiping a tear from her eye hoping her son didn't see.

"Sure. Yes. That's fine," she told him as she smiled at her boy.

"Awesome!" Kenny said as he held up a hand for a high five.

Neil slapped it then lowered his hand and said, "Now, down low!"

Kenny whacked it then Neil went to get a putter.

"I'll be right back, okay?" he promised.

"I'll go first, okay?" Kenny hollered, and Neil gave him a thumbs up.

Madison didn't say anything until the second hole. Once Kenny was near the cup and she was alone with Neil at the other end she thanked him.

"That was unbelievably kind of you," she quietly said. "And brave."

"No, it was my pleasure. I can't stand guys—or girls—who do that."

"Well, it was very sweet of you," she said before leaning over and almost whispering. "That's the reason no one showed up. It's...it's so cruel, but as I said, kids can be cruel, so..."

"Let's just make sure he has a great time here tonight, shall we?" Neil suggested, knowing Madison was on the verge of tearing up again.

"Yes. Let's do that," she agreed, her own smile now back.

"Mom! Did you see me? I just knocked it in!" Kenny hollered from 20 feet away.

"Woo-hoo, buddy! Nice job!" she said, not mentioning it had taken him seven shots to sink the putt.

"Go ahead," Neil said when she looked at him as to who should go next.

"I'm...terrible at this," she said just before hitting the ball which traveled less than three feet before caroming off the wooden sideboard and jumping over it.

"See! I told you!" she said as Neil tried not to laugh.

"But you're good at tennis, though, right?" he said with a raised eyebrow.

"I am. I swear!" she told him with a laugh just as Kenny retrieved her ball.

"It's okay, Mom. Not everyone can be as good as me at golf," he assured her.

Neil managed not to laugh, but Madison noticed and said, "Hey! I have feelings, too, you know," pretending to be hurt.

"Sorry?" Neil replied, his hands held up in an 'I surrender' manner while Kenny just shrugged having no idea what was going on.

As they played, Neil continually looked up front for other customers, but being a Tuesday night after Labor Day, no one else came. So while they walked the two adults talked and laughed and cheered on Kenny who seemed to be a quick learner as Neil offered him a pointer here or there.

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