As a child, I could not imagine being on vacation and not playing a round of miniature golf. And especially in my early years, where the highway system was still a bit spotty, the Route 66 equivalents that we toured were rife with them. So what if they were all pretty similar, adorned with ponds, railroads, and windmills? And so what if there was a perfectly fine course on Northern Boulevard in Douglaston only a couple miles from my childhood home*, which me and my friends could easily reach by bicycle?
My parents would rarely stop, as our weekend’s agenda was generally planned out in advance, at least in my dad’s head. If we were going to the horse farm in Pennsylvania, there were rides twice a day to account for, and you didn’t want to miss one of the home cooked meals. If we were off to Maine, there was swimming time in the motel pool, walking on rocks time at the harbor, and lobster time at Dads favorite stand. No, only our periodic trips to Pennsylvania Dutch country allowed for a mini golf detour, in between more swimming, a different walk, and a trip to one of the multi-course Amish restaurants.
I wasn’t even very good at mini golf, but boy was it alluring. I can only imagine what life in the game’s heyday, back in the 1930s.
I never imagined what life was like on the other side of the ticket booth, but June Melby (photo credit Parker Deen) offers a lot of insights in her new charming and nostalgic memoir,My Family and Other Hazards(Henry Holt, 7/8/14). Her dad and mom were, respectively, an Iowa schoolteacher and school librarian, who bought the Waupaca-area course as a way to keep busy, and possibly make money, in their summers.
The “busy” was correct, but the money was a bit off. The course needed constant maintenance and since dad was a tinkerer, this might have just been paradise. Alas, the course was off the beaten path, at least initially when the area they were located had no sewers, and business turned out to be a lot slower than they hoped for. No worries, they would just obsessively turn off the lights and motors when there weren’t paying customers, a policy that was kept in place even when business eventually picked up.
Melby structures her memoir like a golf course, of course. Each chapter is a hole and its accompanying hazard--a castle, a riverboat, a clown face, or yes, an outhouse. Each hole is also a jumping off point for some aspect of life amongst the hole-y; the rocket might call to mind expectations, while the wishing well is of course about dreams. Melby’s really telling three stories here, guiding us through the course, the family’s tenure as the stewards of Tom Thumb Miniature Golf, and about June’s own journey to the find herself, first as a musician and comedian on the West coast, and eventually back to the Midwest to become a writer.
I particularly loved the intimate minutiae that running the course entailed. What’s the best way to make a Sno Cone? How about cotton candy? The grape flavor of the former was watery but when it came to cotton candy, grape tasted far superior to the much-preferred pink stuff, which by the way, is vanilla flavored. I never knew!
Don’t forget, though, that this book is a family story. It says so in the title. June was the middle child, between LeAnn, the privileged one, and Carla, the baby, always coddled, right? It was tough going, because except for the periodic family reunion, and all Melby family reunions were held at the course, since they had the space and they couldn’t hardly close the course to travel elsewhere, there weren’t many other kids around. Their days were filled with chores, and a highlight would be an occasional trip with mom into town. Early on, a real treat was June and Carla bicycling off to a campground on June’s birthday to surreptitiously take showers!
While June doesn’t much talk about faith and religion, it’s clear that the family, at least at the parent’s generation, was pretty pious, and almost saw this clean fun as part of their mission. The big hint is that every time someone in the family said “lucky,” they were corrected. “You mean ‘blessed,’ was the appropriate reply.
While June’s parents eventually retired from their school to live at the course year round, the land eventually became too expensive and they couldn’t cover the taxes with their golf and concession proceeds. It was a sad day when they had to sell, and June comes to an understanding of life, that, well, you never know what you got till it’s gone, to quote some songwriter or other.
Now I know how the folks on Bluemound Road felt when their course was torn down for yet another strip center. Why doesn’t the world place the right value on quirky pleasures? I guess if it did there would probably be more bookstores, and less sporting goods superstores, right? Or perhaps combination indie bookstore mini golf courses?
My Family and Other Hazards is now on sale. Melby brings her charming story to Boswell on Tuesday, July 22, 7 pm. Hope to see you there, and don’t forget to bring your lucky club.
She's also at Prairie Lights in Iowa City on Tuesday, July 15, Beaverdale Books in Des Moines on Wednesday, July 16, Books and Company in Oconomowoc on Wednesday, July 23, A Room of One's Own in Madison on Thursday, July 24, Common Good Books in St. Paul on Wednesday, July 30, and Chapter 2 Books in Hudson, Wisconsin on Thursday, July 31. Oh, and then she's at The Readers Loft in Green Bay on Tuesday, August 12. More on Melby's website.
*It's now called the Golden Bear Golf Center at Alley Pond Park, self-proclaimed to be connected to the busiest practice range in the world.
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