“Aesthetically,” he said of the restored Pinehurst No. 2, where he now lives, “it’s much prettier than it was.”
Ken Eichele savors pretty. He’s seen ugly.
“I had to do field surgeries at Ground Zero,” he recounted. “We were crawling on our bellies, trying to remove the dead.”
Justice may not have been swift, but it was served Sunday night in the presidential announcement that bin Laden had been killed by U.S. action.
“Am I jumping up and down?” Ken asked. “No. “I’m relieved they finally got bin Laden. But it took a little away knowing he was living a life of luxury after they lead you to believe he was living like a rat in a cave.”
Now 60, Ken walked away soon after Sept. 11 following 30 years on the job – a job that entailed walking into burning buildings while other people were running out.
Don’t question. Don’t falter. Don’t hesitate. Don’t pontificate. Don’t relent. Just go. Get people out. Go back in. Get more people out. Get everyone out.
When you sign up you know full well that you could start a day peacefully, on a golf course, and wind up in hell on earth.
That 9/11, under crystal blue skies, Ken stood even par through 14 holes at the U.S. Mid-Amateur qualifier at Bedford Golf and Tennis Club in Westchester County when he learned of the attacks.
With all the bridges into the city shut down, Eichele and several other firefighters, who were attempting to qualify, could only watch on television in the locker room as the towers crumbled.
“I turned to my friend and said, ‘We just lost 200 men.’”
Nine men from Eichele’s own Engine Company died. A battalion chief who commanded seven companies over the course of his career, Ken personally knew 100 firefighters who died.
He spent 72 consecutive hours at Ground Zero, digging, crawling, searching and hoping. He lost friends and colleagues. He lost some lung function. He never lost a desire to live fully.
“Most of my brethren are doing pretty good these days,” he said. “Some aren’t so good. A few just couldn’t handle it.”
Living well for Ken has always meant golfing. He grew up in Queens in the ‘50s across from Kissena Park Golf Course.
“When the staff went home at 4 o’clock,” he said, “we’d be over the fence, under the fence or through the fence every single day and play.”
Ken won the New York City Amateur as a kid, later played U.S. Golf Association Mid-Ams, the Public Links and more recently finished runner up in the North-South Senior.
“The great thing about being a fireman,” he explained, “is that you could switch days off to play tournament golf. You could ask a buddy to work for you on Thursday and Friday and pick up his days on the weekend.”
These days, Ken’s battling a bad back. He and his wife, June, live off the 18th hole at Pinehurst No. 6. “If you’re a golfer, it’s paradise,” he said.
Ken’s played the famed No. 2 (re-opened March 1) 10 times already.
“I would expect the pros to shoot lower scores at the U.S. Open because the fairways are much wider than they were,” he said, becoming animated. “Personally I don’t have a problem with a guy shooting 10 under to win a U.S. Open. I certainly didn’t have a problem watching 14 under win the Masters in April.”
Ken says he'll volunteer when the men’s and women’s Opens come to Pinehurst in successive weeks in 2014. He did at Bethpage in 2002. That’s where he played most of his golf when he lived in New York, helping to form the Nassau Players Club with a hundred low handicappers.
Joe Rehor has been the director of golf at Bethpage for 35 years. I reached Joe in the pro shop Monday morning as people buzzed about bin Laden.
“We have a large contingency of cops and firemen who play here,” said Joe. “That’s who we cater to.
“Everyone’s been rah-rah. A couple of my boys said they wish there were the Navy Seal that pulled the trigger.”
Joe gave lessons to cops and firemen who died on Sept. 11.
“It was devastating,” he said. “But the wounds seem to heal over time. It’s not blocked out, but people move on with their lives.”
Ken Eichele has. He was home in Pinehurst, watching television when news broke that the president was about to make a major announcement.
“They didn’t say what it was,” he said. “I woke June and said, ‘They must’ve killed bin Laden,’ and it turns out that’s what it was.
“I’m glad he’s gone, though I don’t like to dwell on what happened. But I don’t ever want to forget. I look at the poster in my office with all 343 firemen who lost their lives. I knew most of them.”