Requiem for a Country Club

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Berkleigh Country Club died last week. It ended by auction -- pin flags, tee markers, club championship boards, hole-in-one plaques and kitchen equipment. As collectibles go, were not talking the 86 Masters, but for those of us who loved the modest Pennsylvania course, it was a sad occasion.
 
Berkleigh was 81 years old. People die at 81, not lush golf courses with rich history. At 81 they get curvier and prettier. So many clubs, though, struggle now, desperate for members and families. Who has time, what with kids and jobs and the Internet and TIVO and 300 channels? Who goes to dinner dances anymore? Dressing up these days means Lucky Brand jeans with a Banana Republic t-shirt.
 
The Berkleigh
A plaque at The Berkleigh shows past Club champions, including one Rich Lerner (1981, '87).
My generation had kids later in life. And either because we really wanted to be better dads or were driven through societal pressure, we went to Little League baseball games and soccer matches on Saturday mornings, joining the fitness craze and the $70-a-month gyms instead of country clubs.
 
Today, I travel more than 20 weeks a year and because of my job get more than enough invites to quality clubs to keep me satisfied. Most guys I know play a couple of times a month, maybe at a high-end daily fee or as a guest at a nice club. Many of us know at least a few of the generous and fortunate who belong to great places, those with gilded reputations that put them beyond the reach of economic downturns.
 
Berkleigh suffered because it was situated midway between two declining, mid-sized Northeastern cities, Allentown and Reading. Immigrant Jews, having attained hard-won success in the 1920s but excluded from joining already established clubs, built The Berkleigh. Most of their children went to college and then into the family business.
 
After the Second World War, the Morts and Shirleys were eager to enjoy what appeared to be an uncomplicated life -- a good and steady job, a nice house, and some leisure time. It was that way with the Ozzies and Harrietts at predominantly Protestant clubs, the Nicks and Marias at predominantly Italian clubs, and the Franks and Kathleens at predominantly Irish clubs. Prejudice was more pronounced than it is today, and people sought status and comfort with their own kind. Country clubs flourished along with industries like steel and automobiles.
 
But the next generation after the greatest generation, with the flames of the 60s lapping at their backs, embarked on something of a Diaspora. Four Lerner boys live in four places -- New Jersey, Kentucky, Florida and the Philippines. By the 90s the handwriting at The Berkleigh was on the walls, the fairways and the greens. My fathers cronies had moved south or passed on. The doors that had been opened for some years to all faiths were slowly coming unhinged. The price of initiation had dropped considerably. Nothing worked. Deeply in debt and with a dwindling membership, the club was sold to a cement company earlier this year.
 
As with any passing, attempts to determine exactly what happened wrestle with reflection.
 
At 15, I hit my first really flush, wow-I-might-actually-be-able-to-play-this-game kind of drive at Berkleigh and I remember the moment vividly. Scant sunlight remained, but is there ever enough when youre 15 and falling in love with golf? I was on the practice tee bangin balls with Tank and Halpo and Gilly and my brother, Theo. No one went by their real names; they still dont, except in business. Thirty years later were all still pals.
 
The head pro, Jeff Steinberg, encouraged us while sitting on his golf cart. With a slight twang, hed say, Half the swang is physics. We listened to his theories because hed won a Pennsylvania State Open and because we liked the idea that we were students of the game even if we didnt know a swing plane from an airplane.
 
I was fortunate to have received know-how from other men of character and wisdom, too. Once, in the darkness, Izzy Heicklin gave me a lesson on spot putting by shining the lights of his Oldsmobile on the practice green.
 
Guys named Izzy are never young. In fact, for the 20-odd years I knew Izzy he was always about 80. He sold tobacco products at the local farmers market. Every day, and I mean every day, Izzy could be found in the same chair at the same table in the mens grill; our own lovable George Burns, ordering a bagel with cream cheese and marmalade, and coffee. Hed then play nine holes, minimum, enough over his lifetime, he used to tell us, to have gone to the moon and back.
 
Even when his body finally refused to let him play, Izzy would be at his table or at his locker holding court, wearing a smile, droopy boxers with knee high socks, forever in a state of dress or undress, we never really knew. But always he greeted me like family in that unmistakable voice, high pitched and a little wobbly, Hey Ricker how are ya? It never took long for the conversation to land on one of his favorite subjects, 1947, a very good year for Izzy. Ricker, back in 47 I won the club championship when it was only nine holes.
 
At the auction, my lifelong friend, Tank, paid $1,200 for the club championship board with Izzys name on it. Tanks real name is Adam Leifer, and his name is on the board eight times, six more than mine.
 
Too often, 'Country Club' suggests a level of snobbery, but it wasnt like that at all at The Berkleigh. Sure there were a few self important types but mostly hard working, decent people who sold uniforms and wallpaper and carpeting and drapery and womens clothing and stocks.
 
In addition to Izzy we had Stanley and Marvin, Henry and Harvey, Lou and Lenny and Lester, Marty and Mickey, Jack and George and Judy, Annette and Elaine, Roz and Jean and Zena, and Ellie and Myrtle. There were no Jareds or Taylors or Seths or Brittanys or Ashleighs. They came later, grandchildren splashing in the kiddy pool.
 
My mentors were guys with tempers, guys who plumb bobbed from 240 yards, guys who dared to wear checks mixed with stripes, guys who cursed and smoked and gambled and laughed and hit grounders and pop ups and shanks and snaps. But when it was goin right, with their handicaps of 8 and 11 and 15 and 22, they could slip your wallet out from your back pocket without you knowin exactly how it all happened.
 
I laugh at the picture of my pop peeking from behind so many trees as I squandered talent and club championship leads until finally winning a couple. Mostly there were losses to respectable men with respectable games--Howard and Elliot and Scotty and Herman and myriad Jewish attorneys.
 
I loved the Calcutta, all that action, and the best partner Ive ever had, Gary Jack Freedson, once fierce but now a victim of father time.
 
There was a spring and fall ABCD. My pop used to joke that he was the R player and the R stood for rotten. I once won the better ball of partners with Elmer Hertzmark. I was 16 and he was close to 50.
 
Naturally, there were lots of card games, gin for a penny a point with men as serious as senators, bifocals down on the bridge of their noses and mostly silent staring at their hands through the wafting smoke of a cigar or cigarette, occasionally muttering, shouldve trown the #%&*in king.
 
Into my early 30s (Im almost 47 now), until my career pulled me westward and then south to GOLF CHANNEL, I made the drive to the club through Maxatawny and Topton and Kutztown and Virginville, rows of corn taller than Yao Ming and a patchwork quilt of tan and green squares filling up the distant, beautiful farmland. The ride was long enough--22 minutes--for the anticipation to build -- breakfast first with my pals and then a match for some small change.
 
I couldnt be at the auction. Im not sure I couldve picked at the remains. Forty-six years on this planet and I finally believe that old adage that change is inevitable. Hesss Department Stores, my dads driving range/mini-golf/par-3, Bethlehem Steel and The Berkleigh were the ironclad institutions of my youth, places you just knew would be around forever because you cant possibly kill something thats six blocks of concrete, or six miles of molten steel, or rolling fairways 80 years in the making. All are now gone.
 
Time, another adage says, heals. Time, Im old enough to know now, also hurts.
 
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