A caddie’s tattered running shoes and a black life

Until a week or so ago, I was unaware of Juneteenth, which commemorates that on June 19, 1865, a group of enslaved people in Galveston, Texas learned that they had been freed by emancipation.

At 63 years old, as a former journalist, and someone who considers himself fairly aware of social issues, I felt embarrassed that I was not aware of this important historical event, although I read in the New York Times today that “this holiday … only became a nationwide celebration in the 20th century and has grown in stature over the last decade.”

Nevertheless, as a white person I feel that I spent a good portion of my life unaware of the real experience of black people in the United States, and of indigenous people in Canada.

Sadly, I don’t think I’m unusual. I believe that I was unaware largely due to a lack of experience, which I firmly believe is life’s greatest teacher and the gateway to transformation. To change, we just endure the ordeal of our own experience.

As a kid, I first learned about racism in hearing my father talk about being called a ‘mick’ for his Irish last name  as a kid growing up in Belleville, Ontario in the 30s and 40s. 

As a teenager in the 70s, I lived in London, Ontario, which was almost exclusively white at the time. I never experienced overt racism personally as a kid.

My first whiff of anything that seemed connected to an us-and-them view of the world was at Western University, when someone referred to “the Jewish side of the table.” That had never occurred to me. I thank my parents for modeling an inclusive view of the world.

While that may seem virtuous, I was ignorant. I had no experience with people whose circumstances had been dictated by the colour of their skin or their religion.

That is, until February, 1995, when I went on a trip with American golf and travel journalists to South Africa to write about its golf courses. Naturally, it was all white guys. The trip was about 10 months after Nelson Mandela had become the first black president of the former apartheid nation.

One of the clubs we played was Durban Country Club. It was so hot and humid it felt like someone poured glue all over my body. Most of us took caddies, including me.

I don’t recall my caddie’s name, but he was about 20 or so, short and slight, and he wore the rattiest pair of running shoes I’d ever seen. The few remaining bits of canvas hung in tatters.

For the first few holes, we didn’t chat much. By his sombre demeanour, I didn’t think he wanted to talk. Although it was a still fairly early in the day, he appeared exhausted.

On the rare occasion when our eyes met, his eyes seemed dull and devoid of life.

Finally, to make conversation, I asked him about caddying. He didn’t look up. “I caddy so I can feed my family,” he said in a lifeless monotone. He had a wife and two young daughters.

It occurred to me that whatever he made went to buy food. That explained the shoes.

He said his family lived in a tent on the border of the golf course. All the white people we met on our trip lived in large, regal homes behind tall, stone walls ringed at the top with spirals of razor wire, and sported large signs that said things like, ‘Intruders will be shot on sight.’

Walking the sumptuous fairways with my putter in the crook of my elbow, I felt like a dandy; an entitled, coddled boy in fancy britches. I thought about how my wide-brimmed straw hat resembled the hats of southern U.S. plantation owners.

At one point, I felt my face go red. I think that’s when I became aware of my ignorance. I felt ashamed. How did I not know that people lived like this?

‘Do you do other work besides caddying?”

“No. There is nothing.” The finality of his answer struck me. 

I asked him about what he thought Nelson Mandela could do as president. “I hope Mr. Mandela can change things.”

At the end of the round, I gave him a large tip and a big smile. He gave me one last sad look, which I interpreted as, ‘You have no idea.’

I watched as he dragged himself to the caddie master to find another bag to carry that afternoon. I was off to a catered lunch in the clubhouse. On our air-conditioned bus that afternoon, I thought that I should have given him my running shoes. Too late.

In looking back, I hope that his life and his family’s life improved, but I doubt it. If someone told me that he had been killed in committing a burglary or a carjacking, I would not have been surprised.

When I saw the fury unleashed by protesters after George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police, I could feel their anger in a way that I think would have been impossible without having looked into the eyes of my Durban caddie. 

From that experience, I believe that I have a snippet of understanding what’s happening around the demand for change in America right now that reading emails or media stories would never replicate.

It’s my hope that when I’m confronted with an experience of racism as it’s happening, I’ll exhibit the dedication of my Durban caddie to his family, and I’ll have the courage and strength to do what’s right.

And I hope you had a good Juneteenth.

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About Tim O'Connor

Tim O'Connor is a golf coach, an award-winning writer, and speaker. Tim takes a holistic approach, coaching golfers in the physical and mental aspects of golf. He co-hosts the Swing Thoughts podcast with Howard Glassman, and is the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story. He plays bass in CID—a Guelph punk band!