Two-fifty-nine, two-sixty, two-sixty-one .” The pace droned on as the crush of onlookers shut out an otherwise beautiful summer day.
The grind of a drill bit was startling as an EMT punched a hole in the exposed shin. Blood spurted, and he jammed a stent into the gaping hole.
“Syringe?!” he yelled. As if by magic, it appeared in his hand, one of a dozen things happening all at once.
Five hours earlier, we had loaded the clubs into the bed of my truck. Beads of perspiration dimpled the skin on our arms and necks. The sun radiated through a cloudless heaven with no breeze to hinder its rays.
“It’s going to be 100 degrees by noon,” Pete reminded me. “You sure you still want to play?”
“It’s the Fourth of July,” I responded as I opened the driver’s side door, stepped on the running board and swung in behind the wheel. “We always play golf on the 4th.” Even speaking seemed to be an effort in the rising heat.
In spite of the promise of record temperatures, we were all anxious to tee it up. Chasing a small white ball on Independence Day was as necessary as fireworks. The sweet smell of summer grass called to us like the aroma of turkey and dressing on Thanksgiving.
We have watched clubs fly from our grips into the air from hands so cold and wet we could no longer control our fingers. We have played on with broken ribs, broken hearts and bruised bank accounts. There have been silent rounds when no words were needed and rounds when the gab was better than the golf. We play golf on the Fourth of July. No arguments. No exceptions. No excuses. Only Mother Nature could thwart us, and she was in exile.
The round was normal for us. If we get too far over par, we play for points. One point for being first on the green, one for closest to the hole and one point for first one in the hole. We started playing points early in the round. A winner was still in doubt on the green at No. 18.
And then the game changed forever.
My back was sore as usual. Kevin was sunburned. To him, it’s always a “billion” degrees, and he looked it. Pete was winning. Katie was beating the old man ... again. I was closest to the hole, and as I waited for others to putt, I stretched, breathed in the humid July air and turned my gaze to the adjacent ninth green.
A golfer there missed a long putt as his companions looked on. He fell to his knees, and I chuckled at how seriously we take this crazy game, but I sensed that something was wrong with the picture.
From his kneeling position, the man slumped forward onto his face. His companions didn’t move, perhaps confused at what they mistook for overplayed drama. The man before them lay still.
“Do we need to call 911?” I hollered. Not one of the threesome said a word. I dropped the flag and my putter.
“Do we need to call 911?” I yelled again, this time in earnest and began running toward the motionless trio.
“Pete, make the call,” I shouted as I ran. He already had them on his cellphone as he and Kevin followed me. We arrived on the green together. Staring at the fallen man, the two standing golfers stood like deer caught in a car’s headlights.
Their partner had rolled onto his back and was now motionless. Brown bile seeped from his mouth and pooled beside him onto the green, manicured grass. I rolled him to his side and cleared his airway, wanting to avoid what came next.
In the distance, the whine of sirens echoed against the houses lining the nearby boulevard and sounded simultaneously through the speaker on Pete’s cellphone. Help was on the way.
“Start compressions immediately!” commanded a voice over the phone. “Do not do waste time with mouth to mouth.” I was relieved.
“Count the compressions!”
Pete handed me his phone, placed crossed palms on the man’s chest and began the crushing blows of CPR. Through the phone, I began counting compressions out loud.
“One two three .” An awkward calm settled around us. Others gathered but they did not intrude. Katie notified the clubhouse of the unfolding crisis. The EMTs arrived.
“Is he breathing?” a medic asked.
“Thirty-five thirty-six .” Time seemed suspended as his team surrounded us. Only the cadence ticked forward. A path cleared through the gawking onlookers. Kevin took instructions from and helped the EMTs with their equipment. Pete pumped rhythmically onward, an island in a sea of growing commotion.
“Yes,” I finally replied, but I’d heard the odd sound before. It was not a living breath.
“Eighty-five eighty-six eighty-seven,” I counted. Perspiration streaked down Pete’s face as he labored on.
“Do you want to trade?” I whispered. He shook his head. Again, air wheezed from fading lungs.
“One-seventy-eight one-seventy-nine .” Three minutes passed. The paramedics had been close when the call reached them. Laying out the remainder of their gear, they took command. I kept counting.
“Two-twenty-four two-twenty-five.” The sound of the cordless drill whirred in the chaos of the moment. Flesh and bone shredded, giving way before the sharp steel of a serrated bit. The tech pumped a plunger, and adrenalin flooded toward the heart.
“Two-forty-nine two-fifty two-fifty-one,” I whispered. The prostrate man before us lay still.
Pete ceded his position to the EMTs. Kevin answered questions from a county sheriff. My eyes locked onto those of the man whose life was now woven into our own. His eyes, maybe blue or green in life, were leaden and fixed.
“Two-seventy-one .” It was over.
The medics worked on, human CPR replaced by a pneumatic compression vest, but I knew he had died under our hands.
“Clear!” The words echoed against the silent crowd of onlookers. The body heaved as amperage wracked the silent heart.
Slowly, the intensity waned. I stood with a groan. The persistent thump of the compression vest pounded at the exposed chest as trained hands loaded the heavy gurney into the ambulance.
“What now, Officer?” I asked. “He didn’t make it.”
“Only an MD can declare that,” he responded. “The paramedics have to continue life support until one does.
“But thanks,” he said. “Thanks for trying.” Four minutes and thirty one seconds had elapsed. Two hundred and seventy-one seconds between joy and death.
The crowd parted as we returned to the 18th green. We placed the flag in the cup, the round unfinished. Little was said as our foursome climbed into my truck. It was the Fourth of July, a day for celebration, a day for picnics and fireworks and a day for family.
Later that evening, we gathered our loved ones with a new sense of gratitude. We ate ice cream, played in the park and watched pyrotechnics light up the night sky. It was tradition, a day never to be forgotten.
We still play golf, with the knowledge that life, like golf, is meant to be played as it lies. The round is over when the last long putt finds the bottom of the cup, but until then, it is no longer a matter of life and death.