Life and Death of the Father of Modern Miniature Golf

By Bryan, Sarah | The Southern Review, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

Life and Death of the Father of Modern Miniature Golf


Bryan, Sarah, The Southern Review


 Potiphar Gubbins, C. E., Stands at the top of a tree        --RUDYARD KIPLING, "Study of an Elevation, in Indian Ink"  

When a minor hurricane hit Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in the late 1990s, my father climbed to the top of a miniature golf course and spent the night in a tiki hut. The course, which he had designed, was still under construction, and when his crew found him the next morning, safe in a sleeping bag in the thatched hut that towered over a miniature golf mountain, the tallest structure for several blocks, he explained that he'd spent the night there to test the safety of his design. He was hailed by the crew as the most conscientious of contractors, someone who'd bet his own safety on the quality of his work. True, but there was more to it than that.

My father's vocation was the design of miniature golf courses, and his hobby was the design of his death. Suicide was a topic of obsessive interest to him for as long as anyone knew him. Though at times he suffered from terrifically severe depression, the attraction seemed to exist independently of his emotional disturbances.

Poddy (that's what he was always called) loved things that were loud and foretold disaster. He loved thunder, sirens, speeding fire engines. I suspect that, the night of the hurricane, he was hoping the tiki hut would topple in the wind, causing him to tumble down the fake-rock mountain to meet his death among the fiberglass zebras. Far more competent than Kipling's civil engineer Potiphar Gubbins ("Each bridge that he makes either buckles or breaks"), Poddy found that he had designed a tiki hut that could withstand a hurricane. But he would have loved nothing better than to die in a way that was both spectacular and comical. All his life his greatest pleasure was saying and doing and building things so audacious that onlookers would shake their heads in wonderment and say, "Dog old Poddy."

                                  * * *  

Myrtle Beach did not exist as a town until early in the twentieth century, when a group of businessmen, including Poddy's grandfather, built a resort nearly from scratch. Where previously there had been only a few beach houses, these men put up fancy hotels, golf courses, and a posh country club, hoping to draw society Yankees on the way to and from Florida. (Myrtle Beach was, they pointed out, halfway between New York and Miami.) But when the Depression hit, Myrtle Beach had to moderate its ambitions. It did become a successful resort, but one visited mainly by middle-class and rural Southerners.

Poddy had a theory that people behave in a particularly silly and show-offish way when they're at the beach--running and hollering, putting on mock-heroics, screaming when they get their toes wet--because subconsciously they're jealous of the attention paid to the ocean. When he told a visiting friend of mine about this idea, she suggested that maybe Myrtle Beach itself was jealous of the ocean. If you've been there, you get what she was saying. Myrtle Beach is one long strip of billboards, miniature golf courses, roller coasters, water slides, girlie clubs, and almost anything imaginable to draw visitors' eyes away from the ocean.

Once, a very old man from Myrtle Beach told me how much my father resembled, in manner, his father, my grandfather, for whom this man had worked as a laborer in the 1940s. I asked what he meant. "Mr. James"--that's how Poddy's father was known--"always have his hand in his pocket. And when you wave and tell him, 'Hey, how you doing,' he say, 'Hey, how you doing,' and nod like this." The man demonstrated an unremarkable gesture. "Poddy do the same way!" He cackled loudly at the hilarity, imperceptible to me.

Mr. James and his father, Mr. Jim Bryan (for some reason the last name was always used in the elder man's case), both served as president of the real estate and mercantile company around which Myrtle Beach developed. …

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