The golf trips will never be the same, as we mourn loss of friends

It got to the point where I cringed every time my cell phone rang. My thought was “who now!” That’s what happens when you lose three golfing buddies in just four months.

Dean Barkley, Harold Fillhart and John Marshall were constants on our golf trips. Whereas some guys went on one or two of our annual soirees, these three guys made them all. Whether it was Florida in January, Tennessee in April, Fort Wayne in June or Linden Hall/Lexington in September — they were always there. That, sadly, has forever changed.

When you lose three dear friends in such a short time span, it makes you aware of your own mortality. Now, I’m left to write a tribute to my fallen brethren, something, it seems, I have done all too often. It is hard to put into words what these three guys meant to me, but that is exactly what I feel compelled to try to do.

Dean Barkley reminded me of comedian George Goebel. He always had some dry witty line that had us talking about it for years. One such case was in Lehigh Acres, Florida, where he was bent over on the first tee with his driver over his knees. When I approached, he looked up and said: “People think I am exercising when all I’m trying to do is throw up!”

He said it with a smile on his face, but was only half-kidding. Some mornings were a bit trying when the fun and frivolity of the night before lasted a bit too long.

He asked me once what club I chipped with, as he was having trouble with that aspect of his game. I told him I used my 8-iron, and he suddenly had a new weapon. A number of times he came in after a round and told me he got up and down on several holes. “Guess what club I used?” he would ask.

Perhaps the best part of our golf trips was sitting outside our motel rooms in the early evening. We would share stories and laughs for a long time. Dean was notorious for leaving his seat quietly. He was not in his room when we went looking for him. He had left the premises to see an old friend or perhaps to make a new one. When morning came, he would be at the breakfast table with a grin, but no information on where he went would be forthcoming. Just that inevitable grin!

Now, sadly, his chair always will be empty.

Harold Fillhart was a guy that would give you the shirt off his back if you needed one. I recall a trip where he had baked a ham and made potato salad. He had cut the ham into slices, brought buns and condiments and fed us all at our motel in Macon, Georgia on our way to Florida.

Hart was just taking care of his friends and saving us a few bucks, but I remember that meal fondly. I had been ill before the trip and had not been able to eat much. That meal was one of the best I ever had. It was not surprising that he did this. Similar things happened all the time.

Not everything was rosy with Hart, however. He was very impatient and frequently let anyone near him have it, even if you didn’t have anything to do with his unhappiness. Most of the guys, who had known him a lot longer than me, just ignored him. It was not that easy for me.

A few years ago after a couple trips in a row where he had lit into me, I was contemplating giving up the golf trips. I’m not sure whether he sensed my displeasure or not, but he confronted me one night in front of other friends.

“You’re not happy with me, are you?” I acknowledged that fact and he said let’s talk about it. I said no – this was not the time or place. He insisted, and when the other guys left the table, our “Hart to Heart” conversation began.

I told him what was bothering me and he listened. He suggested he was sorry and though he was “old” and could not change completely, he would try. There also was a comment about me being a little too thin skinned. He then said words I will never forget.

“You are one of us now and I don’t want to lose you!” After that talk — the one I didn’t want to have — we had no more problems. I often thought of telling him how much that conversation meant to me.

Now sadly, I’ll never have the chance.

John Ira Marshall was one of the kindest and nicest men I have ever met. When he showed up for our golf trips the smiles on everyone’s faces attested to the fact that he was adored.

During our conversations on golf trips, somebody would bring up something that John Ira had done on a previous trip. He would say “that was a bad rap” and then smile because he knew he likely was guilty. Even if he wasn’t, he would get no sympathy from our group. Guilty as alleged is the way we view things.

When we hadn’t seen each other for a while, John Ira would call me. “Just checking in” was the way he started each conversation and “tell the boys I said hello,” was the way he ended it. In between, we talked about all kinds of things. Trust me when I say my face lit up every time I got a call from him.

We had many things in common, including NASCAR racing. John Marshall was the one who encouraged me to start a NASCAR Fantasy League. He joined, of course, and we had a dollar side bet on each race. We always settled up in Florida in January. The fun we had bragging about who won was incredible. In fact, our last conversation had to do with the NASCAR Fantasy League.

When we met in Florida this past January, John Ira and I had a serious chat. He didn’t play golf in the Sunshine State, but was looking forward to Fort Wayne. All was not well in the family, though, as his wife needed help and he didn’t know if he could provide it alone.

Our last hug came at a remote bar called Fox’s Crossing. The boys had found it years ago and befriended the owner. It was there that one of the guys asked John Ira to recite two of his stories. One involved the evolution of the candy bar and the other was a joke telling contest that ended with a poem. He didn’t hesitate and we all laughed. Turned out it was a final encore performance.

John Ira went into the hospital a couple of weeks after we left. That last call from the hospital was to turn in his NASCAR fantasy team. He didn’t have the paperwork with him and asked me to read the names of the drivers from each category.

He slowly picked his drivers and gave me the three he wanted from the last group. Then, as if he realized that the short phone call had drained his energy, he suddenly said “hey, I love ya buddy” before saying his final good bye.

Now, sadly, he will never call “just to check in” again.

Next month we will go to Fort Wayne for our annual Fling. On one of our golf days we will have our Ryder Cup competition. It is a day that we really enjoy, though each guy will apologize to his playing partner — before we tee off — for the position we are likely to put them in. The alternating shot format will prompt that.

Another tradition we have on that day is to toast our golfing buddies who have passed away. We will doff our caps, bow our heads and pay tribute to Teddy Reinhart, Tommy Hayes, Bobby Goddard, Roger Debelak, Davy Conrad and now Dean Barkley, Harold Fillhart and John Ira Marshall.

It will be a somber moment. I know I speak for all of my golf buddies when I say this to our three recently fallen friends:

We love you. We miss you, and we thank you for enriching our lives by letting us get to know you. Rest in peace!

Al Stephenson is The A-T’s golf columnist.

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