Why would memories of Christmas cruise in and out of a man's memory bank, while standing on a putting green in the middle of a July afternoon?
Fifty years after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, what connects the game of golf to a mild-mannered black man who was always told by his parents that "you have to believe things will get better"?
Leon Brown was one of seven children who grew up at the end of Fort Johnson Road. Born in 1940, he walked to school and would often gather firewood when he got there for a pot-belly stove.
As a teenager, he learned about a job as a caddy at The Country Club of Charleston. To carry one bag for 18 holes, the going rate in the late 1950s was $1.65. If the caddy did a good job, the added tip might bring his total to $2.
What Leon Brown wanted to do most, though, was play golf, not watch somebody else do it. He would caddy both at The Country Club and sometimes at Charleston Municipal, the city's golf course on Maybank Highway. As late as 1960, he was allowed to play one day a year there, on Christmas Day, when the course was closed.
Change a comin'
Brown's parents offered simple advice to their children: Be polite, stay away from places where there's trouble and don't judge people from a distance if you don't know them.
Just a few years later, it was Martin Luther King Jr. who eloquently advised that maybe one day we'd look past color and concentrate on character before making those considerations.
In his late teens, Brown knew if he went to the Pinehaven Shopping Center, there were separate water fountains. If he went to the Patio drive-in on Spring Street, he could only be served if he walked to a side window.
He was involved in one march and one picket line. About 1962, he participated in a nonviolent protest because no black cashiers were hired at the Meeting Street Piggly Wiggly.
He continued to caddy and developed a love for a game he wasn't allowed to fully embrace.
In '63 or '64, Brown's not sure, all races and colors were allowed to tee it up at Muni. Sometimes, all four guys in the group would be playing with hand-me-down clubs from one bag. That was OK, though, because to them, now every day was Christmas.
Leon Brown, now 73, often sits on a bench beside the putting green and quietly discusses what he's seen and experienced. There's a calmness and stillness to his voice but never anger.
When caddying at The Country Club, he says he thought the best player he ever saw was the longtime pro and winner of The Masters, Henry Picard. That changed, though, the day Mr. Picard brought his friend, Ben Hogan, to play.
Did he caddy for that group? No, he says, "The older caddies wouldn't let us close to those bags, but I walked along just to watch."
After high school, Brown attended Trident Tech and learned to be a welder. He and his wife raised three boys but never dwelt on how things "used to be."
As he sits on the bench, Brown will tell you his best round ever was 70. He'll also point out where certain structures once stood.
In the heat of July, though, we may never appreciate why golf and Christmas are so strongly forged together for this caddy turned welder. It's a connection that still holds as strong as the country remembers the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.
Reach Warren Peper at 937-5577.
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