by Nidhi Singh
Brigadier General P. Stinker was a foul man, by which I do not mean he was foul-mouthed or vile, which of course he was; I mean he played foul at golf.
Just because the golf course, constructed by the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team along the periphery of Jalalabad Airfield was an arid, makeshift one, where the players were permitted a club-length ball drop, the Brigadier took it as an infinite license to kick his ball around till it reached a sweet spot from where it could be pitched miraculously close to the green pin. Trees, roughs, ponds, sand bunks were no obstacle to him at all, for he sidestepped them adroitly, throwing his ample rank around.
And while we were struggling with our shots on fairways hard as stone, the Brigadier’s trained caddy, a nautch-boy loaned by Musa, the local Afghan Military Commander, would be scooping up rare tufts of grass to make a nice little mound for him to whack his ball from. I have never seen a man tee off with a putter and make an eagle on a short par-four, but Stinker could. His shots rarely achieved height, no matter the technology of the club or the ball; defeating all laws of ballistics they hugged the nap of the earth like a surface missile evading enemy radar, yet he would be there on the greens before us, whistling up to benumbed grebes and pelicans.
“Par,” or “birdie,” he would triumphantly announce and jot down mysterious items in his small score card after sliding the ball into the hole from two to three feet. He talked, or coughed, or sneezed deliberately when one of us was taking a tee shot, or putting. He abused the caddies when his ball got lost – so they began to keep spare ones in their pockets so as not to annoy him. Or he would guffaw and comment when a poor sucker was already halfway through his backswing: “Pucker, your ball is hanging too left in your stance,” or to me,
“Freddie, flex them pretty knees a bit.”
On one such balmy afternoon, when the usual four-ball of Stinker and his brigade staff was getting ready to tee off on Hole-One, a feral cur of very mean aspect and spindly bulk presented itself of its own accord before the Brigadier, and as if tamed down to surrender, sprawled abjectly at his feet.
As a reward, the Brigadier planted a sound kick on its rump; the animal yelped and bolted away, only to return with doubled warmth. The dance-boy hurled a stone next, which, finding a mark on the cur’s bulging ribcage managed to deter any further public display of its unwarranted affection for the Brigadier, but only momentarily, for it scurried back no sooner we’d looked away.
“Let it be,” Stinker barked in annoyance as he concentrated on the ball when one of us lunged at the mongrel with a 9-Iron.
Thereafter the canine became Stinker’s shadow on the golf course; hovering about, fetching his ball from the rough, and marking its territory with urinary abandon on the very hallowed earth the man walked on. Strangely, on one occasion, the cur began to bark and leap in mad circles when Stinker addressed the ball incorrectly, and stopped only when he’d corrected his stance. Another time, when the Brigadier picked out a wrong iron on the fairway, I swear the dog clutched its stomach and rolled on the greens laughing. Only a correct selection of the rescue club calmed the hysteric animal. Stinker became so conscious of the stern eye of the dog that he began to look askance to see if it approved his posture, and took the shot only when the dog wagged its tail. Or flapped its ears. Or began to gaze dreamily upon a faraway spot on the fairway in anticipation of a far-off shot.
We began to call this gifted creature, The Coach.
“Let’s adopt him, Sir,” I suggested one day.
“ Is he your love child, Brigade Major? Why, look at the hungry look in those eyes, the animal will gobble up all the geese in the Officers’ Mess. Let him clean up the garbage around this place; why deprive him of the delicacies you guys dump in the trashcans.”
Under the unyielding tutelage of the Coach, Stinker’s handicap improved from a shameful 36-over-par to a blissful two-under. But good times last rarely forever, and the goddesses of golf are a capricious lot.
As the animal’s confidence increased, one day it tried to jump in with Stinker in the staff car as he was leaving. A prompt imprint of a size-11 studded boot on its rear reminded the dog never to take the old man for granted again.
One fine day, as vaporous clouds idled lazily in a dreary sky; and, silkier than slumber, and gentler than lullaby, the notes of the warblers ran and rang; the Coach vanished: cut stick, absquatulated, vamoosed, just like that, without the courtesy of a brief note or a teary goodbye.
The Commander, whose run of lousy luck on the course soon returned, and forced to resort to underhand ways again, became distracted.
“Can it ever be found,” he asked, as Columbus, at the helm of Santa Maria, his crew wracked by malaria and despair, might wistfully have, when searching for a passage to the Indian Ocean.
“Why not!” I scratched my head. “We’ll put up a notice for it: Brown spindly golf dog, eyes haunted, tail crooked; finder may return to Brigade Officers’ Mess…”
He gave me a strange look. “How many dogs might answer to such a description, Freddie?”
“Hmm… we’ll round up all the dogs on the airfield then, Sir, I’m sure I’ll recognize him.”
“You’d better,” he muttered; swinging his iron moodily, he sauntered off to the pond where his ball had sunk.
Our search yielded a surprisingly rich dividend of pups and pooches of a vast palette of caste, color, and creed, but no Coach.
“Could he be some great incarnate golfer, come in person in anguish at the Commander’s game,” asked the Brigade Chaplain, who’d spend rather long years in Asia-Pacific, “and now pursuing his agenda at another American Army golf course in this country of kite runners.”
“Perhaps he was run over,” suggested the Logistics Officer; the Jalalabad-Kabul highway was notorious for road deaths.
“Sick?” The Medical Officer mused. “ Died of natural causes? – But no, he must have high levels of immunity eating all that leftover fast food.”
“Electrocuted? Eaten – mauled by wild boars…other dogs?”
We sent out patrols, recce teams, drones, AWACS, spies, sniffer dogs, undercover guys, and tantrics; we announced awards, gave out ads, opened a Facebook page after him, read tarot cards, Ouija boards; handed out fliers with a clumsy sketch drawn personally by the Deputy Commander – but no Coach.
Stinker became wan and haggard and one day over drinks he confessed to me: “That dog comes in my dreams. He cries out for help sometimes. He woofs, wags his tail and snaps at my ankles. I don’t quite understand woof-talk. Isn’t there any dog-woof interpreter – dog-whisperer in this godforsaken place?” The once-proud man’s body racked with dry sobs. I nearly reached out and hugged him before I remembered who he was and where my place was. His anguish was tough to bear, and a heavy, dusty pall of gloom settled over the Brigade and the airfield, as the dry westerlies blew in from the Hindu Kush.
Stinker’s grief knew no bounds when one day we received a fax announcing the visit of Major General Bill Mayville, commander of the Regional Command (East); and golfer extraordinaire.
“His PSO. called in…he dropped a hint: the General is keen to review our golf course, which he’s heard so much about.”
Stinker clutched his head in his hands. “I’ll make an ass of myself in front of the General.” We both knew Stinker wouldn’t dare to fudge his score with the General, who wouldn’t let him so much as breathe at the ball, leave alone pocket it or nudge it close to the green.
“Golf is serious business…a game of rising stars, not the setting sun. I’d to make this favorable impression on him – he’ll laugh at my game! And officially I’ve declared my handicap as six!”
“ Why sir – your game is pretty good already!”
He searched my face to check if I was fooling around. “Git me the bloody dog before the general bloody gits here.” His fingers were white as his nails grated on the mahogany desk. “ Or git your bloody ass hauled out!”
“Yessir!” I saluted smartly, about turned, and summoning my bloody jeep, rode all over Jalalabad looking for the flea-bitten mongrel, but like a scornful angel, it rebuffed my prayers and made itself as scarce as steel pennies in a soul cake.
Lo and behold then, on the appointed dawn, as the valiant steeds of battle ready for the parry and thrust of combat on the beckoning fairways, what unearthly apparition comes charging out of the clump of trees in the far distance: what mad eyes rolling, what crusted tongue dangling inches above the dewy grass, what vaporous jetstream of drool trailing its heaving sides, what crooked tail propelling it crazily in figure-eights across the dizzy fairway – none but our very own Coach! A whoop of joy rose among the assembled brigade party and Stinker could be seen grinning from ear to ear, even as the General looked around in surprise at the apparent delight among his troops on the mere sighting of a dog gone berserk on the course. Must be a lucky mascot or something. He shrugged his shoulders and squared up to the narrow fairway.
As the dog neared, Stinker, in a rare moment of weakness, half bent to pat or perhaps even hug the dog. But the Coach, ignoring him completely, went straight for the General, and crouching on its hind legs, brought the right paw to its right eye. The General was touched; tapping the brim of his hat in acknowledgement, he muttered, “As you were,” and swung the longest tee shots, he later claimed over a glass of beer in the Mess, of his life.
The Coach followed the General thereafter, pointing out tricky dog-left and dog-right turns on the course with its tail, growling at wrong club choices, and rolling on the greens at birdies and eagles, and generally taking his game several notches up to a different plane altogether.
Stinker, after falling behind on three holes with double bogies, pulled me aside and spat on the ground. “What’s with the world these days – some bloody rotten chaps suck up to the seniors only and bring a bad name to the rest.”
“Bloody bootlickers!” I fumed, shaking my club menacingly at the damned Coach.
“Don’t you think we have too many strays on the airfield…a bloody nuisance, a pilot was telling me.”
“I’ll get the dog squad first thing in the morning.”
“Yeah, shoot him…shoot them all,” he said, licking his cracked lips as his shot faded and broke the windowpane of a watchtower.
“What a lucky shot Sir, you missed the sentry!”