All Fore One: College pals reunite 35 years later at a golf resort

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By Tom Shroder
Sunday, June 27, 2010

As the Washington suburbs gave way to two-lane roads lined with wildflowers, a dark-green wedge of mountains rose in the distance. David plugged his BlackBerry into the car stereo system. "This is my college playlist," he said. "Any song from those years I just threw in there."

As the spacey meanderings of the Grateful Dead billowed from the speakers, it began to feel as if something extraordinary was about to happen. I kept thinking about the final line of the 1986 film "Stand by Me," which scrolls slowly across a computer screen as Richard Dreyfuss reads the voiceover: "I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. ... Jesus, does anyone?"

In my case, the magic moment wasn't 12, but 20. Now, 35 years later, two of the friends I'd found then, close in a way no others have been since, were sitting beside me -- David programming the music, as always, and riding shotgun, Eric lobbing irony bombs from the back. They are middle-age men with gray hair in places, no hair in others, beer guts straining against T-shirts -- but somehow indistinguishable from the not-quite-grown men I'd bonded with so long ago.

***

Maybe it was the inflection of the voices that hadn't changed, the patter that instantly fell into a well-worn rhythm. But there was something beyond that, there had to be, to explain why it was so bizarrely the same.

We began to climb toward the West Virginia border, rolling through deep woods, past rusty, rundown trailers and recently added manses of brick and stone. As we squealed around a tight curve banked on a sheer drop-off, I realized what it was: the road itself. Although our friendship had been formed in the frame of a college campus, even then its meaning had always seemed clearest on the trips we took together. The destination didn't matter. Simply moving through space together provided a background that formed a story -- a story about who we were and how we fit in the world. Now, we began to reprise the old narratives: Remember the time David locked our keys in the Corolla in the middle of a frigid night at a rest stop in South Carolina? With the pizza inside? Or the time Eric and David had to steal that same Corolla, now nearly dead, from an impound lot in California?

Of course, age had made some differences. We weren't headed to some midnight concert four states away or to crash on an apartment floor belonging to a girl we barely knew but were vaguely competing for. We were aimed at a rented house at a West Virginia resort called The Woods, three bags of golf clubs in the trunk, credit cards in our wallets, cellphones in our hands. David, a corporate exec, was interrupting our reminiscence periodically to hash through personnel issues on the phone with underlings who had the impression he was on some ill-defined business trip.

"I may lose you," he said into his BlackBerry. "I'm up in the mountains west of D.C., and the reception is sketchy."

"Er, what kind of business did you tell them you were conducting in the mountains of West Virginia?" Eric needled from the back.

David put his hand over the phone. "I told them I was chasing varmints. Account-stealing varmints."

David and Eric had flown in from distant corners of the country, and another David ("Dave," to avoid confusion), the fourth in our former student cabal, was driving in the next night.

We'd had two previous reunions at The Woods -- originally chosen for its proximity to the Washington area (less than two hours away) and the relatively cheap "stay and play" packages (three days in a three-bedroom house with two days of unlimited golf for four, about $1,000). The last had been in the spring of 2001, after which we'd been sidetracked -- 9/11, the tech crash and multiplying personal complications. Eight years vanished. In spite of e-mail, Facebook and unlimited calling plans, we had stayed in touch only sporadically. But as I'd pushed into my 50s and dealt with various life crises of the sort I knew were bound to increase as the decades slipped by, I'd determined that allowing old friendships to languish was a fool's error. At some point, if you don't have old friends, you have no friends at all.


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