WESLEY CHAPEL — As a self-proclaimed “range rat,” it doesn’t take much to keep Ron Nelson happy. Give him a bucket of balls, room on the practice tee and a game on the radio for company, and he’s set.
“It’s golf heaven,” he says.
It is insufficient to call the 69-year-old Nelson a regular at Pasadena Hills Golf Driving Range; he is, more accurately, a devotee to this little patch of paradise off Handcart Road.
It might be the range’s proximity to his home in Zephyrhills. It might be the ease of using an electronic key to retrieve a practice bucket from the ball dispenser. Location and convenience are always big sellers.
Most likely, however, it has to do with the red sign affixed to the entrance gate that declares the range home to the Florida Veterans Golf Association, and also that half the ownership team — PGA teaching professional Fred Bender — served, as Nelson did, in Vietnam.
Bender, a Marine, endured in 1968 the four-month siege of Khe Sanh, a U.S. stronghold in the northwest corner of South Vietnam near Laos. Whatever else he took from the experience — bitterly, as people back home turned against the war, U.S. forces abandoned Khe Sanh within months after winning the battle — Bender knew then he always would be the brother of anyone who wore an American military uniform.
On a recent Monday in an air-conditioned corner of the golf center, Bender was surrounded by military kin, fellows such as Nelson who remember vividly their days as young soldiers, sailors and Marines.
Here was Robert Jones, 65, a 24-year Navy man who experienced Vietnam as a 19-year-old orderly transporting other 19-year-olds, amputee patients, between air transports and the U.S. Naval Hospital in Philadelphia.
And here was Jim Murphy, 74, a Marine machinist who spent six years in the Pacific just as Vietnam was beginning to heat up. And here, too, was Melvin Blair, 69, who learned to hit golf balls as a 12-year-old in the north Florida citrus groves where his father picked for a living, then earned four Purple Hearts as an infantryman during a two-year tour in Vietnam.
And, even if those wartime experiences aren’t the sum of who they are, they still shape how they think and how they form their happiest associations.
Put him in a room with 60 random strangers, Bender was saying, and he’ll look for the nearest escape route. But last year, when he screwed up the courage to attend a reunion of Khe Sanh Marines in Savannah, the welcome felt like being surrounded by 300 family members.
Even as he began making plans for the next Marine gathering, “It got me thinking, about what I could do to help get veterans together here,” Bender says.
He thinks, at last, he’s onto something: a veterans’ golf league that tours area courses on a regular schedule, then gathers in the clubhouse to share a meal and whatever is on their minds.
The inaugural event is set, appropriately, for Veterans Day at Silverado Golf and Country Club, off Eiland Boulevard in Zephyrhills. “I just think it would be great to get the guys together on a regular basis,” Bender says, “somewhere other than their usual watering holes.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with watering holes, he says, and here Nelson interjects, “But, you never get to know someone like you do when you play golf.
“It’s four hours together, alone in the outdoors. It’s quiet. You’re playing a game that makes you think. And, you start talking about things that would never come up anywhere else. Stories you’ve never told anyone.”
Nelson, himself, isn’t one to tell stories, even though the one he has to tell is as plain as the scar on his face: a jagged disruption working its way across the bridge of his nose to just below his right eye.
“I picked it up in the A Shau Valley,” he shrugs.
“A Shau?” says the often-wounded Blair. “Man, I get scared just hearing the name.”
Rightly so. A Shau served as a conduit for soldiers and supplies flowing from North Vietnam, and attempts to thwart Hanoi’s operations were costly and largely ineffective. The most infamous of these, in May 1969, involved the taking of an insignificant nob survivors dubbed “Hamburger Hill.”
Nelson, a member of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, came in on a helicopter and left on a stretcher. He survived, but kept the shrapnel in his sinuses; now it rarely comes up in conversation unless the X-ray tech at the dentist’s office is new.
Then, inevitably, it’s, “What the hell is that?!” And, Nelson patiently explains how he came by his souvenir from the Viet Cong.
Jones told of the courage of lads his age, fresh “out of country,” getting used to the idea of facing life without a limb or two, “and not one of them said, ‘I can’t.’ ”
Blair recalled sitting by the mess hall door nearest the bunker after the Tet Offensive, because you never knew when a rocket would come flying through the window. “If that seat was taken,” he says, “I didn’t eat.”
The conscientious Murphy, who’d already given blood that Monday morning, spoke with pride about looking after machine guns that never broke down on his watch.
All that and much, much more, came out of an hour spent in the vicinity of a golf practice range. Imagine an entire day on actual links.
Area veterans don’t have to imagine. They can hook up with Fred Bender and turn a dream of ball-striking camaraderie into a tale-spinning reality. You can visit his web site — PasadenaHillsGolf.com — or catch him at (813) 857-5430.
The same contacts work for potential sponsors. Ring up the man. Send him an email. He survived a siege to make this happen. But, even a Marine capable of creating golf heaven can’t take this hill alone.
Published September 21, 2016