By Joel Phelps
GURDON — With the sun gradually rising above the tops of loblolly pines that skirt the Red Martin Country Club, Charlie Payne has just finished loading his irons onto his golf cart as A.B. Wood unlatches the tailgate of his pickup to shoulder his own clubs. There’s no time for the casual “good morning” routine.
“Hey, you old jarhead!” Wood shouts at Payne as he passes by on the way to his own cart.
Within seconds, the rest of an eccentric gang of retired-aged men arrives, one by one, each delivering their own jab at one another.
There’s Wood, retired from the YELLOW trucking company; Pete Doble, the golf course superintendent at Red Martin; Donny Golden, retired from Alcoa; and Dennis Stewart, a preacher who calls himself retired.
Then there’s Charlie Payne who, at 96 years old, makes this morning ritual of put-downs a daily routine. The longtime Arkadelphia resident has lived through the Great Depression, served the country during World War II, lettered in five college sports and made a career out of teaching, coaching and leading schools in capacities as both principal and superintendent.
With an 8 o’clock tee time, the golfers take their turns making their longest drive, then it’s every man for himself, each playing their own game as they see fit.
Born in 1925, Payne was raised between the Arkansas towns of Fordyce and Thornton, his father worked in the logging woods, following the sawmill company as it moved where more forest promised more business. The Payne family moved all around southern Arkansas, calling cities like Malvern or towns like Whelen Springs home.
At Hole 3, the troupe converges at a dried creek bed in search of someone’s golf ball. Quick to spot it, Payne quips aloud: “There any water in that crick?” When the men find a ball in a spot that isn’t suitable to their taste, they move it to their liking and line up for the next drive. “We play by our own rules,” Payne says.
By his junior high years, Payne had moved with his family to West Helena. His older brother began his military service in 1939, and he was reported missing following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Charlie promised their mother he wouldn’t go to war unless he was called on.
At Hole 5, Payne strikes his iron to land the ball on the putting green, setting himself up for a par. Doble scoffs at Payne, waving the wedge end of his iron at him. “That’s enough, old man,” Doble says. “I won’t be putting up with that.”
Payne’s calling to the military came during the middle of his high school senior year, as Payne was drafted to the Marine Corps and spent the next few years overseas. Payne served his time aboard the USS Salt Lake City, a heavy cruiser, in the South Pacific. One day, while refueling out at sea, Payne looked out at the neighboring ship and spotted a familiar face.
Having arrived at the edge of the next green with all but Golden, whose driver sent his ball well off course, Payne shouted out: “Can you hear me out there?!”
Whether it’s delivering cheeky gab to a friend or recognizing a long-lost relative, distance proves no obstacle for Payne’s sharp attention to detail.
“I saw a sailor, he looked kinda familiar,” Payne recalls of the refueling story. “As we got a little closer, I noticed it was my brother — right out in the middle of the Pacific.” Later, while the brothers Payne were anchored at the harbor in Okinawa, Payne received his captain’s permission to visit his brother. With the go-ahead from his superior, Payne boarded the next mail boat to climb aboard the ship where his brother — previously reported missing-in-action and presumed dead — was stationed. “After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he swam to shore,” Payne said.
On a Par 3 hole, the preacher clubs one to the far right of the green, missing by several yards. “Aw, now, Dennis, that wasn’t very good at all,” Payne mocks before turning his attention back to the guest in his cart.
In the short time he got to visit with his brother, the Paynes found themselves under Japanese attack. “While we were there [in Okinawa] we came under kamikaze attack.” With a chuckle, he adds, “I wanted to be back on that Salt Lake City cruiser then!”
At Hole 7, Payne finally becomes the target of jive-talk when he sinks one on par. “You finally made a put,” the preacher jokes. Payne hands the jab off as soon as the chance arises — on the very next hole, the fellow Marine strikes low, hurling the ball high but 90 yards shy of the green. “That’s mighty weak!” asserts Payne, whose next shot was weak and to the right, setting the course for mockery. Before the ball even hits the ground, the preacher takes a swing at humor: “Charlie, that’d be a good shot — if you were a 6-year-old girl.”
No sooner than the course superintendent whacks the ball, Payne releases the brake on his cart and zips to the green. The taped-on windshield rattles in the front, the golf clubs clink in the back.
Following his military service, Payne returned home to West Helena, where he finished his last semester of high school and earned a diploma. Then it was off to college to study physical education and social studies at Henderson State University. It was at Henderson where Payne lettered in football, basketball, tennis, track and swim. He belongs to Henderson’s Football Hall of Honor.
It took Payne three and a half years to finish his collegiate studies. He spent the next three and a half decades as an educator, teaching mainly in central and western Arkansas. Upon graduating Henderson in 1949, he taught at Jacksonville for a semester before accepting a position at Barton, where he taught and coached. When that school closed, Payne coached at Dierks and was eventually named superintendent, a title he maintained for 13 years before moving to Little Rock. He coached at McClellan and was assistant superintendent at Pulaski County Special School District for six years. He then served as superintendent of Hampton Schools for another six years before making one final move to Lake Hamilton Schools, where he retired after 13 years, in 1986.
Payne and his gang golf nearly every day possible. They once golfed at DeGray Lake Resort State Park’s course, then golfed for a while at the now-defunct Turtle Pointe Golf Club. Now they spend their mornings at Gurdon’s Red Martin Country Club, and they have the entire 9-hole course to themselves most mornings.
Payne enjoys the outdoors in one form or fashion, even if he’s not golfing. Asked what type of fishing he prefers, he’s quick to respond: “Oh, anything: crappie, bass, cats, you name it.” Recently, he took his ’52 model fishing boat out of storage and put a new motor on it in anticipation of wetting some hooks this fall. When Payne isn’t busy golfing or fishing, he attends as many sporting events as he can.
As the gang begins its second round of the 9-hole course, Payne clubs one worthy of half-hearted applause. “Go, Papaw, Go!” the preacher exclaims. On the same hole, Golden turns the spotlight on Wood’s other favorite pastime: “How many squirrels ya done killed?” Wood doesn’t hesitate. “Fifty-one.” His next hunting trip is already planned, later in the week.
At the next hole, Golden’s phone rings. He inspects the number on the caller ID only to find it’s potential spam. “Oh, I ate some SPAM the other day,” he jokes. Golden then squares up for his next shot and delivers a whack, making a poor shot and blaming it on his stance. Never hesitant to jeer, the others chime in. “Come on, you sissy dog!” Payne mocks.
As the mid-morning sun peeks through a light sheet of clouds, the men are forced to squint at the tiny white globes they send sailing through the air. Until on Hole 13, where a red oak stands tall between the tee and the hole. Payne swings for the green, but the ball instead finds itself tearing through a bramble of oak leaves and limbs. “That tree is a menace to me,” admits Payne.
Near his 93rd birthday, Payne underwent a heart surgery in which he received five bypasses and three valve replacements. “I’m in good health other than that,” he says. “I’m just happy to be here is all I know.” Asked what advice he would give for longevity, he doesn’t hesitate: “Just be happy in what you do, and just live that kind of life. I’ve enjoyed life, and that’s all I can say.” Regarding his senior years, Payne says he’s reminded of the namesake chorus of a Toby Keith song: He’s not Letting the Old Man In.
On the tee of the final hole, the course superintendent is content with the swing he makes. The ever-confident Payne brings his pride down a notch. “I got that beat,” says Payne, his ball closer to the flag. Even as the game draws to a close, the put-downs never cease to exist. “I’m not worried about it,” the course superintendent sneers, “You can’t event see the pin from where you’re at.”
Once the game is complete and the men wrap up their jeers, the question is brought up: “You gonna be here tomorrow?” the preacher asks, to an almost collective “Yep.” The only one who doesn’t give a definite yes is Wood, who might or might not have some squirrel hunting to do. As the carts are parked, the group disperses and the friends leave as quickly as they arrived. “See you in the morning,” Payne says.