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This arrangement makes it easier to tend the grounds, enabling the cemetery to sell individual plots, with perpetual care, for as little as $150. Any suggestion that the velvety landscaping resembles that of a golf course is well received by Richard Wiltshire, Restlawn's general manager, who says, "I consider that a nice compliment. We try to make the cemetery as cheerful as possible. We don't want it to be a place of gloom."
To judge by local real-estate values, the one asset prized as highly as grass in Port Charlotte is water, this being equally a symbol of renewal and vigor. One can establish more or less permanent roots in Port Charlotte for around $10,000, the cost of a fully equipped mobile home in the new Holiday Park development, but the choicest homes, those priced at $30,000 to $40,000 or more, are situated either on the golf course or the waterfront. In local usage this last means any of the labyrinthine profusion of fingerlike canals that extend from Charlotte Harbor into many of the town's backyards, a setup naturally favored by those who prefer boating and fishing to golf.
When Ray Walton moved to Port Charlotte in October 1965 he fully expected to spend as much time on the water as on the golf course. Back in Dayton, after all, he had played golf at the Community Country Club only on summer weekends, a dozen or so times a year all told. Childless and financially comfortable, if not what you would call wealthy, he and Pauline lived in a two-story suburban house, took fishing vacations in the Wisconsin woods, bought Seagram's V.O. by the case and drove to Cincinnati to root for the Reds. All they lacked in the pursuit of these relaxations was enough time. So rather than wait for the mandatory age of 65, Walton opted to retire from Frigidaire early—just before his 60th birthday.
On their arrival in Port Charlotte, where a younger sister of Pauline already lived, they rented a $150-a-month home on a wide canal. They bought a 14-foot boat, and Walton scoured Charlotte Harbor for fish. This activity, however, soon gave way to golf. Less than a year later the couple bought their present home on the golf course, an L-shaped affair designated by General Development Corporation, the Miami real-estate concern that launched Port Charlotte, as the Ryder Cup model. This distinguishes it from such other models as the Western Open, the USGA and the Masters.
At first Pauline Walton failed to share her husband's enthusiasm for golf, and problems resulted. "I'd be out playing golf all day, and she'd sit at home," recalls Walton. "She had too much time on her hands. For a while I was afraid we were going to have to move back to Dayton." And Pauline admits, "I was too embarrassed to go out on the course. I was afraid everyone would laugh at the way I played."
Today the game absorbs the Waltons equally, as do their other main pleasures, such as dining out and dancing every few weeks, usually at the Holiday Inn, which is in the nearby village of Punta Gorda. "If you don't get dressed up once in a while, you lose your pride," explains Walton. They are generally accompanied on such outings by the people who live in the Western Open next door, Don Whalen, a retired Army colonel in his early 50s, and his wife Lucy. The tab for the evening, which can come to $40 or more, is generally picked up by the losing couple in a marathon gin-rummy game that the Waltons and Whalens play several evenings a week.
To gin rummy, as to golf, Walton brings a strong will to win. "As long as you're competing, and as long as you're trying to do well, you're not really old," he says, and his idea of doing well extends to so prosaic an undertaking as a putting tournament held one day at a par-46 miniature golf course at Port Charlotte's Ramada Inn. The event drew 32 entrants, all of them retirees except for a 13-year-old boy from Detroit who was in Port Charlotte to visit his grandmother. Walton played as if it were nothing less than the U.S. Open. He studied every lie carefully, coaxed his shots along with phrases and sometimes whole paragraphs of body English, and grumbled impatiently when a rain squall came up to interrupt play.
The golfers hurried for cover, but the rain providentially stopped after a few moments, allowing play to resume. Finishing strongly, Walton carded a 54, then joined the other players in front of a nearby bulletin board. When the results were posted they showed him in second place, two strokes behind the boy from Detroit and good enough for the runner-up prize of a $5 gift certificate.
"Well, second place is better than nothing," Walton said nonchalantly. As he turned from the bulletin board, he added, "You'll hear some guys say that kid had no right being in the tournament. Well, I disagree. You've got to stand aside for youth."
Late that afternoon, wearing the same Bermuda shorts and polo shirt, Walton settled down for cocktails in his enclosed sun porch with Pauline and their friends from next door, the Whalens. The room commands a clear view of the 4th green, and on such occasions Ray Walton sometimes amuses himself by opening a window and badgering friends among the passing parade of golfers. But today held no such lighthearted moments, for it quickly developed that Pauline, who had undergone minor surgery three weeks before, was not feeling well. She was running a fever, a condition worrisome enough that the next morning she would go back in the hospital for observation.