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In the five years since he retired among the lofty palms and exquisitely tangled mangroves of Port Charlotte, Fla., Ray Walton's age and golf score have eased onto a potential collision course, the one having climbed to 64 while the other was dropping, if less surely, toward 80. Walton relishes the full, carefree, convenient life he now leads: full because the balmy climate allows him to play golf in all seasons; carefree because no job intrudes on his game; convenient because his three-bedroom home borders on the Port Charlotte Country Club, whose billowing fairways—"my 150-acre backyard," he says with a proprietary air—beckon from just beyond the kitchen door.
Having elected to spend the remainder of his days in so genial a setting, Walton wastes only the most fleeting, nostalgic sentiments on the workaday world he used to inhabit as a production superintendent at General Motors' huge Frigidaire plant in Dayton. His 37 years with GM were pleasant enough, but Walton found himself increasingly taking the worries of the job home with him. Those cares were routed at last by the move to Florida, where the tranquillity of his days is now disturbed only by the golf balls that occasionally crash through his windows from the 4th fairway, which is just a duck hook away.
"I'm enjoying every minute of my retirement—it's more than I bargained for," says Walton, an energetic, tautly built fellow whose sharp features are softened by a youthful tan, his years betrayed only by the floury whiteness of his brush cut. Granted, a few wrinkles flare from the eyes, but these might just as easily have been caused by the laughter that seams his face during hours passed in hearty fellowship with his golfing pals, most of whom, like himself, migrated to Port Charlotte in hopes of leading the good life relatively late in life.
Difficult as it is to imagine today, Port Charlotte, which is among the most successful of the planned retirement towns that have proliferated in Florida and elsewhere, existed 15 years ago as empty cattle country overgrown with palmetto scrubs and virgin saw grass. Thus it is at once new, being a Gulf Coast boomtown with orderly rows of white-roofed houses and sunbaked shopping centers, and old, because the demography of its 19,000 souls includes only a smattering of young couples. Without either a downtown that might honestly qualify it as a city, or a big neighbor that might certify it as a suburb—the nearest city of any size is Fort Myers, 30 miles down the coast—Port Charlotte has its own reality, its citizens secure in their isolation no less than in their homogeneity.
It is as if these people had caught themselves slipping willy-nilly into their twilight years and, being with rare exceptions white, middle-class and wholly unaccustomed to the kind of minority status that old age automatically confers, had banded together to create their own new majority. In the process they have not so much fled from responsibility, regimentation and routine as they have substituted new forms of these that find their echo in the old. Instead of being obligated to some employer, for instance, Ray Walton is now beholden to half a dozen foursomes with whom he regularly golfs. Spared the rush-hour traffic he had to fight back in Dayton, he now faces the great jam of electric golf carts that forms before every club tournament. No longer competing in business, he still competes, and no less intensely, in golf.
There is no way to overstate the importance of the game in these. Walton's retirement years. He generally gets in 18 holes every morning and occasionally sneaks in another nine in late afternoon. Between rounds he practices his putting in the air-conditioned comfort of his home—the carpet is green—and he is forever consulting one or another dog-eared instructional book for help in whatever problem is lately undermining his game. A rare, and unwelcome, respite occurs every Thursday. That is Ladies' Day at the club, which means that his wife Pauline takes possession of the family golf cart, leaving Walton to idle away the morning in the clubhouse with his cronies, retired fellows like Larry Bermas, Floyd Fransisco and George Dyer, who are similarly stranded, each and all, by this perversity in the club's schedule.
Commiserating over their collective fate ("Those gals play so doggone slow"), the men quaff coffee and banter tirelessly over inequities they claim to have detected in one another's handicaps. Their conversation has an air of self-congratulation about it, as when Bermas, a retired detective from New York City, threatens to recount once again how he singlehandedly and forever cleansed Manhattan of crime. When the talk turns to the present, it is no less self-satisfied. "Decisions, decisions," sighs Fransisco, a thickset ex-Army colonel who heads the men's association of the club. "In the mornings it's do I shave before I play or do I play before I shave?"
What keeps all this from becoming too cloyingly cozy for Walton is the uneven quality of his game, something he blames on the toughness of the par-72 Port Charlotte course. Some retirees eventually grow bored with so much golf, but Walton insists that the challenge of trying to improve his game will spare him that fate. "I'll play real good one day and think I've got this course licked," he says. "Then the next day it jumps up and bites me."
The attraction the game holds for older people like Ray Walton makes the golf course, along with the rocking chair and the park bench, one of the abiding symbols of retirement. One explanation lies in the tendency—most pronounced among those reared before public golf courses brought the game to a wider audience—to associate golf with a life of ease and privilege. Thus it is that Port Charlotte "U," a big and busy adult-education facility that offers retirement-oriented classes in, among other subjects. Contoured Glass, or Orchids as a Hobby, tempts students to its golf-instruction sessions with the promise: "Now is your chance to make that old dream come true."
But it is worth considering, too, whether golf's popularity with Port Charlotte's residents might not have to do with a certain fascination with grass, which they mow, water and otherwise pamper with such happy results as to suggest that green may not be the color of youthful inexperience after all. (Another popular course at Port Charlotte "U" is Landscape Gardening.) In a community that necessarily views death with some urgency, it is perhaps not surprising that, apart from the Port Charlotte Country Club, the prettiest expanse of grass can be found at Restlawn Memorial Gardens, whose graves, uncluttered by tombstones, are identified by bronze markers flush with the ground.