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Tales from the Night Waterman (2007)

Randy Wilson


The following is a reprint from 2007 for a special request.

True confession:  I was a teenage night waterman.  It began innocently enough, with an impact Rain Bird fixation.  As a pre-teen golfer and offspring of a pro/super/general manager, my playing time often was compressed to that golden hour just before sunset when the big impact-driven sprinkler heads began to appear on the course.

They stood tall, threw water over 100 feet and emitted a soothing, rhythmic noise that could be heard all over the course.  The first head of the evening normally went into the first quick-coupler from the tee, so the last few players of the day could negotiate the hole without hitting from artificial rain.  I loved those sprinklers.

I learned how to ram the sprinkler into the coupling and give it a forceful twist to engage the cam effect.  I also learned that a good waterman never stood above a quick-coupler sprinkler head and looked down--he always stayed to the side.  If the cam didn't lock, the head would come screaming out of the ground like an anti-aircraft missile and remove the teeth designed for apple eating.  I learned never to kick a stubborn sprinkler head in an effort to help it unlock.  Without downward pressure to help unlock the cam, the head simply acted like a giant pipe wrench and the quick-coupling would unscrew, creating a giant mess . . . in the dark.

When I was 14, Dad began to have trouble with night watermen; they would up and run off during the night.  This was due to several factors, the first of which was my teenage insomnia.  Living on a dark golf course in the boondocks, (real estate courses were rare in those days) I had no evening entertainment save one channel of TV.  When that channel signed off at midnight, I wandered out onto the course, and what I saw usually infuriated me. 

Most of these guys were intoxicated with various additives, they were sloppy and inconsistent with the water schedule, (if they did it at all) and they regularly fabricated pump trouble in order to cover an all-night bender.  The part that sent me over the edge was the pay scale:  They were making the princely sum of $2.50 an hour, while I slaved over a cup changer and endured golfer insults for 75 cents per hour.

One morning, I overheard Bubby the night waterman bragging to a compatriot about his nocturnal adventures doing LSD while watering:  "Hey man, check it out," Bubby said, "I'm like, getting paid to trip.  It's far out, man, I'm one with nature."

The next morning, Bubby appeared in Dad's office, extremely disheveled and bug-eyed.  "I quit, man!"  Bubby shouted at Dad, "Give me my money, I ain't never going back out there at night again!"

"What's the problem, Bubby?" Dad asked while casting a sidelong glance at me.  "Problem?" Bubby hollered, "Norm, I kid you not, there's a monster out there!"  That's not word-for-word, but you get the idea.

. . . mournfully calling a man's name from the dark forest was a sure way to create a job opening.

I was temporarily promoted to night waterman, with a 50 cent raise and a warning from Bubby to watch out for a T-Rex with red eyes and a terrifying howl.  Soon, Dad replaced me, claiming I was too valuable as a cup changer, cart knave, and pro shop serf.  Riley, a hard-drinking old country boy got the job and wore his deer rifle slung over one shoulder as he jammed heads in the ground.

As the years went by, Dad lost more night watermen.  I learned that a subtle moan out of the darkness, spiced up with an occasional glimpse of a dimly lit mask peering from behind a distant tree had more effect than a T-Rex.  And mournfully calling a man's name from the dark forest was a sure way to create a job opening.  One golf course, the aptly named Mystery Valley near Atlanta, suffered more than its share of horror stories, probably because it retained the old fashioned night waterman quick-couplers until the late 1980s.  

When my brother Mike returned to golf after four years in a US Army Ranger battalion, he was immediately recruited by Gary Ready, the MV superintendent, to serve as the night waterman.  The crew hooted and hollered and placed bets as to how long the new kid would last on the spooky back nine, especially when the ghostly old woman who haunted the 18th century cemetery behind the 14th green made her appearance.

After a hard summer, Gary pronounced Mike the best night waterman he had ever seen, and claimed that Mike was more reliable, precise and consistent than the automatic system on the other course Gary managed.  The Mystery Valley crew was mystified and disappointed.  Finally a crew member approached Mike and asked, "Didn't you ever see anything out there at night? Anything at all?"

Mike nodded and said, "You mean the old woman that lives in the grave behind #14?  She's just lonely ... needs somebody to talk to."

For the adult version of this story — and others — see "The Greens of Wrath" on Amazon, before it goes extinct after Christmas.

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Thank you for the repost. There is no better training document to prepare new hires to be a night waterman.   My final day as head golf course superintendent is this Sunday.  I then move into an advisory role at my club. The manual irrigation  is one of the many things that wore me out in this position. 

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Thanks for your comments and congratulations on the new position.

A few years back, Cornell released a study that said quick couplers were more efficient than auto systems.  I suspect they didn't have any experience with nocturnal manual irrigation.

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Hey  Randy, we had quick couplers in the fairways up into the nineties at one course I was an Assistant on in Raleigh, NC. It was really fun when the quick coupler would hang open and you had to fight the stream to try to reinsert the head. Ahh, the memories!

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I was 13 years old working on the Air Force Base in Mt. Home, Idaho for my Msgt Dad who was the manager freshly back from Vietnam. There were no lights, only the big sky filled with billions of stars, packs of coyotes, badgers, rattle snakes and thousands of praire dog holes. I drove a 1945 jeep around moving the large rainbird impact heads with the force of Chuck Norris to the chest when you had it turned the wrong way. I worked 8 am until 6 am when the superintendent would come in.  Of course, you hear things in the dark of night that make your hair stand up but the grass has to drink. After 52 years in the golf industry and 43 as golf course superintendent, I still remember fondly that period of my young life. I would give a years wages to have some of that youth back today and thanks to Randy Wilson to stirring up those beautiful tiring days and nights.

Joseph Hubbard, CGCS/CEMP 

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Thanks for reading, Joseph.  I was a military brat, too, Dad was Army, SFC.

I was also 13, working nights on a course in the Kettleman Hills of California.  I was fearful of coyotes and herds of jackrabbits, so I carried a single shot 20ga. 

In the dark of a no moon night, I brutally killed a tumbleweed.

I, too, have fond memories of those days, Joseph.  Dad did not.  I think the reason he woke up screaming at night when he got old had something to do with those days.


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