Editor’s Note: This Hunter S. Thompson-esque feature was originally published on April 11, 2007, and was written by former Metro Spirit reporter Corey Pein. Pein abandoned the Metro Spirit some years back to write for the Willamette Week in Portland, Oregon, and hasn’t been heard from since. No surprise there, since Pein, more often than not sporting Mercedes Benz-logo shorts (worn ironically, of course), was always pissing someone off. Nonetheless, this story of a bit of Masters Week tomfoolery — henceforth referred to as the ultimate exercise in futility — is worth revisiting, if for nothing else than to play a game of “spot what no longer exists in Augusta.” Enjoy!
Depending on who you asked, it was happy hour at Vegas Showgirls. Ten dollar cover, paid at the bar. Microbrews? No. PBR? No. The bartender brought me a Budweiser. “That’ll be $6.50,” she said. I tipped her $1.
Five polo shirts filled with thirtysomething men walked out single file, keeping their heads low in shame. It was a quarter to five. The course was still open, but they came here instead. Golfers gone wild, sort of. Golfers gone mild.
The glass door closed behind them, and it was just me and another guy in the club. Then he left, and it was just me and the girls. They looked bored.
A young woman from South Carolina was more enthusiastic. She’d already given herself one fake name, but I’ll give her another — Destiny. She was a student, she said, barely old enough to drink. It was her first time working Masters.
“Has it been busy here?” I asked.
“No, not really. Thursday and Friday it will get busy. Hopefully.”
Too late for my deadline. So much for that plan.
A sandy blonde in a pink thong took the stage. Awful hair metal played over the jukebox. “I love this song!” the dancer said. She bent over, shook a little bit, stood up and yawned. I gave her $1.
“That’s a start!” Destiny said. “You didn’t just come in here for a beer. I hope.” She winked. “Kind of,” I said.
Destiny held open her thong, and I slipped her $1. For her textbooks.
Quickest $19.50 ever spent. I forgot to get a receipt.
The blonde descended, and another young lady began her lazy routine. “Woo hoo. Masters Week,” she said, full of apathy. “Are you ready to party?”
I downed the beer quickly. I was not ready to party. I only wanted to reflect. Though it was only Wednesday, the week was over for me. So much work.
“You work too hard and you get stiff,” Destiny said. “Relax.”
She had a point. Success? Failure? What was the difference? Plans were made to fall apart. Mine had.
Something in the air made me uneasy. Something had changed. Scores of golf carts had appeared mysteriously and all at once, like crop circles announcing an alien invasion.
I squinted through the green dust that caked my windshield. The wipers only made things worse. A scrunched old woman, eyes masked by a visor, hobbled down the narrow strip of grass that fronts the road outside the Augusta National Golf Club. Traffic sped past. Washington Road had been ceded to an army of reckless drivers — even more than usual — with too much money and little inclination to yield.
One day they, too, would hobble.
The Hooters lot was full. A man with wraparound sunglasses leaned out the window of his shiny, late-model sedan and hocked a loogie on the asphalt.
Welcome to Augusta! Make yourself at home!
At Publix, the beer had moved up front. The Official Masters Program ($9!) was prominently displayed. Ladies with painted lips and dye jobs wandered the aisles, most without shopping carts. They dressed like they just came from church.
A big bearded man in a muumuu-style T-shirt and tattered gray shorts blocked an aisle in the produce section. He wore one black sandal and one white sneaker. He held forth to a white-haired lady about “some kind of blight.” She smiled politely and backed away toward the lettuce.
Was he drunk already, or just crazy? Tourist or local? Which combination would be worse?
I took my groceries home. Tofu, Spam, Corona. Enough for the weekend.
Broad Street was busy. A skater kid walked by wearing a shirt that said “Girls Gone Wild Film Crew.” Local. A loudly chattering group of men sporting polo shirts and cropped hair stumbled into the restaurant where I was having lunch. Tourists. All I could pick out of their conversation, as such, was a single word: “Golf, golf, golf, golf.”
I shuffled the newspaper. The outside world was full of pestilence and terror, but mercifully free of “duffers” and their ilk. No, they had all come here.
Dark clouds swelled in the afternoon sky. This is promising, I thought. Pray for rain.
A good five-day thunderstorm would provide a plausible, face-saving excuse. Oh, how I wanted out. But I was locked into The Plan, trapped like a National Guardsman under a stop-loss order.
“It’s got your fingerprints all over it,” he wrote.
Was the sonofabitch blackmailing me? Remember, be cool. The pollen made it hard for police to get good fingerprints. I heard it on NPR.
Still, extortion wasn’t beyond him. He was unpredictable. Unbalanced. “You know what’s wrong with society?” he said at dinner. “We don’t eat each other… We eat cows.”
This man wears a tie to work. He has everyone fooled. Not me.
The Huckster’s veiled threat made me realize that I should’ve kept my mouth shut about the Plan. Instead, I’d blabbed myself into a corner.
Expectations had risen. It seemed like everyone knew, even people I hadn’t seen in weeks. I was stunned when a Tournament enthusiast I know greeted me by begging: “Please don’t do it. They’ll shoot you.”
Yes, well… That was not out of the question. People had been shot on the National’s turf before, and for less dramatic offenses. Granted, it wasn’t 1976, and I wasn’t one of three black boys gone fishing in Rae’s Creek, but I was planning to pilot a three-foot remote-controlled blimp over the course during Masters Week.
I’m not sure. I’ve had a life-long fascination with dirigibles.
I do know when I realized I had to launch a model blimp over the Masters. It was last fall, when I watched one soaring with buoyant majesty over the crowd at an Augusta Lynx game. It was awesome. Inspiring.
An unauthorized blimp was just the thing to inject some youthful exuberance into what remains a staid pastime for rich old men, and people who aspire to be rich old men. Including Tiger.
As a bonus, it would startle the bourgeoisie.
“Tradition” was their mantra. What I proposed was something new. At least, different.
It’s only a “non-PGA Tour co-sponsored event,” anyway.
And they denied press credentials to the Metro Spirit, again.
For weeks, I did my homework. I plotted possible flight plans and compared the technical specifications of various models. I did everything but commission a feasibility study. In the end, I chose the Megatech Party Blimp because it could be “emblazoned with a personalized message” and was only $100.
I also researched FAA regulations to make sure I couldn’t be tried as a terrorist under the USA Patriot Act. Turns out the sky is the exclusive domain of the United States government, and thus, the people. Socialism is alive and well in the third dimension. The National may be able to buy all the land in Augusta and turn it into private parking, but they don’t own the air.
“Do you think a Richmond County deputy knows that?” a colleague asked.
All this negativity. But then, I thought, “What would our President do?”
Why, he wouldn’t listen to anyone.
I was somewhat reassured when an executive from Portico Publications, the company that owns the Metro Spirit, promised to bail me out.
Stay the course.
Saturday afternoon. In the picture on the box, the grey blimp looked large and imposing, like some terrible Helium God. There were laser beams shooting from the gondola. Perfect. I imagined a “Close Encounters”-style spectacle over the Ninth Hole, the crowd hobbling toward the gates in confusion as the zeppelin’s built-in speakers played “Hail to the Chief.”
After opening the box, I discovered that this was an unlikely scenario.
On the upside, batteries were included.
I spread the empty balloon out on the floor and went to work with a permanent marker and stencils (also included). When I finished, the blimp said “METRO SPIRIT.” No need to get philosophical. I felt pleased with the typography.
The party shop at Daniel Village supplied the helium, no questions asked. It was slightly underinflated, but I wasn’t in a position to complain. I wedged the blimp in the back seat so it wouldn’t float up and block my rear view. If there were going to be any flashing lights back there, I needed to know immediately.
Legal concerns led me to revise The Plan. I drove to some friends’ house — I’ll call them Joanie and Chachi — hoping to conscript The Kid. I figured that if a minor did the actual piloting, he probably wouldn’t get taken to jail. Even if he did, the charges (Disorderly Conduct? Disrupting a Televised Event?) would be expunged from his record when he turned 18. That meant only eight years in juvie, tops.
So that was the Revised Plan. Get The Kid to do it. (Contributing to the Deprivation of a Minor?) At the least, I could trick him into helping me assemble the thing.
The Kid was disappointed. He thought I would descend on their home in a full-size blimp, like Goodyear’s. He helped assemble the model anyway. The work went smoothly until it came time to attach the gondola.
“It’s upside down!” said Joanie. She cackled at my misfortune.
We walked to nearby schoolyard to conduct a test flight. It was empty except for us, the dog and a pair of teen girls (locals) taking lascivious pictures of each other spread-eagled on the jungle gym. For MySpace? Truly, the girls gone wild.
It was windy. The blimp did not perform well.
Slight gusts would send it flapping wildly through the air, heedless of the remote control’s imperatives. The fish-line tether kept getting tangled in the gondola’s propellers and wrapped around the dog’s legs.
The advertised range of 300 feet seemed optimistic at best. The signal gave out after about 20 yards.
I tried vainly to steer the blimp up, up, up, but the wind always pushed it fiercely into the sand. Chachi and The Kid tried, and did no better.
The blimp bounced off a brick column and went belly up. METRO SPIRIT. It flapped against the ground. TIRIdS ORTEW.
“I don’t think this is gonna make it over the National,” said Chachi.
I was forced to agree. It probably wouldn’t even clear the hedges.
We took the blimp back indoors, where Joanie opened the instruction manual. “It says ‘for indoor use only,’” she said.
“Where was it made?” I asked. “China?” Piece of junk. This is what happens when you do things on the cheap. The Chinese were ruining my Plan.
Sipping a Corona on the couch, I had an epiphany. Plan B was so shrewd, so expedient, so 2007, that it could’ve come from a Pentagon think tank. It was a way out — an exit strategy.
Sacrifice the mass. Preserve the core. I could remove the gondola — the valuable part, with the propellers — and let the balloon sail freely with the wind. The controls didn’t work anyway. It was the message that mattered. And this way, either side could be “up.”
Plan B’s brilliant simplicity lifted my anxiety. I had lunch with The Huckster at a pizza place down the street from my apartment.
On the sidewalk, I passed a gang of khaki-shorted frat boys. Golf golf golf. They were standing in a circle, taking turns punching each other in the stomach. Hwoof! “Suck it up!” Hwoof! Where did these people come from?
True to form, The Huckster had ordered food before his guest arrived. But he did save me a seat at the tiny table. Polo shirts filled the booths.
The Huckster said he knew someone who’d pilot the blimp and take the fall for $200. I said I didn’t have that kind of money, and filled him in on Plan B.
“That’s the wussy way to do it,” he said. “What you’ve got then is a $100 balloon.”
The Huckster had a point, maybe, but he lacked the technical knowledge I’d gained during the test flight. To those in the know, it was obvious that Plan B was the only way forward. No other conclusion was possible.
“We should keep our voices down here,” I said. The Huckster surveyed the pizza parlor and agreed. “This place is probably filled with Illuminati,” he said. “Golf Illuminati.”
Monday. Work work work. Golf golf golf.
In the morning, there was BREAKING NEWS from The Augusta Chronicle Web site: “Traffic heavy on Washington Road.”
That’s why VIPs insist on a blimp. I bet Warren Buffett has at least two.
Guilted by The Huckster, I made a final, halfhearted effort to salvage the Original Plan. Customer service put me on hold.
“Hello,” I said when a woman answered. “I’m calling for some help with the Megatech Party Blimp I recently purchased.”
“Yeah,” she said, bored.
“Is there any way I can boost the range?”
“Boost the range?” The idea startled her out of her daze. “I’m not sure. Hold on.”
There was silence on the line. Then the woman’s voice came on again. “There’s no way you can up the range,” she said.
“Is there any way to get it to perform better outdoors?” I asked.
“Yeah, you really can’t,” she said. “All of our items, if its windy, they’re not gonna work.”
“We are the manufacturer,” she said.
“Oh. Up there in New Jersey?”
So much for buying American.
At a quarter to five, Austin Rhodes called the office to tell us a CBS News employee had been arrested for robbing a bank on Gordon Highway.
Shit. How could I top that?
Late that night, Joanie and Chachi warned me that a neighbor had asked them what was up with the blimp.
How many had seen? How many knew?
Tuesday. A maintenance guy carrying a stepladder stopped me in the stairwell. “Which apartment do you live in?” he asked. I told him. “I just changed your air filter,” he said.
Then he had seen! The man had an unfamiliar face. Who did he work for, really?
I hurried upstairs. Nothing seemed out of place. The blimp was still anchored in the corner, bobbing slightly closer to the floor.
It was time to prepare for Plan B. I carefully peeled the gondola from the balloon. The adhesive was strong, but by working slowly, it came off without incident.
What about the fins? They should probably go, too. Per the instruction manual, they’d been attached with Scotch tape. I tried to peel off the top fin. It didn’t budge. I applied a little more force. The tape held but the fin tore. Damnit.
I jerked a little harder. Then I heard a steady hissing sound.
The blimp was leaking fast. Reflexively, I clutched it tight, forcing out more helium. Shit!
Don’t panic. Think.
I twisted the balloon like a garbage bag and, with a handy length of twine, tied off the hole. OK. Relax. Breathe. But not too deep — the helium.
Holding fast to the tether, I stared numbly at the flaccid dirigible. There was still some gas in it. Some hwoof. It could soar yet. Stay the course.
I carried the blimp downstairs. The bearded guy from across the hall was climbing up. “What’re you doing with that?” he said. Nothing, nothing… In the parking lot, a woman stared at the blimp, then at me, then at the ground. No, nothing at all… Hold tight to that twine.
I opened the trunk of my car. Inside was a roll of clear packing tape and a box cutter. Fumbling with my one free hand, I eventually managed to cut off a piece of tape. Of course, it got twisted together. Somehow — by the Helium God’s grace — I got it unstuck, then mashed it over the hole. That would have to do.
I stuffed the blimp in the trunk and slammed the lid.
The truth began to sink in: I could blame no one else. The Plan had always been dubious. The execution was botched. It was a project born in Augusta.
I slumped on the couch. “You look so depressed,” Joanie said.
“My whole Plan is falling apart,” I said. “First the blimp didn’t work outdoors, then I tore a hole in it.”
“Don’t forget,” Chachi said, “you made it upside down.”
Joanie still had faith. “You need pocket helium,” she suggested. “You could pretend like you’re a pregnant woman.”
TV had Masters Highlights. Tiger Woods was talking about how he knew he’d made it when he finally conquered that “elitist” club. We can’t all be winners, I thought.
It was nice outside. “I just wanna take a nap,” I said.
“This place does that to you,” Joanie said.
I went for a drive instead.
Finally, I understood what it was all about. The Masters is a traffic jam. Last motorist to lose his mind wins.
The invasion had arrived. Berckmans Road was an endless stream of cars cars cars, stuffed knick-knack bags and swollen pink faces. Gas fumes and human sweat.
Where was the golf? Behind those verdant walls. The club took care of its own. Everyone else could sweat to death in gridlock. All the more money for ExxonMobil, Official Tournament Sponsor.
So much security. Why was this cop waving at me? Did he mean “keep going,” or “open your trunk?” God forbid. What would he say when he saw the blimp? It wasn’t tied down. What if it flew up and hit him in the face? Hwoof! Assaulting a Law Enforcement Officer with an Unsecured Model Aircraft. A felony. OK, he meant “keep going.” But watch out for the people walking in the road. Don’t drive too carefully, or you’ll look suspicious.
Took the left onto Washington. Big mistake. How would I turn around? It wasn’t possible to change direction, or even to stop. Every square foot of ground was occupied. West Augusta was the world’s largest used-car lot. Pickup, Porsche, SUV.
I wanted to shower. I wanted to go back downtown, where it was safe.
Traffic was better going down. A transvestite strolled up 7th Street. S/he wore pumps, big hoop earrings and a lot of rouge. Cars lined up outside the strip clubs nearby. A sign: “Welcome Golf Fans!” A man chomped a cigar. I finally washed the pollen from my windshield.
Wednesday. Windshield already crusty. Light rain. Outside the coffee shop, a balding, middle-aged man with a Masters badge clipped to his collar sidled up to me. “I’ve been expecting this rain,” he announced. Me too. I had prayed for it.
“Yep,” I said. Thinking our conversation was over, I started to get into my car.
The man stopped me. “Say,” he said. “Do you think you could help a guy get a ride up Washington Road?”
The popping sensation in my brain may have been a minor aneurysm. Did he actually think I was going to chauffer him to the Augusta National? Just how far did our hospitality extend? “I’m going to work,” I said.
“No, no. I meant could you spare some change. For the bus. I’m trying to get to the course.”
For a moment, all I could do was stare. “Sorry,” I said.
“Just a little change,” he insisted.
“For the bus.”
He scowled, turned away, and limped slowly in the direction of the National. Guy must’ve had a rough night. But my sympathies extended only so far.
Portico executives were in the office. They didn’t know about the hole in the blimp. Expectations were high. I kept my head down.
Before lunchtime, Joanie sent me a text: “What time are you going to do the balloon launch”? Balloon, she said. What had happened to the zeppelin?
“Not sure yet,” I replied. “The Plan is in tatters. I’m under a lot of pressure.”
The Par 3 Contest would begin at 1 p.m. The forecast showed winds moving west at 10-15 m.p.h. My west-to-east flight plan was now out of the question. I needed to devise a Plan C. Or was it D?
Instead, I took a long lunch with coworkers.
The food was good. “It’s naptime,” I said. Everyone agreed.
Just before we got the check, the Mayor of Augusta, Deke Copenhaver, walked in and ordered a massive plate of sushi. A colleague told him I had “big plans” for Masters. I glared at her, but she just laughed.
“It’s nothing,” I explained. Nothing at all…
The sky had cleared. My prayers were de-answered. I’d driven around Lake Olmstead and somehow, miraculously, made it across Washington Road. Given the wind, Vineland Road, which runs along the National’s eastern border, seemed the best place to release the blimp. An on-site inspection revealed a problem: too many trees. The blimp would surely be ensnared. The traditionalists had thought of everything.
It took about 10 minutes to merge onto Washington Road. I drove around aimlessly and got lost. Joanie called.
“Are you listening to Austin Rhodes?” she said.
“No,” I said. I was listening to a discussion about sleep apnea on NPR.
“He’s talking about how there’s no ban on aircraft over the Masters,” she said.
“Yeah, I knew that. It’s a myth.”
“He says there have been renegade blimps before and it’s no big deal. I thought he was talking about it because you’d let it go already.”
“That bastard. He’s trying to undermine me. Who told him?” I said. “Nevermind, I know how he found out.” The maintenance guy must’ve bugged my apartment.
I’d gotten turned around again. Gardner Street somehow turned into Fitten. Small houses and old cars. I studied the map. It seemed I was actually close to the course. Montgomery Street became a gated dirt road that ran about 100 yards to the north, and ended against a row of trees and a rusty chain-link fence. That must be it.
A few people were in the streets, but they didn’t look like cops. More likely, they thought I was a cop. I hopped the gate and followed the dirt path to the tree line. I heard the unmistakable “tink!” of putter on ball. I moved closer. But not too close — the ground was covered in some menacing vegetation that looked sure to leave an itchy rash. I was wearing flip-flops. More poor planning.
Peering through the foliage, I could finally see them: golfers, maybe three of them, actually playing the game. (Sport? Game.) They wore bright yellow shirts and gleaming white caps. It could very well be Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods. There was even a golf cart, rolling toward me over the grass. Could they see me? Probably, if I could see them. I crept away. It would have to be now.
I looked at the blimp one last time. Actually, it was now more of a half-inflated $100 balloon trailing a five-foot length of twine. It still said TIRIdS ORTEW, but it was very hard to read, with the reflection from the sunlight.
As the wrinkled gray mass drifted up and away, in the general direction of Augusta Regional Airport, I felt a strange mixture of relief and disappointment. My schemes had failed, but maybe there was a greater Plan at work. Maybe this was Destiny.
I returned to my car. Looking at the map again, I realized that I had been peering into the Augusta Country Club, not the Augusta National.
Oh well. What was the difference?