It was still early in the morning when Jerry Jenkin and John Lieser Sr. got to the fifth hole on The Dales course at Community Golf Course, but the sun already was shining brightly above the trees behind the green.
The tee markers were back, as was the pin, so the par-three hole played almost 150 yards, Jerry said. With the left side of the tiered green hidden behind a Gibraltar-like hill and with a creek on the right, the tee shot can be tricky, yet John seemed unfazed.
As usual, he barely addressed the ball and took no practice swings before launching the 5-wood shot straight at the green.
At 86, he doesn’t have the power he once had, but he hits the ball straight and this shot two weeks ago “was headed straight at the pin,” Jerry said.
“I lost it in the sun, though, so I wasn’t sure just where it went. When we got up there and I didn’t see it, I figured it went over the green. We looked around for it for a few minutes and finally I said, ‘John, I’m gonna go look in the hole.’ ”
And, sure enough, there was John’s Bridgestone ball.
“I yelled to John that he had a hole-in-one, but he was just glad I’d found the ball,” Jerry said. “He didn’t get real excited. And by the time we walked off the green, he didn’t remember at all what he’d just done.”
Two holes later, when his 50-year-old son, John Jr. showed up to caddy the last few holes for him, John Sr. never brought up what had just happened. That glorious recount finally came from Jerry.
And later that morning, when John got back to his Kettering home, he never mentioned the ace to Marie, his wife of nearly 61 years.
He had forgotten it.
John has Alzheimer’s disease.
Although he can remember things from the past and is able to follow well-ingrained routines, his short-term memory is gone.
You saw that quite heartbreakingly this past week at Community.
When Jerry drove John to the course for their weekly Tuesday foursome, they were met by their other two partners, Jim Romie and Jim Madden, who already had the front spots in the early-bird scrum of golfers waiting for the starter to open the course.
John Jr. — whose late hours as the assistant manager of the Pine Club usually hinder a near-dawn arrival at the course — had shown up early. He emerged from the group toward his dad, extended a hand and said, “I’m caddying for you today.”
John smiled, grasped his hand and said, “Nice to meet you.”
There was plenty of sincerity in that greeting, but absolutely no sign of recognition.
“He lives in the moment,” John Jr. said with an accepting shrug, then a bit of a smile. “But he’s always really sweet in that moment.”
‘Like Sam Spade’
“I’m from Vandalia. I was a farm boy. We had 20-some cows and horses,” John said as he sat next to Marie the other afternoon. “She’s not from here. She’s from Rochester.”
Before they met in person, though, John Lieser and Marie Yatteau knew of each other’s family.
“It’s kind of crazy,” Marie offered. “Two of my uncles married two of John’s older sisters.”
After a family member suggested they might make a couple, too, Marie began to write to John when he was in the Navy.
“Weren’t you in Guam then?” Marie asked.
John looked at her blankly, then said softly: “Guam? Yeah, that rings a bell.”
They finally met when 20-year-old Marie took a train into Dayton and found John waiting at the station.
“He thought Mom was a real looker,” John Jr. said with a glance at his mother. “And when you first saw him, didn’t you think he was really handsome?”
Marie nodded and smiled: “He had a trench coat on and I thought he looked like Sam Spade.”
Instead of the Humphrey Bogart detective in the “Maltese Falcon,” John was an accounting student at the University of Dayton. He got his degree in 1951 and that same October, he and Marie were married in Rochester.
John worked 31 years as an accountant for the Defense Electronic Supply Center and the couple had three children — John and daughters Barb (Kooser), who lives in Dayton, and Mary Beth (Mitchell), who’s in Roanoke, Va. — and now have nine grandchildren and four great-grandkids.
Marie said John was a good family man who “took the kids to the parks, went on vacations to Florida and always visited the relatives.”
He was also a devout Catholic. Every morning he’d say prayers for nearly two hours, go with Marie to the 6:15 a.m. Mass at St. Charles, and he was involved in the community outreach program, Diakonia.
After his retirement, he golfed five times a week and during his 60-plus years with the sport he’s actually managed five aces.
“He’s Mr. Hole-in-Wonderful — that’s what I called him,” Marie said with a schoolgirl giggle.
John Jr. fished out one old trophy — actually an ashtray with the Titleist 7 he used affixed to it — from his ace on the same hole in 1960.
“John used to golf with his longtime pal, Charlie Mort,” Jerry said. “They went to school together, delivered milk together, knew each other a long, long time. But Charlie passed away two or three years ago.”
And as John’s Alzheimer’s has become more pronounced, his golfing has dwindled to once a week — on Tuesday.
“Oh yeah, we love Tuesdays,” John Jr. said. “It’s a good break for Mom and Dad loves it. … But then he thinks every day is Tuesday.”
Marie nodded: “Each day, sometimes all day long, he’s asking, ‘When is Jerry coming? Did any of the boys call to play today? Did Charlie call yet?’ ”
The Miami Valley chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association estimates 30,000 people have the disease in this area and 5 million are said to have it nationally. In 35 years, that number is expected to jump to 15 million.
In John’s family alone, Marie said three or four of his 11 siblings had Alzheimer’s: “His mother had it, too. She lived with us for 3½ years, so none of this with John was a big surprise.”
“But every day IS still a little shock,” John Jr. added.
Marie nodded and offered an example from that morning:
“I went into the kitchen and he had gotten up into the cupboard and was trying to unwrap one of those bright-colored (Cascade) dishwashing tablets. He thought it was candy.”
She took out the Cascade container, whose lid now bore a taped-on message: “John — this is NOT candy. Don’t eat.”
At 83, Marie is John’s principal caregiver and though the job is full-time and quite taxing, she doesn’t complain: “He’s such a good man. You just do what has to be done and I’m glad to do it because I know he would do the same for me.”
Still, to buoy herself now and then, she has taped her own reminder to the dining room table. In big letters, it simply says: “Keep Calm & Carry On.”
That task can be trying.
John usually goes to bed around 7 p.m. and then Marie stays up a while to watch TV. “The other night he came back out after an hour and he was fully dressed,’ she said. “He had made the bed. He thought it was the next day and I had to convince him it wasn’t.”
When John does get up for good each day — often around 4 a.m. — Marie must quickly follow.
While he dresses and feeds himself, she must help him with his shower: “Otherwise he might wash his right leg six times,” she said.
John has his usual breakfast — Wheaties, a banana, coffee and pills — at a kitchen table whose top is decorated with family photos covered by plastic. It’s an attempt to help him remember.
Because he gets restless, John likes to take walks. “The other day he walked up to Kennedy school and back,” Marie said. “I clocked it. It took about 15 minutes … and he did it 10 times.”
Back at home he works the same 100-piece jigsaw puzzle set out on a card table near the TV. He watches “Matlock” reruns on WGN and each morning at 10 Marie makes him popcorn. Before he goes to bed at night, there is another ritual. He gets a double dip of ice cream — usually butter pecan.
But life is not all dessert, Marie admitted with a weary smile:
“He’ll get in a rut and ask the same thing over and over and over and over. … And he’s gotten lost a couple times on his walks. Once I called the police and as I was talking to them, a man drove up with John in the car. He’d found him way down at Home Depot.”
It can be frightening, but then there are other times you just have to laugh, she said:
“John cracked me up the other day. He came back from a walk and he was very confused. He looked at me and said, ‘Well, I think I’m back from wherever I was.’ “
A bloody fall
Every Tuesday morning Jerry — who is 80 and golfs seven days a week — picks John up at 6:45 and takes him to Community.
“I live in Bellbrook so it’s right on my way,” he said. “It’s no inconvenience at all. He’s a good playing partner — a real good guy — but he doesn’t say that much on the ride anymore. The memory loss has really come on the last two years.”
John Jr. said the people at Community “know about his condition and look out for him to the nth degree. They all know him by name and during his round the ranger swings out on his cart to check on him. They have really been kind to him.”
John and the rest of the foursome — Romie is the youngest at 79 — all walk their round and play fast. Nine holes the other day took about 80 minutes.
Although he’s unable to make the mental connection in many things these days, John still picks out the clubs he uses for each shot and keeps the ball in the fairway. And if you watch closely, he still remembers some of the tricks of the game.
After he finished putting the other day, he got the groove on his putter beneath his golf ball and with a flick of the wrist, he propelled the ball from the green up into his hand.
John’s shots are on target enough that a week after his hole in one, he nearly got another on the 138-yard eighth hole. “He rolled it right past the cup and it ended up four or five inches behind the hole,” Jerry said.
To prove the point, John Jr. pulled out his cellphone and showed the photo he had taken.
That same day, though, John had wrenched his back and it was bothering him enough this past Tuesday that he was out of sorts from the start.
After a couple of holes, he spoke in a half-whisper to no one in particular: “I don’t know what the heck is going on today. I’m mixed up.”
And maybe that had something to do with what happened as he went trudging up the cart path on the hill on No. 7. That’s when he suddenly fell and landed chest-first and hard on the asphalt.
He ended up with bloody gashes on his left elbow and wrist.
As his son hustled over and worriedly told him that was enough for the day, John recovered from the shock, nodded in appreciation and, once John Jr. had moved a few steps ahead, suddenly showed an awareness that had not been there earlier: “I tell you I’m a lucky old man. I’m lucky to have such a good son.”
But good son or not, John wasn’t listening to his boy when he got to the eighth tee.
Although he was still a bit mixed up and his back had further tightened and his elbow and wrist were bleeding from a fall he no longer remembered, he took out his 5-wood and promptly sent a high, arching shot that landed on the green.
That brought a brief smile and an admission: “I’m just an old guy who likes to play golf.”
But Marie still put it best:
“He’s Mr. Hole-in-Wonderful.”