Magical Places We Loved as Kids, Then and Now: Miniature Golf and the Goddamn Volcano Hole

About once a year, I get it into my head that I need to go play miniature golf. I convince my wife to come with me out to Sherman Oaks or Upland, and we spend an hour or so trying to contain our disappointment that the carpets are torn, the grounds aren't maintained, the ponds are filled with crud, and the whole place doesn't look or feel anything at all like the magical places we loved when we were kids.

"I don't know why I think it's going to be different every time we come out to do this," I said, the last time we went out to hit the links.

"You're just upset because I'm kicking your ass," Anne said.

"Fucking Pagoda hole. That was bullshit. The volcano hole will be the great equalizer!" I declared.

She laughed as she teed up.

I looked around and tried to overlay my memory of this particular course over what I saw. My ponds were clean, my fountains were blue-tinted geysers, my little boats and seaside town didn't have peeling paint or broken windows. The carpet on each hole was smooth and pristine, and the arcade inside the castle behind us was filled with dozens of different video games and pinball machines.

"I can't separate how this place really looked in the '80s from how I want to remember it," I said. "I wonder if I've just idealized it, or if it really did look and feel fitter, happier, and more productive when I was a kid."

She drew her putter back, and left herself in as good a position as any to get the inevitable six on the goddamn volcano hole. Behind us, the freeway was a wall of white noise, occasionally broken by the rumbling of a downshifting semi. The pond to our left was covered with a blanket of brown foam, broken by the nozzle of a dry fountain.

"Of course it looked better when you were a kid," she said, "it was new then."

"I can't believe I never thought of that before. You're exactly right." I put my golf ball, yellow and worn, on the middle tee, feeling heat radiate off the heavy black rubber against the back of my hand. A gentle breeze carried children's laughter and the unmistakable smell of that particular kind of pizza they only serve at minigolf courses past us.

I whacked my ball down the fairway. It rolled up the little volcano at the end and down one side, coming to rest in a corner next to some pine needles.

"I'm really bad at this," I said.

"Don't beat yourself up. I hear the volcano hole is the great equalizer."

I gave her the stink eye as we walked down to finish the hole.

"I believe that I am away," I said, as I put one foot up on the concrete, the other on the carpet, and lined up my putt. A memory of 10-year-old me, on this very course, shooting a montage for a movie called The Buddy System, flashed through my head.

"Did you know I shot a movie here?"

"The Buddy System. You tell me every time."

"Of course I do."

I pulled my putter back and drilled the ball right up the side of the volcano and down the other.

"Why do they do this? It's like course designers just want to say, 'Hey, thanks for coming to play here, so LOL fuck you.'"

I walked over to my ball, which was now resting against a different corner. Anne sized up her shot. "I heard somewhere that they do it so the course has a great equalizer."

I delivered another stinkeye.

"I'm sitting three. Where are you?" I asked.

"This will be my second shot." The ball rolled up to the edge of the hole's caldera, ran off the side, and landed in a shady spot behind her.

"Do you think the damn kids today care that this course is sort of crumbling around them, or do you think they're just happy to be out playing on it?"

"When you were a kid, did you care about how it looked?"

I thought for a second. "I kind of did, yeah, but I also took for granted that everywhere we went would be well-maintained. I guess I didn't think that it was because those places were all new." I rolled my shoulders and got ready to put it in the hole.

"But I clearly remember this one time that we went to Malibu Grand Prix in Northridge when I was, like, nine or something." I missed another putt. "Fucking volcano."

"That's four."

"Thanks. I got that. So they had added this water slide thing the summer before, and it was closing down, so they were giving you unlimited rides for like two dollars or something."

I walked across the green (which was actually a blue so faded and threadbare it was practically grey) and leaned against my club while Anne got ready to putt. "We'd gone the summer before, and they sold tickets either by the hour, or daily. Depending on the color of your mat, you knew that your time was up at 2, or 3, or whatever. When the place was closing down, though, they just gave you whatever mat you wanted and let you go to town."

"Sounds like fun," she said. A man with two little girls walked up to the tee and waited.

"It was. But here's the thing: the place had really gone downhill since they decided to close it. All of the mats were torn up, some of them were just these gross little squares of foam." Anne grabbed her putter, drew it back slowly, and whacked her ball perfectly. It rolled up one edge, across the flat top, slowed at the far edge, and dropped back into the hole with a satisfying rattle.

"Did you just par this hole?!"

"I think I did."

She pulled her ball out of the hole and marked our scorecard.

"This is my last chance to make six without picking up."

I inhaled deeply through my nose, calming myself with the comforting smell of waffle cones and that pizza you can only get at minigolf courses.

I stuck out my lower lip. "Cinderella story ... out of nowhere ... the kid is here at Augusta, defying the odds ..." I prepared to take my last shot. "He sizes it up, and calls for quiet." I held my hand up in the universal gesture. I pulled the club back a few times, and stepped from one foot to the other.

In a soft voice, I said, "the kid has to make this putt to force a playoff, or his dream run comes to an end..." I shooshed myself, and giggled.

I missed the putt.

"SON OF A -" I remembered the two little girls behind me and stopped myself. I walked over to the corner where my first putt landed and picked up my ball. "I'll take a six, and don't you dare tell me that you'd already written it down when we started the hole."

We stepped off the green as the family got ready to play.

"So anyway, to finish my story, all the mats were torn up, and the best one I could get was smaller than a bath towel, and heavily waterlogged. The slides were all cement, so if you fell off your mat, you got stuck and people would crash into you ... the whole thing was a huge disappointment."

One of the little girls behind us putted her ball down the fairway. It stopped just short of the dreaded volcano.

Anne said, "I don't think it's a fair comparison. Landscaping at a minigolf course isn't as important as rubber mats were at a water slide in the '80s."

"But it's part of the magic!"

She stopped and looked at me. "Did you really just say that?"

"If it wasn't important, they wouldn't build a castle and a Taj Majal, and a ghost town and a pagoda. It would just be little carpeted fairways and greens."

We looked back at the kids behind us, as the second girl's putt landed right next to her sister's. They high-fived each other before running down the fairway at that impossibly-fast speed only little kids can achieve on a minigolf course. Their dad smiled at them.

"Do you think those kids care that there's disgusting brown foam floating on the pond?" She asked.

"Probably not."

"Because they're having too much fun to care."

"I'm really glad I tricked you into marrying me," I said.

I don't know what the final score was. Anne utterly destroyed me, I remember that much, but I was having too much fun spending a day at the minigolf course with my wife to care.

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