He wanted to talk to the president. So he stormed Augusta National
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Despite his impressive credentials—Louisville Courier-Journal, The Washington Post, The National, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Sporting News and Golf Digest—Dave Kindred has been described as the sports writer in the room you don't notice. He fits the description of a short, tall, heavy, thin, bald, hirsute man of indeterminate age. He’s got the look of a house detective.
Kindred holds lifetime achievement awards for his writing about golf, boxing and basketball. He has earned sports journalism’s highest honor, the Red Smith Award. For Golf Digest, he specializes in high drama and crime stories. He has muscular reporting skills and a direct, hard-boiled writing style.
Case in point is this re-creation of the day a pick-up truck crashed through the gates of Augusta National and seven hostages were taken while President Reagan was on the course.
Kindred’s subject is the gate crasher himself, Charles R. (Smiley) Harris, who lost his father and his job and turned to drink. The armed assault in 1983 cost him five years in prison before finding religion and sobriety. Kindred takes you through the backroads of Georgia to meet Charlie and Ol’ Blue, the ’74 Dodge that stormed Gate 3 off Washington Road in Augusta. This article was published in April 2000. Charlie died in 2007 at age 68, described in his obituary as the beloved husband of Eleanor for 47 years. No mention of President Reagan or Ol’ Blue. —Jerry Tarde
At 2:15 p.m. on Oct. 22, 1983, Charlie Harris crashed his truck through a locked gate at Augusta National Golf Club, rumbled to the golf shop, used his .38-caliber revolver to disarm Secret Service agents, took seven people hostage and demanded to talk to President Ronald Reagan, who was on the golf course that day.
Sounds like a story. So all these years later, I’m calling Charlie Harris from an Interstate rest stop. I’m lost. He says, “Where’re you calling from?”
I name a stop between Atlanta and Augusta.
“You’ve done gone too far.”
A rich country-speakin’ bottom to his voice, he tells me to go west one exit, get off and drive 10.4 miles. “There’s a four-way stop,” he says. “Go straight on to my mailbox.”
His house is the one with cars making the yard look like a used-car lot.
“And that jacked-up Dodge pickup truck is out front.”
Here I am driving lost in Georgia piney woods to see a man who spent five years in prison and was called Smiley because he never smiled and wore a trench coat so he could carry a sawed-off shotgun under it.
Now he’s giving directions to what sounds like a redneck’s junkmobile graveyard. If you write stories, you go find stories. This one’s worth finding. You could tell that the first time talking to Charlie Harris’ daughter.
“Daddy’s a different man than in ’83,” Charlene had said. “The alcohol got him then. He’s sober now, and he goes to churches and tells his story. Only good things have happened since.”
When Harris mentions “that jacked-up Dodge,” I wonder if that’s the truck he drove through Augusta’s Gate 3, yanking the 20-foot-wide gate off its hinges, the whole thing teetering on the truck’s front end as Harris high-railed it onto Bobby Jones’ hallowed grounds, a bottle of tequila clanking on the floorboards.
Driving toward Harris’ house, you pass two little wooden Baptist churches on the edge of a ghostly town that, like every ghostly Southern town, has an unpainted general store across from a Confederate monument. Then you come to his mailbox. There’s no junkyard. Turns out, Harris has lived 29 years (minus the five) in a ranch-style house where he and his wife, Eleanor, raised four children. It’s 10 acres of land with everything trimmed up, a swimming pool for the four grandkids, coon dogs yelping sweet music.
Harris comes out all crisp in blue jeans, white T-shirt and sneakers. Forty-five years old when he crashed the gate, he’s now 61. He’s a strong man with bright brown eyes, neat mustache, square jaw, dimpled chin and the thick shoulders of an aging athlete. He was a lineman, linebacker and fullback for the semi-pro Augusta Eagles until he was 38. Football, car wrecks and bar fights ruptured his spleen, tore up his knees, gave him scars and broke his nose six times. (“First bar fight? I dunno. I can tell you the worst. It was the night Johnny and I leveled Tomcat’s. As we were leavin’, si-reens were arrivin’.”)
Tilting my head toward the Dodge truck by the patio, I ask, “Is that the truck that did it?”
“Yep. Ol’ Blue,” Charlie Harris says. “A ’74 Dodge. Still runs good.”
Bill Clinton has never played at Augusta. His predecessor, George Bush, played the course as Ronald Reagan’s vice president and after his own presidency. The only fully committed presidential golfer, Dwight D. Eisenhower, spent so much time at Augusta before, during and after his White House years that the club provided him a residence and called it the Eisenhower Cabin.
Reagan rarely played golf, and the planned two-day trip to Augusta would be his first time on the course. He visited as the guest of his Secretary of State, George Schultz. Their foursome included Secretary of the Treasury Donald T. Regan and Nicholas F. Baker, a former U.S. senator from New Jersey.
According to White House accounts of this cloudy date in late 1983, the Reagan group was near the 16th green when Charlie Harris stood with Ol’ Blue outside Gate 3.
There, in the middle of Washington Road, Harris walked to the front of his truck to lock its hubs, reckoning he might need four-wheel drive to bust through that gate and see the president. He knew the president was there, because he’d been told so earlier in the day. When he’d driven past that morning, he and his sister, Harriet, saw peace officers stationed along the fences that keep poor folks from seeing rich folks at play. Harriet recognized a county deputy. “Mitch, who you got in there?”
“The president’s here to play golf,” Mitch said.
Which meant Secret Service, state troopers, armored limousines, Uzis and helicopters. An army protected this president. He’d been shot in Washington two years before.
With that manpower/firepower security, the deputy was so impressed that he said, “An ant can’t crawl in there.”
Charlie Harris heard him.
Harris looked down from Ol’ Blue, looking down because Ol’ Blue runs on high springs, jacked up to clear logs, creek banks and other obstacles you might otherwise bump into, such as the fool who once thought to irritate Harris by dead-stopping ahead of him, shooting him the bird and refusing to move, causing Harris to stomp the accelerator and put the fool and his car sideways in a ditch while Harris explained he was just being helpful: “Seemed he couldn’t get her cranked up.”
Augusta National was familiar to Harris. Through high school, he worked concessions at the Masters. He also sneaked in to scavenge for balls in a bullfrog pond behind the famous cottages. He used to play golf on hardpan called the Cabbage Patch. One bad day, storming off, he handed his clubs to a boy and never played again.
After that morning conversation with the county deputy, Harris went home. Having a drink, he heard the TV say U.S. Steel would lay off thousands of workers because it was losing business to foreign-made steel. He had another drink. Two drinks is all, he wants you to know, because after he did this thing, people who knew him said he must have been really drunk this time. He says not.
This wasn’t about Jim Beam. This was about the U.S. of A., and he’ll tell you he loves this country to death. He just doesn’t go along with what he calls the politicians’ crookedness.
On this day in 1983, out of work himself for the first time in 30 years, Harris felt bad for all those steelworkers. That’s when he remembered what Mitch said about the president.
He thought, Why don’t I just ride up there and see him?
Charlie Harris wasn’t thinking all that well back then.
His father had died shortly before. H.R. Harris had been a Navy man 21 years, and then an Augusta police detective until age 65. Like brothers, Charlie and H.R. hunted together, drank together, told each other stuff they didn’t tell their wives.
His daddy’s death left an awful hole, and Harris filled it with drinking. At the same time, his marriage had fallen apart, and so had his job at the paper mill, where he’d worked 23 years and been a union steward.
He’ll tell you he’d been a terror. Raised rough, was rough. Had the scraggly beard, the Dixie ballcap. Was in trouble, was trouble. These are his words. A ruffian, a hard-knocker, a man who slipped a .38 into the small of his back under his belt because you never knew where you might find yourself.
We’re at the Harris kitchen table, where Charlie’s wife has made up some sandwiches, tea and red-velvet cake. Charlie calls Eleanor a sweet-faced angel, because even though they had drifted apart before he did the Augusta thing, she stuck by him through prison, and they’ve been together ever since.
She’s a Sunday-school teacher at their Methodist church; he’s the Sunday-school superintendent and lay leader. Their minister, Charles M. Smith, says: “This church means everything to Charlie. If it weren’t for him and his family, we’d fold up.”
Harris tells this story because—well, he might as well tell it, because it’s not going away. Yes, he did the thing at Augusta, and he’s not ashamed of one bit of it. He paid for what he did, and he found God. Good story. So he’s telling it because he wants everybody to know if God can do this miracle for Charlie Harris, He can do it for anybody. “People like me can get transformed, but not by prison life,” he says. “It’s when the Lord gets you by the ears.”
“I never had any idea of shooting the president," Harris said. "If I’d wanted to kill him, I’d have driven up to him and done it. I just wanted to talk to him. I was protesting our government giving our jobs to foreign people.”
That hadn’t happened as of Oct. 22, 1983. “I believed in God, but I didn’t live the Ten Commandments. If I’d had God in my heart the way I do now, I’d have not done it. I was weak.”
Anyway, Harris busted through the gate and rolled down the driveway toward the clubhouse. There he saw Ronald Reagan. Not at the 16th green, as the White House later said.
“I never had any idea of shooting the president. If I’d wanted to kill him, I’d have driven up to him and done it. I just wanted to talk to him. I was protesting our government giving our jobs to foreign people.”
Driving through the gate had been worry enough. “They might’ve had rocket launchers to blow me back to Washington Road.” Still alive, a guy better not pull right up to Reagan. That might really get him dead.
He parked Ol’ Blue and took out the .38. “It wasn’t to hurt anybody, it was just to get where I needed to get.”
Gun in hand, he walked a club chauffeur, Roy Sullivan, toward the golf shop. There he let Sullivan go. “I told him, ‘If you look behind my seat in the truck, there’s a bottle of tequila, and I’d be pleased if you drank it all.’”
In the golf shop, Harris held six people—four club employees and two White House staffers, one of whom he sent to tell the president he wanted to talk. Kris Hardy, a golf-shop clerk, saw Harris come in. “He was very agitated and kept saying, ‘They don’t think I mean business.’ I think he was stunned he got that far. You could tell he’d been drinking. He said, ‘I’ve lost my job, and I’ve lost my family, and my daddy’s gone, and I want to talk to the president.’”
Hardy saw the .38 at the chauffeur’s back. “Roy’s eyes were big as saucers.”
Because it got quiet, Hardy’s nervous foot-tapping caught Harris’ attention. Hardy says Harris asked, “How old are you, anyway?”
Someone whispered to Hardy, then 23, “Tell him you’re 12,” and Hardy compromised: “I’m 19.”
“You’re too young to be in here,” Harris said. He let him go.
Hardy today is an Augusta real-estate appraiser. “Whatever story you’re doing,” he says, “I hope it doesn’t make it sound like ‘poor ol’ Charlie was just a good ol’ boy down on his luck and didn’t mean anything by it.’ My take is, I’ve had good days and bad days, but I’ve never threatened anybody with a gun.”
One by one, Harris let hostages leave. He saw helicopters lower black-suited commandos. Sharpshooters set up near the putting green.
Harris says he took from bodyguards “a stack of guns.” White House accounts didn’t mention that, but would they? If a rowdy good ol’ boy packing heat ker-lumphed his pickup truck through your perimeter, the truck’s horn playing “Dixie” and drove up within eyeball distance of the president, would you tell the whole Keystone Kops truth? When Charlie chose to knock down Gate 3, after all, there was no guard there.
Jim Armstrong, now as then Augusta’s general manager, was a hostage. About all he’ll say is, “That’s wrong,” when asked about accounts that he was the last hostage and escaped. “I honestly was not in there that long.”
The escape story likely came from David Spencer, the club’s co-professional. An authorized history of Augusta National reported that Harris “held a pistol to Spencer’s head, and he threatened to shoot off Spencer’s fingers one at a time if the president wasn’t brought to see him. …. Spencer was held at gunpoint for two tense hours. He finally managed to escape during a moment of confusion when some food was sent in for Harris.
Harris calls that account “the biggest lie.” Spencer today will not talk about the incident. Reagan made at least two phone calls to the golf shop. In one call monitored by news media, he said, “This is the president of the United States. This is Ronald Reagan. I understood you want to talk to me. … If you are hearing me, won’t you tell me what you want?
Harris thought it was Reagan on tape, a trick. He hung up without speaking and told Secret Service agents, “I’ll give you my gun when he shows his face through that door. I’ve risked my life here. I’m not going to hurt anybody. I just want to talk to the man.” Hey, he’d voted for Reagan. And loved his movies. Still does.
By 4:20, two hours in, Harris was done. The president had left in a speeding motorcade that included grim Secret Service agents hanging on an open car, machine guns pointing in every direction. You’d have thought Charlie Harris had been identified as the point man of a massive redneck assault.
“With Reagan gone, I put my gun down and figured I might as well take my punishment,” Harris says.
Secret Service agents treated Harris courteously. They did pick up his .38 and say it never would have fired. “Bouncin’ at clubs, I’d done hit so many people with that trigger guard, it was bent in,” Harris says. “I picked the gun back up and shot through a window to show ’em.”
That was the day’s only gunshot.
Horrific news came seven hours later. A suicide bomber, driving a truck, penetrated the defenses of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, and detonated 12,000 pounds of explosives, killing 241 Marines, soldiers and sailors.
Charlie was off the front pages.
No federal charges were filed against Harris. He spent five years in state prison for false imprisonment. When Georgia’s maximum-security prison put the hell-raisin’ Harris “in the hole,” a solitary-confinement guard brought Harris a small Bible.
“I hadn’t been sleepin’ and eatin’, and I was so full of hatred I didn’t care if I made it or not,” Harris says. “Finally, I took that little Bible off the shelf and started readin’. More I read, better I slept and ate. My temper started layin’, everything started easin’ out.”
There in the hole, God took him by the ears. “It’s hard to be a Christian in jail, but I told the Lord every night, if He just give me my family back and get me out of prison without killin’ somebody, I’ll do whatever He wants.”
After his release in 1987, Harris regularly reported to his Augusta probation officer. Robby Hardaway says: “I never had a minute’s trouble with Charlie.”
The Secret Service monitored Harris for four years. Now he says an agent calls and asks to visit only if a high-profile government official is in Georgia. Harris works at a chemical plant near Augusta. He long ago quit drinking, cold turkey. He does his church work. He goes hunting and fishing.
We’re standing by the truck. He shows me dings in a chrome frame around the right headlight. “That’s where we hit the gate.”
He puts a hand on Ol’ Blue’s hood. “Y’know, if trucks could talk, you’d really have a good story.”
One more question: “Charlie, you ever been back to Augusta National?”
He says, “They asked me not to.” There’s a twinkle in his eye. “But you got a ticket?”