Last Veterans Day weekend, on the 244th birthday of the United States Marine Corps, a bullet-headed lance corporal, Bob Parsons, became only the second enlisted man to be named A Marine for Life.
It’s an awesome title (even though every Marine is a Marine for life), though Parsons wore it modestly on the deck of the aircraft carrier Intrepid, berthed in New York City within sight of Sully Sullenberger’s heroic landing on the Hudson River.
“The Marine Corps owes me nothing,” Parsons said. “I owe the Marine Corps everything.”
Part of a billion-dollar business empire he built from ingenuity, and dedicated to philanthropy, involved golf, starting with his Scottsdale National Golf Club and his equipment company, PXG (Parsons Xtreme Golf). So, for just a day, golf was back in the Corps.
Once, the sport was studded with Marines. Dresser drawers burst with photographs of young men—unbelievably young—in dress-blue uniforms, like Jay Hebert, Tony Lema, Jackie Burke Jr. and Lee Trevino.
Hebert, famous for joining Lionel in the only brother combination among PGA Championship winners, should be known for Iwo Jima as well. For the shrapnel that tore a fist out of one of his legs. For the sniper who zinged him in the helmet. For the four wounded comrades he carried out of the fight, one at a time, back to the beach.
Jay kept that blood-drenched island and the Purple Heart he won there in a wood box he never opened. The year Hebert died, 1997, a third winner of the PGA, Dave Marr, said, “I can’t tell you how many lessons and lectures Jay gave me over the years. By taking care of me, he was paying my dad back for a sand wedge he gave him. Jay wasn’t just a champion golfer, he was a champion man. Handsome; liked to dance. The wives on tour lined up to take a spin with him. They all loved Jay. But he loved only Barbara, his wife. He was an unfailingly true man. He was a Marine.”
Burke, a Masters champion, was a stalwart on Ryder Cup teams and the captain of perhaps the best U.S. side of all time. His fellow Marines put Jackie in mind of players like Ted Kroll (an Army man with three Purple Hearts), who on their own might be considered average or even ordinary golfers, but who were transformed when they played on a team. “I’ll take a unit man over a headliner every time,” Burke said. A unit man is someone who shouts “Oo-rah,” meaning “farewell,” or “until then,” whenever his unit is mentioned.
During the dinner on the Intrepid, at every reference to different sections of corps, “Oo-rahs” rang out here and there around the room. Some 500 Marines of every stripe, including the present commandant, Gen. David H. Berger, and a past one, Gen. James Amos (retired), cut the 244th birthday cake with a silver sword and sang the Marine hymn as though they were still standing at their racks in San Diego, Parris Island, Camp Lejeune or Quantico.
From the Halls of Montezuma . . .
Parsons sang the loudest.
He grew up in Baltimore, not without difficulty. The year Bob turned 8, 25-year-old quarterback Johnny Unitas led the Colts to a suddendeath-overtime victory for the NFL championship, winning the entire town. The team’s ultimate leader, defensive end Gino Marchetti, fought in the Battle of the Bulge before he went to college. Tight end Jim Mutscheller, who caught the last pass in the big game, was a Marine in Korea. Defensive tackle Art Donovan was a Marine on Guam.
Parsons confesses to having failed fifth grade: parochial school. Also, he was asked to leave Polytechnic High. Bob wonders if he finished high school then at Patterson mostly on the strength of the Marine enlistment papers he showed his teachers.
But before Bob left for boot camp he noticed Marchetti had opened a single 15-cent ham- burger joint (“Everybody goes to Gino’s!”) and began a march to entrepreneurial riches.
In Vietnam, Parsons’ ambition was small: to make it to mail call the next day. He stayed a bit of a rebel, perversely proud, for instance, of the Good Conduct Medal he didn’t win. But he came to terms with authority. He accepted discipline.
Bob made it home with his own Purple Heart to encounter the shouted insults of the era. He made several trips to artist Maya Lin’s black gash of a monument in Washington, always around midnight, so he had the grounds to himself and no one could see his tears. More than 58,000 men and women welcomed him home.
On the GI Bill, Parsons went to the University of Baltimore, this time graduating magna cum laude. Teaching himself how to write computer programs in a basement, he created a succession of nervy businesses that ended up being the pioneering domain GoDaddy. As he went, he made a lot of money and gave a lot of it away, particularly to the causes of the Corps.
“As long as I have a dime,” he said on the Intrepid, “the Marine Corps has a nickel.”
It’s a little sad that Trevino will probably be the last great golfer to come out of the Marines.
“The Marine Corps was the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” Lee says. “Back when I went in, they tested to see if you were tough enough to be a Marine, and to stay there. I got hit in the jaw the first 15 minutes. Knocked me down. I got back up and just stood there, at attention. It wasn’t going to discourage me. I’d been hit harder than that at home.”
Trevino had dropped out of school in the eighth grade, because he had nobody to make him go to school. “I was pretty smart,” he said, “but I had no supporting cast. Nothing at home and nothing at school. Everybody was from a farm, and if you didn’t come to school, nobody gave a damn.” The Marines did.
“The thing is, I was actually looking for discipline,” he says. “A lot of kids today who end up getting in trouble and going to jail, they want discipline. You see, discipline is attention. You know what I’m saying? That’s what I lacked.”
The military hardly seems to be an option anymore, but the spirit behind it is.
Tiger Woods’ father, Earl, was an Army lieutenant colonel who served two 13-month tours in Vietnam.
When the Escalade hit the fire hydrant, starting Tiger’s 10-year slide into the wilderness, I emailed him, asking (only half-kiddingly), “How close did you come to enlisting?”
He emailed back, “For nearly my entire life, I’ve wondered what it would be like to be in the military. One of the questions I hear most at my Foundation is what would you be if you weren’t a pro golfer? I answer the same way every time. I’d be in Special Ops. Maybe Green Beret like Pop. I know some people that are Army Special Forces, and I’m amazed at what they do. I’m proud to call them my friends.”
Hebert, Burke, Trevino and Parsons could have told him, this was a good note on which to base a renewal.