The summer of 1962 found me in my most favorite place in the whole wide world, the southwest Missouri Ozark town of Noel. My grandmother, Phoebe and her sister Rosalyn loved to have fun when they weren’t busy constructing flower arrangements in their greenhouse and my grandfather was the Noel City Marshall. Noel had everything a boy of twelve, going on thirteen, could want. On Friday and Saturday evenings the Ozark Movie Theater showed almost new movies, the water in the Elk River was always great for swimming, the lady behind the counter at the Noel Pharmacy made the thickest chocolate malted drinks and the Main Street miniature golf course offered the promise of unbridled fun on the warm summer evenings.
I hadn’t been at my grandparent’s small North Kings Highway home for more than a few days when Phoebe asked if I wanted a summer job. She had just walked up the hill from the greenhouse to the house and upon hearing her question I assumed she wanted to know if I wanted to help her and Rosalyn in the greenhouse; but we all know what people say about making assumptions.
“Would you like to work for Russell Howerton,” she asked. “Russell is looking for summer help.” I vaguely recognized the name, Howerton but had no idea what a job working for him might entail. I wondered if he needed someone to remove bothersome venomous snakes from the crawlspaces of the local homes. Possibly he wanted an eager young man who was willing to climb atop steep barn roofs and attach or repair rooster themed weather vanes.
Before I found the words to ask about the duties of the job Phoebe, having grown impatient with the awkward silence said, “Russell needs someone to work evenings at the miniature golf course. The pay is fifty cents an hour.” Phoebe was a very direct and impatient person and before I could say a word she said, and as if completely exasperated, “Well, are you interested?” In response to her question I replied, although less than eloquently, “You bet I am.”
On the first day on the job as an employee of Noel’s miniature golf course Mr. Howerton, who most called Bud, gave me the rules; record all sales, sweep the carpets, pick up the leaves and trash and use a hand-held brush and an old cloth to clean the bird droppings from the carpet.
There were several large trees whose branches overhang the small lot and those trees seemed to be favorite resting places for all species of birds that seemed to relish the thought of leaving their calling cards on the green outdoor carpeting. I nodded my head as Mr. Howerton spoke and then he paused, “and then there’s the Lulu rule,” he said.
I waited for an explanation but none seemed to be forthcoming so I finally asked, “What’s the Lulu rule Mr. Howerton?” As he pointed to a small white house that sat next to the golf course he said “Do you see that house, well an old lady named Lulu Wylie lives there and she gets to play all the golf she wants free of charge.”
I started work the following evening and after only a brief orientation I found myself all alone in the small shack. As I stood behind the counter waiting for my first customer I tried to familiarize myself with all the intricacies of the miniature golf business.
An old cash register sat conspicuously atop the counter. Metal baskets filled with various colored golf balls were stored under that counter and putters of two different lengths leaned against the small building’s rear wall.
The music from Shadow Lake, a local after dusk gathering place, moved up Main Street and attracted the attention of everyone as they strolled past. As I leaned to get a glimpse of the movie’s title then playing at the theater something seen in the corner of my caught my attention. A short elderly gray haired woman closed the door on that white house next to the golf course and began waking in my direction.
Scat-man Crothers, that’s who Lulu Wiley’s walk brought to mind when I watched her stroll from her house and down the short patch of sidewalk. Now that I think of it, Lulu’s walk was very similar to that of the well-traveled character actor, Crothers.
Lulu walked to the counter and said, “Would you give me my putter and a green ball?” I looked for a special putter but without seeing one that appeared in any way unique I handed her one of the shorter ones. “Her you are mam,” I said. “Thanks.”
I saw Lulu, and at her request called her Lulu Belle, many times that summer as we became great friends. We talked and played miniature golf together and just made an unlikely, but great, pair. Lulu was short, bow-legged and above all feisty. She always tried to win but something inside me wouldn’t allow me to let her best me. Phoebe once asked why I didn’t let Lulu win, if only just once. I was young then and my youthful ego just wouldn’t allow me to purposely loose to the old woman. Knowing Lulu I don’t think she would have wanted to win if not by her own abilities.
I think Lulu must have lived her whole life believing everything had to be earned, including a victory in miniature golf.
I spent my last summer months as a child in Noel in the year 1963 but that was for only few brief weeks. My father had recently retired from the Marine Corps. and he had accepted a job with a St. Louis based company. My mother, father sister and I were staying with my grandparents in Noel while our new house was being readied.
I didn’t see Lulu that summer and the miniature golf course was no longer a Main Street fixture. I never knew why it closed or what became of Mr. Howerton. As my family drove through town, and on our way to St. Louis in August of that year, the only evidence that the golf course was ever there was an unkempt vacant lot.
Lulu Wylie’s small white house was still there just as I remembered it and I could only imagine that she found other ways to occupy her time. In later years I learned that an illness caused the amputation of one of her legs but I was told that the loss of that appendage didn’t slow the spry old woman down one little bit.
Lulu Belle Wylie died at the age of ninety-nine.