By Holly Marihugh
It’s summertime in Kenilworth Gardens, 50 years ago. At 5:30 a.m., teenage brothers Chris and Jamie Pfaff turn off the alarm clock, chow down bacon and eggs, and then saunter over to Indian Hill Country Club where they both work the grounds crew. The club is only three blocks away from home, and they clock in daily at 6 a.m. because golf greens are waiting to be mowed. Once they arrive, the daily drama unfolds.
In a recent interview, the brothers described a cast of characters involved in capers around the golf course that rival the movie, “Caddy Shack.” From a sneaky muskrat to a die-hard Neil Diamond fan. From the blaring horn of a Buick to the fake news of the “National Enquirer.” From the dreaded petunia duty to a snaking, sparking downed power line. All of that was part of the Pfaff brothers’ summers from 1968 to 1973.
“The head superintendent was a man named Billy Saielli from Highwood,” Chris says. “He liked being called, Chief, and the Chief drove around all day in his green Buick that had a white vinyl roof.”
“He was a hardcore Chicago Cubs fan,” Jamie says. “If the Cubs won or his hero, Ron Santo, hit a home run, the Chief would start honking his horn and just sit on it. Most other times, he would drive around and wave while we pretended to be working,” Jamie says.
The superintendent’s son, Billy Jr., a Vietnam veteran, doled out most of the daily work orders. As the man in charge, Billy Jr., had a personal radar system for monitoring everyone and everything on the course.
“There was a muskrat that lived in the pond by the 16th hole,” Chris says. “Billy Jr. hated that muskrat and was always trying to scheme a way to get it. One evening, right about dusk, Billy goes over to the pond, takes a shotgun, and tapes it above the headlight on a Cushman vehicle.”
Billy Jr. then flashed the headlight, waiting for the muskrat to stick its head up. “Then he blasted it with the shotgun,” Chris continues, “Of course, he didn’t hit it.”
Instead, he alarmed the neighbors. The minute the shotgun fired, lights circling Indian Hill Road flipped on. “All the residents heard gunfire and thought something horrible was happening,” Chris says.
Like the lucky gopher in “Caddy Shack,” the muskrat continued to live happily on the golf course and managed to dodge Billy Jr.’s shenanigans.
Jamie remembers a singing Irishman with an accent that sounded like he just stepped off the boat from Dublin. “There was this really sweet kid named Francis,” Jamie says. “He never swore, probably went to church every Sunday and was nice to his mother. Francis was an enormous Neil Diamond fan.
He would cut his greens singing, ‘Sweet Caroline,’ at the top of his lungs.”
The brothers remember another crewmember named Hank, who was in his 60s and managed to walk all the way from east Wilmette daily. Most mornings, Hank arrived with the ‘”National Enquirer” tucked under his arm. “He believed every single story he read, and he’d really want to tell you about them,” Chris says. Since Hank frequently raked the bunkers, the crew nicknamed him, “Hank the Rake.”
In “Caddy Shack,” Comedian Bill Murray’s character plays out a scene called the Cinderella Story where he takes a club and whacks off the heads of chrysanthemums while imagining out loud that he’s winning the Augusta Masters.
Jamie remembers feeling the same urge to chop off the heads on the abundance of petunias at Indian Hill. “The bane of our existence was the flower beds,” Jamie says. “We would get sent to plant and weed petunias. There was always a snide dislike of the flowerbeds because we thought we were supposed to be cutting grass, raking traps, and doing real work on the golf course.”
In the early 1970s, Dutch Elm disease was destroying many of the trees at Indian Hill, and the grounds crew was responsible for cutting trees down and hauling away the logs.
“As a teenager, I got to operate some fairly sophisticated machinery,” Chris says. He remembers guiding a hydraulic lift with a big bucket full of elm logs, which he was about to empty into a dump truck.
“All of a sudden the line on my bucket ruptures,” Chris says, “There’s hydraulic fluid going everywhere, and the bucket drops and hits a power line. The power line then hits the ground, sending sparks everywhere. I watched the power go out in three or four nearby homes right in a row. I’m thinking, the Chief is not going to be happy with me.”
Chris sent out an SOS, and local police blocked off Indian Hill Road while the electrical line was repaired. He breathed a sigh of relief when the Chief said he understood the equipment had malfunctioned, and that the accident wasn’t due to negligence.
Jamie reflects back that their summers on the grounds crew were in a completely different era. “Nowadays, grounds management seems a lot more professional and scientific,” he says. “The people are trained at Purdue and are really interested in the agronomy. In our day, we were having a good time while the Chief was listening to the Cubs game.”