Rules of the Mini Game

The author's parents posing in front of their mini-golf course in Wisconsin.

The problem with some people is that they always know a better way. I know this, because I am one of those people. I’m not big on rules. I never have been. I don’t like being told what to do, or the assumption that someone knows better than me. I’m not saying that I don’t have a long history of flying over the seat of my tricycle while speeding down our steep hill, feet in the air, learning first-hand the meaning of the word “gravity” and also “tree roots.” Or a truly magnificent white scar on my index finger from the day I learned true and valuable facts about the campground axe.

Rules are only meant for people too lazy to figure things out for themselves, or so I believed, until the summer my parents bought a miniature golf course.

Tom Thumb Miniature Golf was an eighteen-hole course in central Wisconsin built in 1959 by a schoolteacher who had time on his hands, and apparently, an extensive set of woodworking tools. It was 1974. My dad was a schoolteacher too, and so it must have seemed like fate for him to get a second mortgage on our small home in Iowa and buy the place, even though neither of my parents had ever run a business before. Or dealt with tourists. I was ten years old.

From that day forward, on the last day of school we’d drive into Wisconsin to open Tom Thumb Miniature Golf. For three months every summer we lived in a cottage more or less behind the 18th hole. We never took another family vacation after that, but instead worked as a family so other people could enjoy their vacation. From age eleven I spent my summers in the ticket booth learning about people. You could call it Reality Summer Camp.

We had customers, which is to say tourists, who are technically mammals like us, but who crawled out from rocks and other hidden places, like Racine, Wisconsin, in order to spend time in our backyard.

Tom Thumb had a castle with doors that opened and closed, a ferris wheel that spun, and of course a windmill. A mini-golf course is a kind of fantasy land. The fantasy for some was that they were Jack Nicklaus. During our first season it was trendy for teenage boys to bend over their putters and whisper like an announcer at a golf tournament. “Here he is, the Golden Bear… sshh, ssh….” Then take a full swing, making a tremendous 12-foot arc, just missing the chance to remove the lower jaw of the woman standing behind them.

The first thing I learned is that rules were probably a good idea to protect people from themselves, or protect them from who they pretended to be. “Easy does it” and “No full swings please” were Rules #1 and 2 as printed on the back of the scorecard. However, the second thing I learned is that no one actually turned the card over to find them. The Rules were considered an accessory until things went terribly wrong. Which they always did.

Tom Thumb was a difficult course. Greg, the schoolteacher who built the place, intended it to be that way. He had spent a year traveling around the Midwest, playing mini-golf and sketching out his favorite holes. Then he built similar hazards and plopped them in the yard behind his summer home. Turns out his favorites were the hardest holes to play. When his first customers came, we were told, the course was nearly impossible.

Twenty years later—and now in our hands—some hazards had been simplified, and the game was more playable. But it was still challenging, and possibly even more imperfect. Made entirely by hand, of course, there wasn’t a green that didn’t lean either dramatically to the left or to the right. Balls rolled off the carpet on a regular basis, or got stuck, for example, inside the pipe of hole #16. Every tenth ball stopped rolling through Ye Olde Covered Bridge. We made my little sister crawl through it to get them, in part because she was skinny, and in part so we could watch.

Eventually, at some point things went wrong. They needed some kind of order, so generally the patrons started making up their own rules. They could come from many sources. Often tradition. Sometimes from the memory of a different game entirely, say checkers or Crazy Eights.

Just as in life, the rules were generally declared by the most outspoken member of each foursome, and secondarily, by what was actually printed on the scorecard. Each family was rather like a sovereign nation with their own anointed leader and set of standards and behavior. Sometimes the rules were about fairness, but just as often were invented on the spot to pacify. “We won’t count that one, because Andy is the youngest, okay?” Parents bit their nails and improvised, hoping the kids would never notice they were each holding a deadly weapon, disguised only by a rubber handle and a chipped layer of chrome.

It was a competition after all. And sometimes the grownups placed bets. “Loser has to buy beer.” Or, “Loser cooks breakfast tomorrow.” (There were a lot of penalties for losing.) The men who played were much more competitive than the women. “Oh, I don’t care about the score,” the women said, and we believed them until we realized they were just pretending.

Like an amusement park, a mini-golf course gives grownups the chance to be kids again. That is as it should be. If there is a group with two or more men, the men will always fight to get the blue ball. So we bought more balls, with two shades of blue.

Sometimes you wanted to help people. They didn’t realize they could stop at six strokes. They’d spend the greater part of an afternoon at hole #3, just hoping to someday graduate from high school, or move on to #4. Each nation/foursome had to figure it out for themselves. They spurned our suggested rules just as any well-meaning upstart island would snub the efforts of the United Nations.

Occasionally a family was so uptight that they frowned their whole way around the course, scolding each other for not trying hard enough. Some families bent the rules for grandma. Sometimes the grandma would cheat, pick up her ball from the green, and hidden by her group, say “I got it in!” while I watched from my seat in the ticket booth.

One day a family came up to the ticket booth. “Oh, we aren’t going to keep score,” the father said, pushing the scorecard back to me through the window slat. This happened on occasion, usually when the group included children so young they were more interested in bludgeoning the grass than anything else. But the kids weren’t that young, maybe around my age. The mom agreed, “Yes, we won’t bother with rules. Let’s just play.”

So the kids started out. The girl, just a bit younger than me, was soon swiping at the ball like a melon that needing cracking. After she shepherded her ball into the first hole, she just picked it up and went on to the second. No one counted strokes. The boy ran at his ball, kicking it, inventing some kind of soccer-polo. Then the parents putt solemnly, as if it were a chore to be done, like laundry. When their balls rolled off the green they’d put them back any place they liked, and then shrugged instead of taking a penalty. When you looked out on the course you couldn’t tell there was a group there at all, just four people playing all by themselves.

“Oh, no, that group isn’t keeping score,” my dad said. This was not good news, and his announcement was our version of a red alert. We knew that when people didn’t use rules, they tended to get bored. When they got bored, they often slammed clubs into the carpet, or dug new holes in the semi-rotting wood, doing anything, perhaps, to keep the game amusing.

The kids were playing faster and faster, running ahead. They were on #16 and #12 and the parents were still on #5 and #6. Because no one was keeping score they lost all incentive to actually try. And what was the point? Maybe they realized they were spending an afternoon aiming a colored ball through the turning arm of a Windmill. What did it matter? Why bother? It was just too much existentialism for kids of that age—and so hard for us to watch.

“They just don’t know any better,” my dad said.

“But the rules are printed on the scorecard!” I added.

“Some people just have to find out for themselves,” my mom said.

I guess so.

We talked about them as they played (which was one of our summertime hobbies, trying to figure people out). We decided the parents might have thought it would be easier this way, not have to settle any arguments between kids. But they didn’t realize, we were the arbiters. My family. We gave out rules, which were just as helpful to play the game as the putter and the ball. You wouldn’t try playing without a putter, would you? (Actually, occasionally someone would, saying they’d rather roll the ball, “Like bowling.” What could you do?)

It was obvious that the people who had the most fun and hooted and hollered and fell over laughing the most, were the people who played by some set of agreed-upon standards. Somehow, having rules freed people up to become kids again, to be Jack Nicklaus, or Lee Trevino, or their most goofy mini-golf version of themselves.

We really were concerned, although this might sound odd. We didn’t care if people played the right way, we just wanted them to get along and have a good time. We had given up our own vacations—we were really really invested in our customers having a good time.

As the family finished up, I went into the ticket booth, and put on a big smile. “Did you have fun?” I asked the girl and boy, as they handed me their putters. I wasn’t trying to give them a hard time, but perhaps, maybe, cheer them up. Or make them think? Reflect on what just happened? Had they figured it out? That it was kind of a dumb thing, to play a game, but not actually play it?

Not likely, it was only mini-golf after all. As their car crunched slowly out of the gravel parking lot, we wondered if they would ever come again.

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June Melby is the author of My Family and Other Hazards (Henry Holt, 2014), a memoir about the 30 years that her family ran a retro miniature golf course. She toured as a performance poet on stages in Munich, London, NYC, and Amsterdam. Her work has appeared in LAWEEKLY, Utne Reader, Forklift Ohio, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Formerly of Los Angeles, she now lives in a log cabin in the woods. She hikes and gets lots of poison ivy.

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