Joseph Vazzana is careful not to tell his war stories too many times. At 82, he knows his co-workers and golf buddies at the Mount Pleasant Golf Course have heard them plenty of times.
But he did once get an eagle on a long par 5, on what used to be the eighth hole at Clifton Park Golf Course. "We were looking for the ball, and it was in the cup," he recalls. And he was there in 1956 when Arnold Palmer won his first American tournament -- at Mount Pleasant.
"He got about $2,100," Vazzana says, shaking his head in amazement at the prize money awarded on the PGA Tour today.
And he did serve in Africa, India, Burma and China during World War II. He was a mule skinner in Burma, taking care of Army mules. The Japanese were chasing the men, who bivouacked at night and depended on Indian scouts to keep them alive in the Himalayas. "Every two days the plane would drop food, and the first thing that came down was the hay for the donkeys, and then the A-rations and C- rations," he says.
And the trip back home, from Calcutta, took 30 days on a Navy ship. The jungle rot he picked up then still bothers his feet now; on the manicured green of the 17th hole, he has to stop to remove his shoes.
Vazzana, whose parents emigrated from Italy to the United States and settled in Highlandtown, went to work at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point shipyard. "The guys had a golf team and they got me into it," he says.
At first he was frustrated. "I remember being in the sand trap at Clifton Park, and it took me six or seven strokes, and every time I hit it, the ball would hit the top of that trap -- it seemed like a cliff -- and roll back down in. So I took it and flipped it with my hand, and the guy there saw me. You know what my name was after that."
But he grew to love the game, although he only had time to golf on Saturdays. Sunday was family time, devoted to his daughter Jocelyn (now Jocelyn Kavanagh, the vice principal of Hamilton Middle School).
And he found out he was pretty good at golf.
"I don't practice or anything else," he says. "I can judge distance, and I do what I'm supposed to do -- I keep my head down."
His game has flourished in retirement, although retirement for him means working two days a week at Mount Pleasant taking care of the carts. He's done that for the past 10 or 15 years. The other three days a week he plays the hilly, demanding course located just a few blocks from his house in Northeast Baltimore.
"I'm the best putter on this course," he says.
He regularly shoots in the 90s, although in his younger days he shot in the low 80s. His only concession to his age is to use a cart now, rather than walk 18 holes. And the problem he encounters isn't his game, it's his memory.
"Isn't it funny," he says, "I can go back in the '30s and '40s and remember all these old ballplayers, but I go to play golf with someone and they say, 'Hi, I'm Jim,' and two holes later I can't remember his name."
Vazzana jokes that jumping in and out of golf carts for his job is what keeps him fit. He also owns a sailboat, but admits that he mostly motors about, since struggling with the sails is difficult for him.
His nemesis, though, remains the infamous par-4 ninth hole at Mount Pleasant. The toughest on the course, it is 460 yards from the back tee, and 445 yards from the front tee. But he'll tackle it a couple of times a week.
"He's the best," say the guys in the pro shop.