Not every bucket list has to be packed with great challenges or visits to exotic, life-changing places. Simple often works just fine. For instance, the driving range.
Not hitting balls at the range, but working there, and getting hit at the driving range.
It always looked like it would be great fun to tool around the open field while behind the wheel of a rickety cart — on the scale of what Chief Inspector Clouseau, lovable goofball of “Pink Panther” fame, drove into the swimming pool — and be the guy who picks up balls by the thousands.
Yessir, senior ball picker. Life as a human target. Hit me. Hit me again, and again, and . . .
So off I went to the Whirlaway Sports Center in Methuen, where owner Dave Kazanjian carries on the proud legacy of the oldest family-owned-and-operated driving range in the country. Hitters large and small have been teeing off at Whirlaway since the middle of the Great Depression.
“You really want to do this, right?” asked Kazanjian, as I reported for duty one steamy, humid evening last month. “It’s no fun getting hit.”
“You’re saying it’s not safe?” I said, suddenly reassessing what wisdom I believed existed in that bucket list.
Not to worry, assured Kazanjian, no ball ever penetrated what he believes is the cart’s shatter-proof glass windshield. He believes it’s shatter-proof only because it hasn’t broken. Yet. As for each side of the vehicle, which is a customized gas-fueled golf cart, they’re closed in with steel mesh that might withstand the rigors of a NASCAR test crash.
“We’ve got some big hitters,” said Kazanjian. “It can be noisy in there.”
“Drive the cart with the sides facing the golfers,” a voice inside told me.
Sadly, not a rain cloud in sight.
I glanced toward the tees, where some 12-14 golfers kept smacking balls. One guy, a big guy, was really hammering. Each of his strokes was punctuated with that heavy “thwack!” of clubhead to ball.
My bucket list was morphing into a death wish, even before my first pass across the grass.
The longest poke at Whirlaway is 250 yards, and there’s a screen, 20 feet high, propped up behind the 250 marker. When Whirlaway added an upper deck of tee boxes some 30 years ago, Red Sox slugger Jim Rice and Bruins defenseman Don Sweeney, the latter just up from the Maine Mariners, both cleared the screen and line of trees behind the 250 marker.
“Hockey guys,” said Kazanjian, “can really crank it.”
Uh, yeah, you bet.
Good pal Matt Lee, one of the Globe’s superb staff photographers, came along to chronicle the ride. I know this a gross generalization, but photogs are generally all good folks, and they are universally nuts. I say that with some affection. OK, slight affection.
“Great!” said Lee, my union brother, as Kazanjian was about to hand over the keys. “Have you ever thought about, you know, painting a bull’s-eye on top of the cart?”
Lee was into it. A little too much.
“And if someone hits the bull’s-eye . . . they get a free bucket of balls?!” he said. “That would be so cool!
“Hadn’t thought of it,” said a somber Kazanjian.
“Whaddya say we head out now?” I said, thinking my son’s Go-Pro camera might have covered us for the video.
Actually, operating the cart was good fun. The key to being a good picker is a slow, steady ride, maybe 4-5 miles per hour, allowing the cart’s infinite number of wheels and whirring gears to sweep up the balls and spit them neatly into the large bins. With all bins full, it picks up some 4,000 balls per ride, roughly 400-500 balls per bin.
The nuance is tracking horizontally across the range, never facing the tee boxes head-on, and working at a distance of at least 75 yards out.
“Any closer,” noted Kazanjian, “you’re best to beep the horn. That should tell everyone to hold up and let you pass. Most of ‘em get it. They’re respectful. Usually.”
I kept my distance. Maybe the horn works great. Maybe it just invites more trouble. I know honking at anyone on Storrow Drive doesn’t return smiles.
Maybe it would wear off, but for the 45 minutes that I doddered around the patch of 15 acres, I found it impossible to relax. It constantly felt like the thunder was coming, someone was going to rip one high and hard.
Not the same for our trusty Globe photog, of course. Lee was rolling video and captured the one time we did take a good pop. He loved it. Bull’s-eye.
“Oh, yeah,” said Lee even before we rolled out on this nutty ride. “Winner, winner, chicken dinner!”
As Kazanjian warned, the quick, sharp pelt on the roof reverberated. I jumped when we got popped. I knew it was coming. I was ready for it. But still I jumped.
My reaction was not unlike my annual visit to the eye doctor, who all but has to glue my eyelids open to stop me from wincing through every second of the exam. The silly foibles and failings that stay with us forever, right? Should fix, just can’t. I might finally even learn to swim one day, but probably not. Should fix, just can’t.
Turns out, it wasn’t as much fun being a target as I expected. But it was worth the check on the bucket list. There was something oddly satisfying in watching the balls pop into the bins, and to look behind and see the cart’s path swept clean, the green lawn free of balls and looking nearly as inviting as the Fenway Park outfield.
Not sure what I’ll tackle next on the list. But I’ve always wanted to clean the ice with a Zamboni. Note to photo assignment editor: I will supply own pix.