In the spring of 1981, Anita and I seemed happy enough with our lives. But we had four children, too many for couples in our generation, too many for my piddly income. Even so, we lived in a cute little ranch house on an acre of land. I was putting in sixty or more hours managing a gift shop in Akron, about forty minutes away.
When Anita and I bought a partially burned down two story house as-is, lock, stock, and barrel, it had been closed up for over two years. After all that time, it still reeked of smoke. The previous owner, Martha Bowen, an elderly widow, did not survive the blaze, apparently falling asleep smoking while watching TV. Her husband had passed four years before her in the same house. When we took possession of the property, the interior was strewn with their possessions.
As parents of four kids, all grade school age and younger, we had outgrown our rural home. The fire-afflicted two-story house was much closer to work. It seemed larger but was really impossible to compare. We hardly had a peek inside. It was too dark. Stuff was everywhere. Even so, the bank accepted our lowball offer. We thought we landed a bargain.
Carlton Morris, a partner in Akron’s most prestigious law firm, Silver and Morris, told us we had submitted the highest sealed bid. Two other sealed bids were very close. The seller was Akron Metropolitan Bank. The last owner of the house was the widowed wife of the bank president. Carlton and Will Bowen were good friends. The Bowens had no heirs.
Carlton Morris was a confident man in his fifties who was dressed impeccably in a suit with a matching vest, striped silk necktie, and perfectly placed handkerchief in his coat pocket. His steel blue eyes emitted a penetrating beam that forced the recipient to keep eye contact. When Carlton looked down, momentarily releasing my eyes from his, I noted his perfect haircut. His light brown hair was starting to gray at his temples, but every hair was in place.
Anita and I assumed that the bank would write us a mortgage on the house they were selling. No soap. Money was tight. They wouldn’t touch a loan on a property that wasn’t habitable. I asked Mr. Morris if he would accept my fiduciary agreement to come up with the money in two weeks. He thought about it for a second, and quickly assented.
I scrambled and luckily got my father-in-law to loan me money to pay off my bid and start the renovation, which he withdrew from his retirement account. I signed a note to pay my father-in-law fifteen percent interest, the going rate for mortgages in 1981.
Mr. Morris seemed like a straight up guy. He told me I had the body of a golfer. I told him that I loved to play when I was a teen, but hadn’t had the time since. He seemed to take a liking to me, perhaps because we were both Jewish, perhaps because we both liked to play golf. He told me to lean on him if I ever got into a jam.
Once Anita and I got the keys to the house, our first task was to clear out the inside before we could start rehabbing. We started on the first floor clearing pathways, then began emptying shelves, closets and cabinets, discarding useless items and piling questionable ones. We went through books, games, pillows, keepsakes, and other collectables.
At first, we carefully inspected each article, but the process was too time consuming, so we became less selective. Most of the stuff wasn’t even suitable enough for Goodwill. The system Anita set up was pretty basic: a throwaway pile (the biggest by far), a giveaway pile, and a small pile of keepers.
Cleaning out an abandoned house is tedious, even more so when the occupant left unexpectedly. The upstairs was loaded with the Bowens’ clothing. Will Bowen’s apparel hadn’t been worn for six years. Martha’s garments were untouched for two. Clothes were curiously scattered about the house like mulch in a garden. Clothing in closets, dresser drawers, trash bags, cabinets, on the floors, under beds, piled here and there, some scorched, some moldy, mostly faded. Almost all were not our style. I was a jeans and t-shirt guy who occasionally donned a Hawaiian shirt, not pleated pants, white shirts with starched colors, or cardigan sweaters. Anita was comfortable in a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt, not old lady dresses. We were several decades younger than the previous owners.
But regardless of its condition, the clothing was now ours, to keep or discard. The fire and water had destroyed almost everything on the first and second floors. There was a big burned hole through each floor at the core of the ruination. The kitchen was another disaster. We filled trash bags with spices, canned and packaged food, fried appliances, kitchen preparation and eating utensils, liquor bottles, and cigarette cartons. We stripped the kitchen to bare cabinets, which we intended to repaint.
The booty in the basement was more salvageable. Smoke and dampness, not fire, were the spoilers of the lower level. The basement contained four rooms: a small room we hoped to convert into a bedroom; a utility room containing the furnace, water heater, and laundry; a tool room with a workbench; and a large rec room with a fireplace, wet bar, and built-in bookcases.
It was my turn to attend to nine-month-old Miranda. Her curly blond hair and infectious smile endeared her to all. She was at that early stage in life where she seemed to have a strong desire to crawl but lacked the experience. Meanwhile, she was very competent at turning, and if she was an expert at reaching, then she was a genius at grabbing. Little escaped her tiny fists.
The mini bedroom-to-be was loaded with trash bags full of clothing. By the time we got to it, we were totally bored of sorting old people’s clothes, so it was a chore to open these bags to look for anything good. Strangely, the contents were clean and neatly folded, unlike everything else we had investigated. Anything within reach of her small hands was attractive to Miranda. She helped me save a couple of V-neck sweaters and golf shirts. She grabbed at a hideous green sports jacket—bright green. I hate green. I tried it on anyway. It drooped on me a little. However, it had a cool embroidered emblem. When she finally gave it up, I carted it and the other recovered garments upstairs where I hung them in the recently emptied coat closet by the front door. Later, Miranda also helped Anita rescue a hand-crocheted shawl, lace doilies, and a table runner.
The laundry room was devoid of items to sort. The second-floor bathtub had burned its way down through, landing between the furnace and laundry sink, leaving a charred mess. The core of the fire was directly above the tub. The workshop was loaded with paint and tools. We left it intact. We cleared the floors of the big room, deferring the bar, shelves, and cabinets until later.
Our plan was to settle in and get the three older kids into the Akron City schools in the fall. Every moment between commuting from Norton, sleeping, and managing my gift shop was spent smartening up our Akron property. Anita dragged the kids over whenever she could. We hired an independent contractor to do major repairs and modifications, though he was gone by July because we could no longer afford him, even though his work wasn’t completed.
Anita and I learned to finish drywall, refinish wood molding, caulk, and paint. We dabbled with electricity and plumbing. We had hit rock bottom. Even the time to bathe our children and ourselves became a luxury we couldn’t afford. We drove home to the country dead tired and went to bed dirty, sticky, and smelly more times than we care to remember that long, dry summer. Our real estate agent could not entice a buyer to make an offer on our country house. Our debt was maxing out.
It was a far stretch of the imagination to say that the house was ready to move into. We were living on borrowed time and borrowed resources. I made an appointment with Carlton Morris, President of Silver and Morris, LLC, for the first Friday afternoon in August at four p.m. It was time to lean on him. I hoped his offer was serious.
A good customer kept me occupied at my store too close to four that afternoon, the twenty-seventh day of a punishing progression of drought, baking our world. Dust replaced grass, impatience replaced hope. There was no relief in sight on August 7, 1981. I rushed out of my store, got in my car to drive downtown when I realized how unkempt I was. I sped to my Akron house for a quick cleanup. On my way out, I grabbed Miranda’s newly found loud green coat from the front closet and popped it on to cover most of my sweaty t-shirt.
It was another steamy summer day. Thank goodness for air-conditioning. I parked on the street a block from the building housing the prominent law firm. I fed the parking meter, ran up the street. I practically knocked down a well-dressed lady in high heels as I yanked open the main door. I jumped into the elevator and made it to the receptionist less than five minutes late. She asked me to take a seat. Carlton came out a few minutes later with a big smile on his face. Was he laughing at my absurd green sports jacket? I was too stressed out to dwell on it. We shook hands and he led me to his office.
I got straight to the point. I asked him if he could help me get a bridge loan or swing mortgage to tide me over until I sold my rural property. He was polite and sincere, but not encouraging. He advised me to move my family into the Akron house as soon as possible, and then we could talk again. On the way out, he asked where I got my Master’s replica jacket. He had never seen one before. It took me a moment to understand that he was referring to my baggy sport coat.
I told him that I salvaged it from a trash bag in the basement of the former home of his friend Will Bowen.
“Hang on a second,” he replied. Carlton mysteriously burst down the hallway. He disappeared, leaving me alone in his office. I perused his framed law degrees, noting by his graduation dates that he was about twenty years older than me. He returned a few minutes later with a couple of associates. He asked me to take off the jacket. I obeyed his cocksure command, a little embarrassed, uncovering my dirty t-shirt. All three looked over my green jacket, inspecting every seam and lining. They whispered to each other. I could hear the buzz of their private conversation, but couldn’t make out what they were saying.
After an uncomfortable period of silence, Carlton blurted out, “I had no idea that old bird, Will Bowen, would have anything like this, but I wouldn’t put it past him. He never ceased to amaze me. I think we’ve got something here.” The two other lawyers nodded in agreement.
Akron hosted Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and Jack Nicklaus in the first World Series of Golf in 1962 at Firestone Country Club. The event grew until it became an official Professional Golfers Association tour event in 1976, which Nicklaus won. He took home one-hundred-thousand dollars, the biggest golf prize ever. The next largest PGA prize that year was forty-five-thousand dollars.
By 1981, the World Series of Golf had become a leading pro golf tour event. Nicklaus had won five times. The previous year’s winner, Tom Watson, was trying for his third win of this tournament in the last week of August. Earlier in the year, the Firestone family had sold off the club to ClubCorp, a manager of multiple private country clubs.
Carlton told me that Will Bowen’s employer, the Akron Metropolitan Bank had been a major sponsor of the golf tournament held at Firestone Country Club, as was his law firm. From these connections, Will and he had often mingled with the pros.
The Masters’ Golf Tournament has been held at Augusta National Golf Club, a private club in Augusta, Georgia since the 1930s. It is steeped in traditions. Since 1949, the winner has received a green jacket and is required to return it a year after his victory. Although it is still his personal property, it is stored with other champions’ jackets in a specially designated cloakroom. Supposedly, only the currently reigning champ is allowed to take his coat off the grounds of Augusta National Golf Club. A multiple winner is re-awarded his original garment unless he changed sizes and needed to be refitted.
However, a couple of green jackets had mysteriously gone missing, and Augusta had quietly replaced them, avoiding the potential of bad press, never offering details. However, at one point, an unidentified man purchased an authentic green jacket from a thrift store in Canada for five dollars. It was later auctioned off for over one-hundred-thousand dollars.
Carlton and crew happened to be World Series of Golf executive board members, also golf aficionados. As was Will Bowen. They were well versed in the auspicious history and traditions of the Masters’ Golf Tournament. Carlton pointed out the label inside of my distinctive blazer where the tag showed that it was made in the USA, but the owner’s identity was cut out. He was convinced that my jacket was real. He called a contact at a high-profile auction house in New York City to set in motion the process of cashing in on Miranda’s trash bag reclamation. Before I left his office that day, he had offered to personally bankroll the completion of my Akron house until I was paid for my fancy garment. He told me he had fond memories drinking with his buddy, Will Bowen, at the bar in the basement. He asked me to invite him over when it was ready.
We hired a remodeler recommended by Carlton to do all repairs and moved into a happy place before the start of school. We paid everyone back with lots of money to spare. Carlton had that drink in my basement. He treated me to a few rounds of golf at Portage Country Club a few blocks away. Anita and I never really upgraded our standard of living, content with the thought that we could afford almost anything we wanted. Our material wants were modest. An ugly green jacket discovered by an infant on a sweltering summer afternoon gave us all the warmth we ever needed.
Years later, Miranda requested that her family wear any bright shade of green to her wedding, to complement her bright green eyes and recall the legend of her discovery. For the ceremony, I wore a replica Masters’s jacket I found on eBay. Miranda keeps it in her closet.