Starting about the turn of the century and for the next 15 years, I spent more time with Bruce Cunningham than anyone except my dear wife. That’s because Bruce and I played at least nine holes at Northwood Golf Course almost every day during those years. We usually played with other guys, but often it was just the two of us wending our way around that serene layout with the afternoon sun slanting through the tall redwoods.
As we walked along, we played little word games like trying to remember words that sound alike but are spelled differently, like “to,” “too” and “two.” There are a number of these in English, and, if our bilingual friend Rafael was there, which he often was, he would say, “That’s why English is so hard, too many words sound the same.” James Stadig was often there too. Wisely, he mostly just shook his head at our silly games.
We also tried to think of words that not only sound the same but are spelled the same, and nonetheless mean entirely different things, like “fly,” which can be to operate an airplane, a pesky bug or a part of your pants. Who says guys don’t have a lot to talk about to each other?
All this brings us to the sad fact that Bruce died at age 84 on Valentine’s Day. Few if any of us at Northwood Golf Club would refer to Bruce as a sweetheart, I would think, but we talked more about him than anyone else. Bruce was a man of many foibles, and this made him relentlessly interesting. For instance, he was pretty much deaf as a post, but would walk way up in front of you while you were hitting your ball. You would yell “FORE,” which is golfer talk for “WATCH OUT,” but Bruce wouldn’t hear you. Then he would walk back and chew you out for not yelling “FORE.” And so it went with Bruce.
Bruce was on the smallish side, thin, with thinning hair, and in excellent physical condition. Until recently, he would run around the golf course after we finished our game. Though he took up golf later in life, after tennis became too hard on his knees, Bruce was a fine golfer. When he finished his swing, he was in perfect balance and had the classic look of Ben Hogan standing there watching the result of his coordinated effort. And Bruce may have been the best chipper on the course, nipping those little shots around the green with deft control of eyes and hands.
For the decades I knew him, Bruce lived near the golf course. He just walked to the first tee, and off we went. But he declined some in recent years, and golf became harder for him. Then his grandson crashed and died in the pickup Bruce had given him, and, within the year, his son died too. Bruce didn’t talk much about his sorrow, but he wasn’t the same after that.
For the last part of his life, Bruce spent a lot of time at the Guerneville Library writing his memoirs. This actually went on for years. He went over it and over it and produced fourteen pages of single spaced typing mostly about his childhood and growing up days. They are sparkling pages about life in San Francisco’s North Beach and down the Peninsula, hobnobbing with the sports greats of those times and getting into schoolboy scrapes and getting out of them.
So we learn that Bruce had an Irish father and an Italian mother who cooked the good Italian dishes like osso bucco, saltimbocca and Bruce’s favorite, sweetbreads in white wine, garlic and mushroom sauce. (Angelo’s in Monte Rio used to feature that dish.)
We learn that Bruce’s mother was friends with Joe DiMaggio’s sister, and the Yankee Clipper had dinner at the Cunningham house one evening. Bruce remembers that DiMaggio talked about Marilyn Monroe being a wonderful person and that he signed a baseball for his cousin Jimmy.
A lot of Bruce’s memoir is about baseball, which he clearly loved. He remembers that on Sundays, the boys skipped Mass and went to Funston Park to play ball. Then they would swing by the church on the way home and ask people what the Gospel Lesson was. This was because their mothers would ask them about it when they got home, and if they didn’t know the answer they didn’t get any dinner. Bruce played second base for Serra High School and for semi-pro teams and is proud of going a whole season with but two errors and getting the hit that won a championship game.
Bruce went on to San Jose State and became a high school history teacher. While working his way through college, he got jobs with contractors and learned the trade. After twelve years of teaching, he went into building houses, one of the first being on the ninth fairway at Northwood Golf Course. Bruce did all right in this business, ending up with houses in Tahoe, Hawaii and along the Russian River.
Some of the most fun parts of Bruce’s memoir tell of his days as a young teenager going to the dances in Rio Nido or at The Grove in Guerneville. He remembers how he and his cousin Jimmy somehow got hold of a pint of whisky, went to the dance, picked up two girls there, Madge and Midge he says their names were, then “walked them home and got a few kisses. What a summer!”
Bruce also remembers games of golf with our fearless publisher Rollie Atkinson in which he tells us Rollie takes so long addressing the ball before a shot, it puts the rest of the foursome right to sleep. There we have another of Bruce’s endearing traits: He considered himself a joke-smith, but his attempts at humor seldom succeeded. For some reason we all appreciated this about Bruce.
Another endearing trait was Bruce’s closeness with money. From all we could tell, he could buy and sell the lot of us, but that didn’t loosen him up. He could have worn cashmere sweaters but he wore a thin cloth jacket with a cigar hole burned into it. This was his favorite thing to wear. Then there was the day that, with great patience and persistence, Rafael took Bruce to get fitted for hearing aids, but when Bruce found out they would cost a thousand dollars, he just got up and left the room.
And then, in his last years, Bruce’s worst days were Sundays when the library was closed, and he couldn’t work on his memoirs. He hated Sundays, he said, because there was nothing to do. I told him he could come with Arline and me to the church where I was leading services in those days. So Bruce got up early, got ready and we picked him up and went off to church. All was well until the offering plate came down the row toward Bruce. He would get out his wallet, fumble around in it and put it back in his pocket just as the plate got to him. On his last Sunday in church with us, Arline was sitting next to Bruce, and when he fumbled with his wallet, Arline said, “Let me help you, Bruce,” and she reached over and took hold of the one dollar bill Bruce was putting back where it came from, and placed it in the plate just as it passed by. So Bruce gave a dollar to the Presbyterian Church whether he intended to or not.
Somehow, even this Bruce Cunningham trait was something we all enjoyed about him. His quirks were his genius. They were the way we knew him and why we cared about him. I miss him a lot. We all do.
At the end of his life, Bruce lived in a care home in Elk Grove not far from members of his family. When I called him there, yelling at the top of my lungs over the phone, he seemed happy and well cared for, but he didn’t know where Guerneville is or why I couldn’t come to see him. I told him the virus made it impossible, but that didn’t register with him. “What virus?” he wanted to know
Yes, Bruce’s final years were not easy, and earlier on he was a lonely man for long stretches of his life. That’s why I’m glad to have Bruce’s memoir, for here is the story of a young happy kid playing ball and kissing girls and enjoying his days. Blessed be.