In the five years since he retired among the lofty palms and exquisitely tangled mangroves of Port Charlotte, Fla., Ray Walton's age and golf score have eased onto a potential collision course, the one having climbed to 64 while the other was dropping, if less surely, toward 80. Walton relishes the full, carefree, convenient life he now leads: full because the balmy climate allows him to play golf in all seasons; carefree because no job intrudes on his game; convenient because his three-bedroom home borders on the Port Charlotte Country Club, whose billowing fairways—"my 150-acre backyard," he says with a proprietary air—beckon from just beyond the kitchen door.
Having elected to spend the remainder of his days in so genial a setting, Walton wastes only the most fleeting, nostalgic sentiments on the workaday world he used to inhabit as a production superintendent at General Motors' huge Frigidaire plant in Dayton. His 37 years with GM were pleasant enough, but Walton found himself increasingly taking the worries of the job home with him. Those cares were routed at last by the move to Florida, where the tranquillity of his days is now disturbed only by the golf balls that occasionally crash through his windows from the 4th fairway, which is just a duck hook away.
"I'm enjoying every minute of my retirement—it's more than I bargained for," says Walton, an energetic, tautly built fellow whose sharp features are softened by a youthful tan, his years betrayed only by the floury whiteness of his brush cut. Granted, a few wrinkles flare from the eyes, but these might just as easily have been caused by the laughter that seams his face during hours passed in hearty fellowship with his golfing pals, most of whom, like himself, migrated to Port Charlotte in hopes of leading the good life relatively late in life.
Difficult as it is to imagine today, Port Charlotte, which is among the most successful of the planned retirement towns that have proliferated in Florida and elsewhere, existed 15 years ago as empty cattle country overgrown with palmetto scrubs and virgin saw grass. Thus it is at once new, being a Gulf Coast boomtown with orderly rows of white-roofed houses and sunbaked shopping centers, and old, because the demography of its 19,000 souls includes only a smattering of young couples. Without either a downtown that might honestly qualify it as a city, or a big neighbor that might certify it as a suburb—the nearest city of any size is Fort Myers, 30 miles down the coast—Port Charlotte has its own reality, its citizens secure in their isolation no less than in their homogeneity.
It is as if these people had caught themselves slipping willy-nilly into their twilight years and, being with rare exceptions white, middle-class and wholly unaccustomed to the kind of minority status that old age automatically confers, had banded together to create their own new majority. In the process they have not so much fled from responsibility, regimentation and routine as they have substituted new forms of these that find their echo in the old. Instead of being obligated to some employer, for instance, Ray Walton is now beholden to half a dozen foursomes with whom he regularly golfs. Spared the rush-hour traffic he had to fight back in Dayton, he now faces the great jam of electric golf carts that forms before every club tournament. No longer competing in business, he still competes, and no less intensely, in golf.
There is no way to overstate the importance of the game in these. Walton's retirement years. He generally gets in 18 holes every morning and occasionally sneaks in another nine in late afternoon. Between rounds he practices his putting in the air-conditioned comfort of his home—the carpet is green—and he is forever consulting one or another dog-eared instructional book for help in whatever problem is lately undermining his game. A rare, and unwelcome, respite occurs every Thursday. That is Ladies' Day at the club, which means that his wife Pauline takes possession of the family golf cart, leaving Walton to idle away the morning in the clubhouse with his cronies, retired fellows like Larry Bermas, Floyd Fransisco and George Dyer, who are similarly stranded, each and all, by this perversity in the club's schedule.
Commiserating over their collective fate ("Those gals play so doggone slow"), the men quaff coffee and banter tirelessly over inequities they claim to have detected in one another's handicaps. Their conversation has an air of self-congratulation about it, as when Bermas, a retired detective from New York City, threatens to recount once again how he singlehandedly and forever cleansed Manhattan of crime. When the talk turns to the present, it is no less self-satisfied. "Decisions, decisions," sighs Fransisco, a thickset ex-Army colonel who heads the men's association of the club. "In the mornings it's do I shave before I play or do I play before I shave?"
What keeps all this from becoming too cloyingly cozy for Walton is the uneven quality of his game, something he blames on the toughness of the par-72 Port Charlotte course. Some retirees eventually grow bored with so much golf, but Walton insists that the challenge of trying to improve his game will spare him that fate. "I'll play real good one day and think I've got this course licked," he says. "Then the next day it jumps up and bites me."
The attraction the game holds for older people like Ray Walton makes the golf course, along with the rocking chair and the park bench, one of the abiding symbols of retirement. One explanation lies in the tendency—most pronounced among those reared before public golf courses brought the game to a wider audience—to associate golf with a life of ease and privilege. Thus it is that Port Charlotte "U," a big and busy adult-education facility that offers retirement-oriented classes in, among other subjects. Contoured Glass, or Orchids as a Hobby, tempts students to its golf-instruction sessions with the promise: "Now is your chance to make that old dream come true."
But it is worth considering, too, whether golf's popularity with Port Charlotte's residents might not have to do with a certain fascination with grass, which they mow, water and otherwise pamper with such happy results as to suggest that green may not be the color of youthful inexperience after all. (Another popular course at Port Charlotte "U" is Landscape Gardening.) In a community that necessarily views death with some urgency, it is perhaps not surprising that, apart from the Port Charlotte Country Club, the prettiest expanse of grass can be found at Restlawn Memorial Gardens, whose graves, uncluttered by tombstones, are identified by bronze markers flush with the ground.
This arrangement makes it easier to tend the grounds, enabling the cemetery to sell individual plots, with perpetual care, for as little as $150. Any suggestion that the velvety landscaping resembles that of a golf course is well received by Richard Wiltshire, Restlawn's general manager, who says, "I consider that a nice compliment. We try to make the cemetery as cheerful as possible. We don't want it to be a place of gloom."
To judge by local real-estate values, the one asset prized as highly as grass in Port Charlotte is water, this being equally a symbol of renewal and vigor. One can establish more or less permanent roots in Port Charlotte for around $10,000, the cost of a fully equipped mobile home in the new Holiday Park development, but the choicest homes, those priced at $30,000 to $40,000 or more, are situated either on the golf course or the waterfront. In local usage this last means any of the labyrinthine profusion of fingerlike canals that extend from Charlotte Harbor into many of the town's backyards, a setup naturally favored by those who prefer boating and fishing to golf.
When Ray Walton moved to Port Charlotte in October 1965 he fully expected to spend as much time on the water as on the golf course. Back in Dayton, after all, he had played golf at the Community Country Club only on summer weekends, a dozen or so times a year all told. Childless and financially comfortable, if not what you would call wealthy, he and Pauline lived in a two-story suburban house, took fishing vacations in the Wisconsin woods, bought Seagram's V.O. by the case and drove to Cincinnati to root for the Reds. All they lacked in the pursuit of these relaxations was enough time. So rather than wait for the mandatory age of 65, Walton opted to retire from Frigidaire early—just before his 60th birthday.
On their arrival in Port Charlotte, where a younger sister of Pauline already lived, they rented a $150-a-month home on a wide canal. They bought a 14-foot boat, and Walton scoured Charlotte Harbor for fish. This activity, however, soon gave way to golf. Less than a year later the couple bought their present home on the golf course, an L-shaped affair designated by General Development Corporation, the Miami real-estate concern that launched Port Charlotte, as the Ryder Cup model. This distinguishes it from such other models as the Western Open, the USGA and the Masters.
At first Pauline Walton failed to share her husband's enthusiasm for golf, and problems resulted. "I'd be out playing golf all day, and she'd sit at home," recalls Walton. "She had too much time on her hands. For a while I was afraid we were going to have to move back to Dayton." And Pauline admits, "I was too embarrassed to go out on the course. I was afraid everyone would laugh at the way I played."
Today the game absorbs the Waltons equally, as do their other main pleasures, such as dining out and dancing every few weeks, usually at the Holiday Inn, which is in the nearby village of Punta Gorda. "If you don't get dressed up once in a while, you lose your pride," explains Walton. They are generally accompanied on such outings by the people who live in the Western Open next door, Don Whalen, a retired Army colonel in his early 50s, and his wife Lucy. The tab for the evening, which can come to $40 or more, is generally picked up by the losing couple in a marathon gin-rummy game that the Waltons and Whalens play several evenings a week.
To gin rummy, as to golf, Walton brings a strong will to win. "As long as you're competing, and as long as you're trying to do well, you're not really old," he says, and his idea of doing well extends to so prosaic an undertaking as a putting tournament held one day at a par-46 miniature golf course at Port Charlotte's Ramada Inn. The event drew 32 entrants, all of them retirees except for a 13-year-old boy from Detroit who was in Port Charlotte to visit his grandmother. Walton played as if it were nothing less than the U.S. Open. He studied every lie carefully, coaxed his shots along with phrases and sometimes whole paragraphs of body English, and grumbled impatiently when a rain squall came up to interrupt play.
The golfers hurried for cover, but the rain providentially stopped after a few moments, allowing play to resume. Finishing strongly, Walton carded a 54, then joined the other players in front of a nearby bulletin board. When the results were posted they showed him in second place, two strokes behind the boy from Detroit and good enough for the runner-up prize of a $5 gift certificate.
"Well, second place is better than nothing," Walton said nonchalantly. As he turned from the bulletin board, he added, "You'll hear some guys say that kid had no right being in the tournament. Well, I disagree. You've got to stand aside for youth."
Late that afternoon, wearing the same Bermuda shorts and polo shirt, Walton settled down for cocktails in his enclosed sun porch with Pauline and their friends from next door, the Whalens. The room commands a clear view of the 4th green, and on such occasions Ray Walton sometimes amuses himself by opening a window and badgering friends among the passing parade of golfers. But today held no such lighthearted moments, for it quickly developed that Pauline, who had undergone minor surgery three weeks before, was not feeling well. She was running a fever, a condition worrisome enough that the next morning she would go back in the hospital for observation.
Now, however, she excused herself and went to her room, accompanied by Lucy Whalen. Left on the sun porch, the two husbands were subdued. "You know, retirement is great except for one thing," Ray Walton said at last. "The getting-old part. There's no use kidding myself about it, I've got maybe 10 more years to live if I'm lucky. And maybe I'll be able to play golf only five of them. That's why it's best to get as much out of every day as you can. There's going to come a time when you can't."
His eyes scanned the course until they settled on a figure in the distance, an oldtimer cautiously dismounting from a golf cart. "You want to know the best thing about living on a golf course like this?" Walton said finally. "Even if something happened and I had to be confined to a wheelchair, I could still sit here all day and heckle my friends."
It is useful to think of Charlotte Harbor, Florida's second largest, as a vast underwater golf course, the conformation of its rolling terrain determining where the water is shallow and where deep. Along the outer edges lie menacing sandbars, nature's own bunkers, and boaters like Jim Haas find the task of remaining in the harbor's narrow channels as challenging as a golfer does remaining on the fairway. For nearly 40 years a hardware-store owner in Mount Sterling, Ohio, Haas has lived in Port Charlotte three years, no small part of which he has spent bravely stuck on one sandbar or another.
His 24-foot powerboat, Lark, modest by Florida standards, is equipped to sleep two in an emergency and is capable of top speeds of 35 mph. "It gives me all the boat I need," says the 67-year-old Haas, a quiet, moonfaced man whose feet, clad in sandals and ankle-length socks, barely reach the deck as he sits at the controls, his eyes squinting into the sun. Haas goes boating two or three times a week, the salt air producing in him a sense of freedom undiminished by the fact that after a lifetime of cautious and purposeful endeavor he finds it more necessary than ever to plot his bearings and steer a steady course.
By his own estimate, Haas has run aground at least 50 times, at great loss of time, propellers and, very occasionally, temper. The harbor's poorly marked waters and tricky tides, rather than any real shortcomings on the skipper's part, are mainly to blame. For many years an ardent boater, Haas put in 60-hour weeks at his store in Mount Sterling but made a lot of weekend waves aboard a succession of nine boats he owned, the last of them a 32-foot houseboat that carried his wife Inez and himself on excursions down the Ohio River.
He thus comes by his seafaring more honestly than those in Port Charlotte who buy a boat upon retiring in the Noah-like belief that it might somehow be essential for survival in their new circumstances. A man quite familiar with this syndrome is Dave Brower, sales manager at Port Charlotte's Harbor Marine, where Jim Haas bought his boat. "Being in Florida without a boat is like being in the Sahara without a camel," runs Brower's favorite sales pitch, yet he allows that some of his customers tire of boating quickly. "A lot of these people use their boat a few weeks, then let it sit around for months," Brower says. "Then one day they come in and say, 'Hey, my brother Charlie's visiting from up north. I need to get my boat repaired in a hurry.' "
There are, certainly, other reasons for older (not to say ancient) mariners to use their boats. There was the time last March, for instance, when Jim and Inez Haas decorated Lark with colorful pennants and joined a fleet of 50 other craft to reenact the arrival into Charlotte Harbor in 1521 of the Spanish explorer Ponce de León, who was on a mission of colonization after having abandoned his search for the Fountain of Youth. The Ponce de León Festival, as the occasion is celebrated, ended with the Haases dancing the night away with other Port Charlotte couples to the music of Wayne King.
It is only through the tidiest of parallels that a spot discovered by Ponce de León is settled today by people who, having also found the restoration of youth to be elusive, are similarly engaged in a mission of colonization. If anybody doubts that the latter-day settlers are true pioneers, consider the late Jim Renshaw, a commercial printer from Chicago. In October 1956 Renshaw became Port Charlotte's first resident, moving into one of General Development's earliest model homes, a boxy dwelling at 102 South Easy Street. The address bespeaks the intoxication of all concerned. "It was wilderness," recalls Renshaw's widow Kathryn. "When we went out at night we'd have to leave the lights on so we could find our house."
People supposedly grow more fixed in their ways with age, but the retirees who followed the Renshaws into Port Charlotte have been remarkably willing to trade the familiar for the unknown. All told, General Development has sold 132,000 homesites there, making this one of the brightest success stories in the history of four-color brochures. To induce people to buy lots and eventually to settle, the company set up display booths in railroad stations of Northern cities, advertised heavily on TV (featuring such persuasive pitchmen as John Cameron Swayze, Bill Stern and Gabriel Heatter) and, to reach servicemen overseas, dispatched Volkswagen buses through the streets of France and Germany. Always the message was the same: $10 down and $10 a month would buy a lot in "Beautiful Port Charlotte on the Gulf of Mexico near Punta Gorda, Fla."
Some who settle in Port Charlotte do so sight unseen, but not Jim Haas, whose move there owed more to the gods of chance than to the gold-jacketed salesmen of General Development. When Haas sold his hardware store in 1967 ("I didn't want to be the richest man in the graveyard"), the only immediate plan he and Inez had was to make a long automobile trip to Florida, Louisiana and Texas. The trip was begun but never completed. Driving along Florida's Highway 41, the famed Tamiami Trail, which cuts through the town, they came to Port Charlotte, liked what they saw and within two hours arranged to buy a two-bedroom house on a wide canal.
"It was an impulsive thing to do," Haas confesses. "The original idea was that we'd spend our winters in Port Charlotte and divide the rest of the time between our home in Mount Sterling and our houseboat. It didn't work out that way. When we got home we received a real fine offer for the house. It was a big old two-story house, and we both had arthritis and were living downstairs. We were hardly going upstairs at all. We figured we were only using half the house anyway. We sold the house and most of our furniture, got ourselves a U-Haul trailer and moved to Port Charlotte.
"Florida's our home now," Haas says flatly, "Not Ohio." On occasional trips to Mount Sterling he makes a point of stopping by the old hardware store—the new owner, he observes with more than a trace of wistfulness, "does things differently"—but it is primarily to visit their two married daughters, one in Cincinnati and the other in Milwaukee, that he and his wife even bother to go back anymore. Old friends? "Some of them are dead," says Haas. "Or else they've retired and moved away themselves."
Probably the most wrenching dislocation for retirees does not concern friends or surroundings, but finances. One Port Charlotte real-estate dealer—not General Development—offers assurances that, once the home is paid for, a retired couple can get by on $179 a month, a figure based on the highly questionable assumption that people of advanced years could safely live in so spread out a community with neither an automobile nor a telephone. The difficulty of making do on too tight a budget is evident in the supermarkets, where men in their 70s can be found working as stock boys to supplement their pensions. There, too, one can see an elderly couple conferring in an aisle for 15 minutes about whether to invest 99¢ in a six-pack of Old Milwaukee or splurge and lay down 88¢ for four cans of Budweiser.
The pinch can also be felt by those relatively well off—those, in other words, who do not depend mainly on Social Security payments. Last Memorial Day weekend Jim and Inez Haas joined in a Boat-a-Cade of 100 craft, ranging in size up to 97 feet, for a two-day trip eastward across Florida via inland waterways to Lake Okeechobee and beyond to the Atlantic. The trip was a success, owing largely to a wholly fortuitous circumstance. As Haas remembers it, "The stock market rose a little just before we started, and that put everybody in a better mood."
If boating enthusiasts are sensitive to financial tides, it is because their recreation comes dear. Haas' Lark cost $8,600 with radio gear, and he spends anywhere from $35 a month to $100 or more on maintenance, including repair and replacement of all those propellers. With fixed costs like that, Haas jokingly figures that what little fishing he does works out to maybe $70 a pound. No great fisherman anyway, he would rather put his boat to other uses, as when he and Inez set out one day recently with the idea of having lunch at a small guest hotel on privately owned Useppa Island, 25 miles south of Port Charlotte in Pine Island Sound.
It was just past noon when Haas, shirtless and in high spirits, took Lark through the canal behind his house, out past bleached seawalls and into Charlotte Harbor. The water was choppy, but Haas opened the boat almost to full throttle, slowing only to correct course. "I believe I'm allowing too much for the east wind," he said at one point. As he studied the horizon, a school of porpoises played in the distance.
Clearing the harbor, the boat sped past islands strung against the open Gulf. Soon Useppa Island, supposedly once a haven for the pirate José Gaspàr, came into view, a spot of natural beauty guarded along its beaches by legions of fiddler crabs. Once ashore, the Haases learned that the hotel where they intended to lunch was closed, except for the bar. Haas ordered bourbons for Inez and himself, and it was past 2:30 before they set out again.
The next destination was Bokeelia, a fishing village on Pine Island with a restaurant said to specialize in shrimp boiled in rainwater. On the way, Haas decided on a whim to detour slightly in order to go by the shell-strewn beaches of Boca Grande Pass. By the time they reached the fishing pier at Bokeelia it was 3:30, and a stiff wind had come up to whip the water.
The wooden pier was thick with fishermen who sat along the edge vying for catches with diving pelicans and screeching gulls. Haas approached with great care, lest the waves send Lark hurtling against the pier. Finally he succeeded in docking. He clambered onto the pier, where there was a fishing shack and a potbellied man in a dirty T shirt. Haas asked if he could leave his boat there.
"May as well," the man replied frostily. "You've already messed up the fishing around here for the next two hours, anyway."
Haas turned on his heels. "It takes all kinds," he complained, then lowered himself into his boat. In a moment Lark was back at sea. "The wind's coming up anyway," he said. "Better get closer to home."
By the time Lark reached Charlotte Harbor the tide was going out and Haas had to reduce speed. He eased the boat across oyster beds and shoals and into twisting, brackish Alligator Creek, an otherwise inauspicious waterway that, because it led to a seafood restaurant frequented by the Haases, now took on the importance of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The boat made its way slowly up the creek, discharging its hungry cargo at the restaurant at 5:15.
An hour or so later, after dining on clams and shrimp, the Haases returned to their boat. Moving away from the dock it scraped bottom, at the usual peril to the props. "We may have to throw Inez overboard," Haas said with a wink, and his wife beamed. Back in the harbor the waning sun cast sequins across the water, which was perfectly still in the early evening. What had begun as a brief outing had wound up taking eight hours, with lunch melting into dinner, but there were no complaints from the Haases.
"I was hoping to write some letters today," mused Inez Haas. "I guess I'll do them tomorrow."
"Tomorrow," her husband repeated. "That's always our busiest day." The way Jim Haas, the skipper and navigator of Lark, has charted their retirement, he and his wife are nothing if not flexible.
Unlike Jim Haas, pipe-smoking Harry Tipton ventures into Charlotte Harbor for no reason other than to fish, and he considers his boat, a barnacle-laden 17-footer that sits heavily in the water, "one of my fishing accessories." The boat is certainly that. It is also a kind of island, one to which Tipton, who retired to Port Charlotte five years ago, can further withdraw when the mood seizes him. "Fishing gives me peace of mind," he says. "When I'm out on the water I don't have a trouble in the world."
Not that there is anything reclusive about Tipton. A friendly fellow with the roughhewn dignity of his native Rockies, he still cuts a commanding figure at 74, his frame topped by a glove-bald head divided into seas and continents by a mass of wrinkles. The grandson of a cattle rancher on the old Chisholm Trail, he was born in Cripple Creek, Colo., where his father ran a prospering gold mine. Young Harry climbed mountains, worked as a cowboy, studied engineering at Colorado A&M and managed a ranch in the San Luis Valley before going off at 38 to begin a new life as an irrigation engineer, in which capacity he worked in the U.S., and in Central and South America.
After so active and varied a career, Tipton, unlike either Ray Walton or Jim Haas, did not want to retire, but he reluctantly called it quits in 1966. He and his wife Nina moved to Port Charlotte and built a three-bedroom home on a canal leading into the harbor.
"I always thought the only thing in the world that would satisfy me was work," says Tipton, who had previously looked upon fishing, whether for mountain trout in Colorado or for roosterfish and dolphin in Central America, as merely an adjunct, albeit an important one, to his life. Now it would become something close to life itself. Port Charlotte offers some freshwater fishing, but it was to the potent waters of Charlotte Harbor, alive with a lavish variety of tarpon, snook, snapper, sheepshead and cobia, that Tipton was drawn.
He has since hooked them all, although he has seldom bothered to bring home his larger catches. A purist in such matters, he fishes neither for trophies nor food—he does not really care for the taste of fish—but for the sheer sport of it. "The thrill is to hunt them, find them and hook them," he says. "Then I release them. I don't even have to catch a fish to have a good time fishing."
If retirement has worked out more agreeably than Harry Tipton expected, it is because his love of fishing gives him "something to do." Those three words describe what seems a universal obsession among the people of Port Charlotte. A familiar figure on the town's crowded fishing pier, Ernest Rogers, a retired Texaco Oil employee and, like Tipton, a Coloradan, takes time out from casting for snook to explain why he is there: "It gives me something to do. If beats sitting around the house all day." Ask Frank Leach, retired owner of a boiler-repair business in Rhode Island, the reason he has recently taken a part-time job selling Port Charlotte real estate, and he answers: "It keeps me busy. I needed something to do." Leach used to keep busy playing golf, but he lost interest; he played only once last year, and his golf cart is caked with rust.