There are eternal questions and there are ephemeral questions—for $50 your local Indian fakir will confirm that statement. Of the eternal: Was Dostoevsky on red or black when he was wiped out for the last time at the tables of Baden-Baden? What does a woman want? asked Freud. What does a man want a woman to want? asked Mrs. Freud. Did Bela Lugosi sleep in the nude? And while we are on the subject, what about Spring Byington? Of the ephemeral questions—fast becoming eternal as of last week—who stole 144,000 golf balls from the Uniroyal company in Providence? And why?
All answers must be begun at the beginning. It is a cold, moonless Sunday night in late February in Providence, the kind of night that drove Ishmael into the embrace of the Spouter Inn. It is not a night fit for soulful robbery. Besides, it is well known in Providence that all sensitive robbers spend Sundays home with the family, enjoying a comforting pork roast, snoozing and then watching The FBI before retiring.
With a few variations—martinis, lamb with a bottle of crisp white wine, and then some bridge—the Uniroyal executives also are far off the madding pace. But those executive Sunday blues seem to persist; an unreasonable sense of dread pervades. And why not, what with the mess down in Washington, what with the paroxysms of Wall Street, the age of consumer survival kits and wiseacre fops like Truman Capote denigrating the middle class and its lawn sprinklers.
Come the next morning, Monday, the world is brighter. First some coffee, positively no headlines; think only good thoughts like, say, all those golf balls, those lovely spheres of eventual torment still sleeping in the warehouse. Ah, soon it will be a Uniroyal world once again. The weather seems warmer already, and shortly the whole God-fearing, right-thinking U.S. of A. will be in pursuit of our ball. Imagine. Thousands of our little devils out across the country looking for an identity, a life of their own; having a mind of their own on the greens; mocking and baring their teeth in sand pits; swimming joyously in streams; swooping through the air like berserk doves, and only sometimes going where someone wants them to go.
May 19, 1974
The phone rings. The conversation might have gone like this:
"Mornin', boss, Kolchek here, down at the plant."
"Yeah, boss, Seems we got a problem. Can't get into the loading area."
"How 'bout trying the key, dummy."
"Heyyyy now, boss. Watch that dummy stuff, O.K.? The key won't work on the lock."
"What? What? The key...."
Later that same day Colonel Walter A. McQueeney, chief of police in Providence, calls up from Florida, where he is recuperating from an illness: "What's new?"
"Golf balls, Chief."
"Whaddaya mean, golf balls?"
He hears the report. Silence. Then: "Wait a minute, now. You mean to tell me that somebody drove right through the gate, loaded 144,000 golf balls, and nobody saw them?"
Yep, Chief, it was that simple. Between 4:30 p.m. on Sunday and 7:30 a.m. on Monday, with a guard on duty, a person or persons unknown, absconded with 144,000 golf balls—America's finest, so says the company. The loss is $180,000, a sum that places it right up there with two other sporting robberies of recent years.
Ordinarily, thieves tend to ignore sports, perhaps because of their own interest and enthusiasm for them. But when they do turn toward sports, they are brilliantly selective. In 1969, for instance, there occurred what became commonly known as the Brooklyn Delicatessen Caper. It was there, underneath the elevated tracks, that $1.3 million in coin and used bills vanished from an armored truck on its way from Aqueduct Racetrack to the bank. The guards on the truck favored this delicatessen, especially for its Braun-schweiger and cheese-on-rye with a slice of Bermuda onion. On this day, one of them went in for a sandwich and came back with a .38 at each ear.
By comparison, the robbery of a bus filled with horseplayers on its way to Delaware Park seems small potato salad. Yet it was not without elementary logic. Who is going to put the hit on a horseplayer after he leaves the track?
Not much creativity, though, is visible in the Uniroyal number—until you think for a moment. "It was very unimaginative," says Chief McQueeney, slightly aggrieved about it all. Yes, so it would seem, but as all those who snicker at the bumbling Dr. Watson ought to recall, the obvious appears obvious only after somebody has done it.
Ingenuity and mystery are the vital elements for any consideration of artistry that may be given to a robbery. After all, any dull-witted slug can grab a gun, terrorize customers or take a hostage in trying to knock over a bank; the bank genre is particularly low and loathsome these days. In the case of the missing golf balls at Uniroyal, there is no terror, no guns; all of it is as clean as a cuttle bone in a canary cage. The police only know how it was done.
They—a minimum of three—presumably came through the Uniroyal front gate, made their way up to the storage area by a freight elevator, cut a lock and went to work. Using an electric forklift they moved each skid of balls (14 in all) to the elevator, where they were loaded and taken to the shipping platform one floor down. Here they were put on the truck, skids included. Officials say there is reason to believe the complete operation took an hour, more or less.
Roughly 48 by 37 miles at its extreme boundaries, the whole state of Rhode Island could be stolen in an hour. But 144,000 golf balls? Time, it appears, was of no consequence, and most likely the burglary took much longer than an hour, which brings one right down to the matter of exercising good taste. The burglars picked only top-grade Royal Plus 6, which retailed for $1.25 each (now $1.35) and are guaranteed to give a golfer the longest flight in the land.
Not without a sense of humor, the plant superintendent agreed that the flight of these golf balls was one to be remembered. "It's embarrassing, though," he says. Especially so when one considers the high-security reputation of Uniroyal.
The company is wary of spies who may be looking to pry away whatever secrets Uniroyal thinks it has; no face is a familiar or trustful face. "It's an old-line, tough, conservative outfit," says McQueeney. "It's like working in a bank vault out there. Best security I've ever seen. They catch an employee with two, three balls in his pocket, he's fired on the spot."
The chief himself is not without crimson cheeks either. "Why, we have one of the highest apprehension rates in the country," he says. "But this has been a long and tedious case with a lot of men on it, not to mention the state police. We've even sent men out of town. All those golf balls. I don't like it one bit. Can you imagine!"
That, of course, is the mystery. It is one thing to steal 144,000 golf balls, but what do you do with them afterward? Fencing this amount of golf balls in Rhode Island is like trying to fit Moby Dick into a fish tank. Also, the longer they are immobile, say, in a warehouse, the probability of discovery of burglars and balls increases. So the crucial part of this heist was the advance preparation for disposal by bulk for a quick return. Chances are the balls have been sold at $4 or $5 a dozen (they retail at $15) and are now being whacked about on cruise ships and in South America.
Chief McQueeney thinks otherwise. He thinks they may still be in the state. If so, the crooks ought to be put in the slammer for congenital idiocy alone; how long can you conceal seven tons of anything in Rhode Island? Which leaves the ultimate question: Who hooked them? Who knows?
How about organized crime? You know, the whole thing plotted over a glorious fettucini in some obscure restaurant. Quite possible, says the chief, for the mob has the distribution reach. Uniroyal is of a different opinion. It believes the burglary was the work of amateurs, that it might have been done by former employees who knew every detail about the plant. This theory paints a picture in the mind. Since food always seems to color crime stories, try imagining this: all of them at McDonald's working out the details over a Big Mac; it has a nice middle-class ring to it.