THE RICHEST MAN IN THE WORLD
Our B-29 combat crew and Crew Chief went to Calcutta, India in November 1944 for a few days of rest and recreation. We rode on a surprisingly good Bengal-Nagpur passenger train from Chakulia Air Base to Howrah Station on the Hoogly River opposite Calcutta. Then we rode rickshas across the Howrah Bridge to the famous Great Eastern Hotel in downtown Calcutta.
We checked in at the luxury hotel where we enjoyed eating and sleeping in a building that did not have plaster walls, burlap cloth ceilings, and a thatch roof. After feasting on a five-course dinner, we turned in for a restful sleep on soft mattresses and comfortable beds. At Chakulia, my mattress was a cotton pad, my springs were made of stretched rope, and my bed was a wood bunk. The Great Eastern Hotel offered many luxuries we had not enjoyed since arriving in India seven months earlier.
Our first full day in town was spent sightseeing in typical tourist fashion. We repulsed beggars, haggled with ricksha boys, avoided vendors and snake charmers, and walked around sacred cattle and their dung on the sidewalks. We met these challenges in the city and in the market places. Obnoxious odors came from open sewers, filthy beggars and homeless people, and piles of dung waiting to be removed and used as fuel. Cattle were considered to be sacred, so the huge Sikh door men in front of the luxury hotel could do no more than chase them away before they made deposits on the hotel's sidewalks.
On the second day, I called the Scottish golf pro Mr. Dai Rees at the Royal Calcutta Golf Club, and obtained permission for my crew to play a round at the exclusive haven for upper-crust British colonists. Shorty Norton, Louis Grace, Billy Nelson, Alvin Hills, and I went to the club house without one item of golf equipment. The obliging Mr. Rees charged us so many rupees to rent ancient clubs that had wood shafts, and to purchase used golf balls, that we were convinced he was a true Scot. He also arranged for each of us to have a caddy, and for the group to have one lad to retrieve balls from water holes.
When we started, our fivesome was among very few players on the beautifully manicured greens and fairways. Crew Chief Billy Nelson, a hard working Texan of very few words, showed us his expertise when he hit a booming drive from the first tee box. We knew Billy for three years, and could not recall having seen him playing golf at our stations in Panama and Kansas. Working seven days a week was the norm for maintenance personnel, so there had been little opportunity for Billy to play golf.
After observing Billy's long, straight shots on the fairways, and his accurate play around and on the greens, someone asked him where he learned to play golf. We were pleasantly surprised by his reply. He explained that he was a member of the Nelson family from Northeast Texas -- the family from which the famous golfer Byron Nelson came. I do not recall our scores, but Billy was far ahead of us when we finished the front nine.
On the back nine, we caught up to a crowd that was following a lone golfer playing the hole ahead of us. The golfer was a huge man who must have been six and a half feet tall and probably weighed 300 pounds. The giant was standing on the tee box of a par three hole while staring across a water hazard to a green a short distance away. Our group waited quietly behind the crowd, and watched as the big man spoke to his caddy, who reached into an enormous leather golf bag, pulled out a cut, battered, sad-looking golf ball, and teed it up.
Using a strange, jerky swing, the golfer topped the ball into the water. His audience remained silent as he plunked two more beat-up balls into the hazard. Finally, his fourth shot went over the water and landed on the green. The crowd erupted into a round of applause, then trailed him as he left the tee box and walked around the pond to the green.
While we waited on the tee box for the big fellow to finish the hole, we talked about him. No one could offer a good reason why any man with an audience would use such miserable golf balls. One of our fivesome asked an Englishman who was in the group following us, "Who is that guy?" The Englishman replied, "My good man, that is Aga Khan, the richest man in the world." We knew that he saved money by playing used golf balls, but certainly not enough to become the richest man in the world.
The next morning's newspaper carried a story that solved the golf ball mystery. Photos showed Aga Khan on a balance beam receiving his annual stipend of large and small diamonds that equaled the total weight of his huge bulk. One could only guess what 300 pounds of diamonds was worth in 1944. It was no small wonder that Aga Khan was the richest man in the world.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *