The boys settled into the not unpleasant task of growing up in San Antonio, Texas, in the 1920s and 1930s. Schriever was the star pitcher on the Friedens Evangelical baseball team, yet the all-American game did not attract him as much as it did most other boys. Golf became his passion. His obsession with it first brought out the relentless competitiveness, the fierce desire to emerge as number one that was behind the friendly, restrained exterior of his personality. The generosity of Edward Chandler was responsible for getting him started. An enthusiastic golfer himself, Chandler had decided that Schriever and Gerry should be taught the game. After Elizabeth had gone to work for him, he took them out to the San Antonio Country Club (he was its president), and instructed the golf pro there to shorten some clubs (golf clubs had wooden shafts in those days) and to give them lessons. The boys had a ready supply of golf balls from the San Antonio River, then a relatively shallow, free-flowing stream that ran through the middle of Brackenridge Park Golf Course, where they could play for a minimal fee because it was public. They would simply wade in and fish stray balls from the river bottom. Gerry became a quite competent golfer, but never the dazzler on the links his older brother, Bernard, was to become. Schriever was off on his first quest.
Golf is a social game and yet it is also an intensely solitary one. A golfer plays on the course alongside others, but he wins or loses on his own performance. There is virtually no margin for error. A tournament can be won or lost by a single stroke. The game requires enormous and sustained powers of concentration and self-control, because it is as much mental as it is physical.
Much later in life, after the immigrant boy from Bremerhaven wore stars in the U.S. Air Force and was charged with creating America’s intercontinental ballistic missile force, Schriever was renowned for his staunchness under stress and the deliberate fashion in which he would thread his way through multiple obstacles to a solution. When test missiles exploded in flames and thunder on the launching pads, fizzled out and crashed back to earth, or strayed wildly off course and had to be blown up in midair by the range safety officer—to ridicule in the press and irritation and impatience at the Pentagon and the White House—others would begin to lose their nerve. Not Schriever. He would remain calm and press on with the searching and questioning, he and his people learning from each failure until the rocket flew straight and true.
At school and on the links of Brackenridge Park Golf Course, he made a small number of close friends like McKnight and he had casual friendships as well, but beneath the affable surface he was a loner. He did not consciously try to distance himself from others or to set himself apart, yet he noticed that others always seemed to sense a distance and to treat him accordingly. His casual friends, for example, usually addressed him as “Schriever,” rather than as Ben or Bennie. Others sensed a distance because the distance was there. There was a kind of Teutonic quality about him. Reserve was his most natural state. He was little given to small talk and the jocular exchanges that make for easy friendships. His conversations usually focused on what interested him, and what interested him he took seriously. Part of this introverted personality was undoubtedly in his genes, but whatever his genes gave him had clearly been magnified by the uprooting from Germany, the bolt-from-the-sky death of his father, the striving to be accepted as an American, and the painful, uncertain years before his mother found her position with the Chandlers. The experiences had taught him that to deal with adversity he had to look for strength within himself, a lesson he also learned from his mother, who set an example and of whom he was in awe. In the complexity that is the human personality this introverted side did not diminish in the least his drive to compete and to prevail, initially in golf and then in matters of greater moment later in life. He was insightful enough to be conscious of the need. As he would put it with his wry sense of humor, “I hate to lose.”
Right after graduation in June of 1927, still sixteen, he demonstrated that he was a youngster to watch in the sport. The first Texas state championship tournament for juniors was held at the difficult Willow Springs course right outside San Antonio. The dark horse of the tournament, as one local newspaper put it, led the field of fifty-four in the qualifying round to win a pair of golfing shoes from the Broadway Sporting Goods Store and a silver medal from the Light, a San Antonio newspaper that was one of the sponsors of the tournament. He was defeated in the semifinal round by another sixteen-year-old, from Dallas, but not before winning more praise from the local press as the “courageous” young golfer who “made a powerful comeback on the last nine holes as the count stood against him.” The self-control Schriever displayed in tournaments did not mean that he lacked a temper. When he was playing badly for some reason, he would curse vehemently and fling whatever club he happened to have in his hands a remarkable distance.
His failure to attain the starting lineup on the freshman baseball team at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, popularly known as Texas A&M, which he entered that fall of 1927, confirmed him in his focus on golf. As always, it was Elizabeth who made it possible for him to go to college, paying the approximately $1,000 a year cost for his room, board, and tuition with the accumulated nickels and dimes from her sandwich stand and with some help from Uncle George back in Union City, New Jersey, who had branched out from the bakery and delicatessen business to acquire a local bus company as well. A shoulder broken the next year in a sophomore touch football game ironically helped. He had always been relentless about practice. Gerry remembered how his brother would spend an hour working on a single stroke. He bore down harder in the course of rebuilding the shoulder muscles after the bone had healed. His golf score went from the low 80s into the low 70s. By his senior year at A&M, again captain of the golf team, he was a scratch player: he had to maintain a consistent average of playing up to par. He gained a mention in Ripley’s Believe It or Not for three times driving more than 300 yards to the same green on the Brackenridge course and one-putting for an eagle. The year he graduated, 1931, he won the Texas state junior amateur championship and the city championship in San Antonio, where he had become a local golf celebrity.
Now approaching his full adult height of six feet, three inches, but still trimmer than the 180 pounds of muscle and bone he was eventually to weigh, he was a figure of angular elegance on the course, wavy dark brown hair over slim, well-cut features with the bright blue eyes he had inherited from his mother. Most young Texas golfers played in slacks. They considered the British-style golf outfit that the pros then favored as sissified. Bennie, who had a sense of style, did not. The light tan or gray plus fours he wore above long socks, two-tone brown and white golf shoes, a fancy cloth and leather belt at the waist, and a white short-sleeve shirt worked well on his frame and made him stand out still more from the pack.
Decision time came during his senior year at A&M. He was offered the pro’s position at the golf course at Bryan, Texas, just north of the college. The job paid $200 a month, more than he could make doing anything else and a lot of money in 1931, the third year of the Great Depression. He had no chance at all after graduation of employment in his major—structural architecture as his degree called it, construction engineering in a more plainspoken description—because the jobs simply did not exist. Professional golf competition did not have the social status it was later to acquire, however, and the tournament purses bore no resemblance to what they were to reach. Elizabeth was also opposed. She wanted her sons to become men worthy of respect, and professional athletes did not hold a place of respectability in the German middle-class world from which she drew her standards. Schriever made up his own mind, however. He reasoned that he hadn’t gone to college for four years and acquired a bachelor of science degree to devote the rest of his life to golf. He decided he was going to do what had begun to attract him most and become a flier in the U.S. Army Air Corps.