Former San Diego County judge who lost his sight in Vietnam War stays grounded with golf
(Tribune News Service) — As David Szumowski powered the club through a shot on No. 1 at Coronado Golf Course under a baby-blue sky, a half dollar-sized chunk of grass flew as the topped ball bounced in the direction of scorecard trouble.
The retired San Diego County Superior Court judge calmly explained the law … of physics.
“Swung too hard,” he said.
Blurt out some of the spicier words in the English language? Test the airborne capabilities of the club? Offer the ball a one-way ticket into San Diego Bay?
Since a hot and dusty day in Vietnam that changed the trajectory of his life in 1969, Szumowski has been redefining and fine-tuning perspective. Since the yellow flash of a rocket-propelled grenade robbed him of his sight during combat northwest of Saigon, he’s strengthened the muscles that fuel his mindset.
There were the months of rehabilitation after the tank platoon he led, rushing in to support a pinned down infantry unit, came under hellish fire. The fog of elusive acceptance dogged him as he reimagined a life gone dark. The alcohol abuse. The self-pity.
Then he summoned the courage to awaken and engage. He was going to live, chasing down a law career. He was going to love, turning a chance meeting in a Denver bar into a marriage with a lovely woman named Janice.
And eventually the man without eyesight, yet singular vision, was going to play golf — no matter what the fairway fates delivered.
“It’s like the stock market,” Szumowski, 75, said of his game. “It fluctuates.”
As playing partners Dan Williams and Paul Schueren led the Coronado resident from cart to shot, lining up putts and drawing mental pictures of terrain and pin placement Wednesday, he soaked up the guidance.
Time and again, Szumowski laced tee shots down the middle of the fairway. On one hole, after comically smacking Williams in the shin with a practice swing, he nearly drained a 50-foot putt. The wide smile about the result seemed as if he had watched every inch of the ball’s arcing journey.
“What he has managed to do in his life is truly amazing, given the problems he’s faced,” said Williams, who met the lawyer when Williams worked in the San Diego County district attorney’s office. “I wonder if I could do it. I’m not so sure I could.”
Golf, more than almost any other sports pursuit, unfolds at the fascinating intersection of physical and mental chops. Lack one and the game loosens the lug nuts on your tires.
Szumowski developed the patience to stripe fairways without seeing them because so much of his life required it.
On March 19, 1969, Szumowski peered from the turret of his 48-ton tank, his upper torso exposed, as M Company of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment’s 3rd Battalion peeled off to defend the endangered infantrymen.
The son of parents who served during World War II directed the five-tank platoon that rumbled around a bend and …
“When the RPG hit the front of my tank, it shattered and all those fragments went into my eyes,” Szumowski explained. “I remember to this day, a yellow flash like looking at the sun real quick. Then everything went dark.
“I don’t think I was in a whole lot of pain at that point. The pain in my life was mental pain for what I lost, not physical pain.”
When the New York-raised Szumowski attended college at the University of Richmond, he used to hack away at range balls with fraternity brothers. In the Army at Fort Knox, he played with officers on their course.
In the jarring wake of his war injury, swinging a club signified something much more emotional. During rehabilitation for the loss of his eyesight at a facility in Chicago, Szumowski hammered balls into a net.
“I called it the anger management sessions,” he said. “I would swing for all I was worth and hit the hell out of it. I knew I wasn’t going to hurt anyone other than myself.”
The University of Denver accepted Szumowski’s law school application, providing focus and purpose — though it was short-lived. When he finished, the direction and purpose melted away. He felt adrift.
Szumowski hung out by the pool, plowing through drinks and books.
“I decided, I’m at the bottom of the barrel,” he said. “There’s nowhere to go but up and out.”
After resetting his mental scenery by moving to San Diego, the woman he met in Denver followed and became his wife. He rededicated himself to leveraging his law degree.
Szumowski eventually landed as a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office. Gov. Pete Wilson appointed him to the bench in 1998 and, 18 years later, he tied a tidy bow on a successful career.
“I got back into golf when I became a judge, because I had more vacation time,” he said. “I took some lessons. I remembered the grip, the stance and the muscle memory of the swing.
“I started having some fun at it. My expectations always are low.”
So, Szumowski swings and swings and swings some more. He does not know where the shots go, until someone tells him.
But in truth, he’s always seen more than most.
Coronado’s David Szumowski wrote an autobiography about losing his eyesight in the Vietnam War, becoming a judge and connecting with the game of golf. You can find “Reach for More: A Journey from Loss to Love and Fulfillment” on Amazon, Kindle or Audible.
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