It’s the beginning of summer and the sound of lawn mowers can be heard in the late afternoon. Their insect-like hum blends with other noises in the background and is largely ignored. This changes when one neighbor attacks his lawn and the sound enters a new dimension. Accompanying the usual engine noise is the sound of branches, stones and other debris being churned up by the mower blade as he becomes obscured in a cloud of dust. I have heard that sound before.
For my father, mowing the lawn was a job to get over as quickly as possible and one he assumed only after I left home. Our back yard bordered on the road which circled the lake where we lived and it would fill with rocks kicked in by pedestrians and the tires of passing cars. Other debris accompanying the rocks included popsicle sticks, various pieces of paper and small limbs, the latter usually falling from the trees. Except for the stones, this debris was easily removed with a quick pass over the area. The stones were another matter and try as one might, some were discovered only when they were caught by the mower’s blade bbraacchh! and sent flying. Still, you could get most of them. The removal of all this detritus was the rule when I was the mower. By executive decision, my father ignored this necessity. As a result, neighbors could hear him mowing blocks away as he walked in the midst of a storm of dust, wood splinters, bits of paper and flying rocks; a man-made tornado to rival nature’s own. Mothers were known to bring the children inside when dad cranked up the old Lawn Boy and the local wildlife quickly sought shelter. That he was never injured as a result of this self-generated mayhem can be considered a small miracle. Passing over the lawn after he finished mowing, he did finally pick up the larger bits. To be fair, however, following his retirement, he did become more meticulous about the lawn, picking up the more obvious obstacles. The stones, however, remained a problem, and small animals continued to flee in terror when the lawn mower was rolled out of the garage.
The lawn mowers of 50 years ago were simple affairs. A two- or four-cycle engine was mounted on a metal platform with four wheels attached. The engine had no throttle, ran full bore and could be stopped only by pressing a flat metal tab to the top of the spark plug; an electrifying experience which shorted out the spark plug and stopped the motor and also gave a healthy shock to the individual pressing the tab. After doing this procedure once, one learned to carry a piece of insulating wood to use the next time the motor needed to be stopped. The braver operators would dare to introduce their foot into the process; stepping on the metal tab. Given the proximity of the blade, it was not a recommended practice. A misstep would put the foot in the path of the blade.
The rudimentary metal skirts on the platform were mostly for show as they provided no protection from the spinning blade, something my grandmother found out one summer’s afternoon. She was mowing the lawn when my grandfather and I went to town on some errand. When we returned, we saw the mower sitting, running, in the middle of the yard. My grandmother sat on the back step, holding her hand to her chest and crying as she rocked back and forth. “What happened?” my grandfather asked. “I think I’ve cut off my finger,” came the reply, “I was reaching to pick up a stick and the blade hit my hand.” She was wearing canvas gloves and had not looked at her hand, she was afraid to do so, afraid of what she might see. The glove was soaked in blood as was the front her blouse. I remember standing helplessly by as my grandfather coaxed her to let him see her hand. Gently, oh so gently, he worked the tom glove from her hand. It soon became apparent that the glove had taken the brunt of the damage. Two of her fingers were gashed, but it appeared to be a glancing blow. The fingers were bloody and bruised, but no bones were broken. As they headed inside to tend to the cut, no medical assistance was considered, that would be an unnecessary expense, I was sent off to finish the mowing. Not long after, following a conversation between father and grandfather, came the order that the lawn was to be checked for debris before the mowing began.
My grandmother rarely mowed the lawn after that. That job devolved to me and, if I was not staying with them, I would ride my bike over to them every week or so. My grandparents were never too fussy about the grass, only that it not be allowed to get too high. There was another reason my grandmother stopped mowing the lawn. She was deathly afraid of snakes and constantly worried that one might be flushed out by the mower. Worse yet, that she might mistake a snake for a stick and reach down to pick it up…