Rusty wires held the handle insecurely to the structure of metal wheels, rotating blades, and cutting edge. But the blades had been sufficiently sharpened, or oiled, that a five-year-old could experience the thrill of operating this piece of adult machinery.
My father, mother, new baby sister and I shared the house at 414 Brown Street in Iowa City with Mary and Paul Engle during the years when Paul (my parents' friends were all known to me by their first names) had just begun the Iowa Writers Workshop program. (For years thereafter I continued to refer to box elder bugs as "box Engle" bugs, believing them for some reason to have been named after my friend Paul.) The Brown Street house is an apartment complex now, a student warren called "Gaslight Village." But in the 1930s, when we lived there, it was still a stately brick home on a hill, one of the first homes in Iowa City, now registered as a "national historic" something or other. In fact, a part of its attraction to a young boy were the stories that it had secret passageways where slaves were hidden by abolitionists in the mid-1800s. I searched the house as a boy, but found neither secret passages nor any evidence of the railroad tracks in the basement I assumed would have been necessary for this station on the "underground railroad."
There were only three or four homes on that city block, with lawns accordingly wide. Ours was perhaps one hundred feet long as well, flowing down to the all-brick street, where a hitching post, a black pole with a ring, awaited any visitor who might wish to tie up his or her horse before ascending the steps. The hitching post was not a mere ornament, the result of some yuppie shopper's effort to buy nostalgia. It was used by the man who brought us the ice that cooled our "ice box" (the non-electric predecessors to today's "refrigerators" -- which, for years, we continued to refer to as "the ice box"). And one day a neighbor from the farm behind us (Iowa City was then a much smaller urban oasis surrounded by rolling farm fields than it is today) came running through our backyard and onto the front lawn chasing a horse engaged in its own escape from slavery. (My father's father came to visit us once from Kansas, and -- because I had been told he was a cowboy -- I rather hoped he would arrive on horseback. He drove.)
Until my first mowing day, the front lawn was just my playground. Because I was forbidden to cross the streets, but liked being outdoors, I spent a lot of time there. It supported two large elm trees, with their deep-furrowed bark --- probably there 100 years before any runaway slaves. (I have been truer to elms, my first love, than to any subsequent love in my life. My father told the story of a Kansas neighbor who, when asked if he believed in baptism, replied, "Why sure, I've seen it done." Had I known of baptism, and the Druids, the elms would have provided my baptism into the Druid religion. And when the dreaded Dutch elm disease wiped them out it was as if most of my own family had been wiped out by a medieval black death.) The elms provided my source of "locust shells," carefully picked from the bark and stored in fruit jars which, at my insistence, my parents dutifully carried to our next home and stored in its garage. (We moved in 1941; 48 years later I would return from Washington to that house, where Mary and I still live.) The Brown Street lawn also gave me a place to lie on my back and wonder whether it was the swaying branches and leaves that caused the breeze, for why else would air move? I was curious about how high the clouds might be.
(It was Jim, a graduate student of my father's, who added to my understanding of natural phenomena an explanation for thunder. One evening I was sitting on the floor of the front porch taking in as much as a five-year-old could of Jim's academic discussion with Dad. The screened-in front porch ran the length of the house. It had a three-person swing, attached to chains suspended from hooks in the porch ceiling that caused a relaxing, rhythmic squeaking sound as he and Dad talked and kept the swing in motion. It was a stormy night. The wash-day clean smell in the air when the rain just begins to tip-toe through the dust had long since passed. Now the sound of heavy rain hitting the metal porch roof drowned out the squeaky rhythm of the swing and with it any other sensory input, whether of smell or sight on this black night. Suddenly there was a flash of lightning and the rumbling, rolling crash of thunder. I jumped. "What was that?" I asked. "That's just potatoes rolling on the roof," Jim said. "Oh, OK," I responded, and filed away this new knowledge along with my theories about wind and clouds.)
The lawn was also a place to lie on my stomach and watch the industrious ants. I still like to watch ants, and feel somewhat protective of them, as of all animal life. (Some of this may have come from my Native American teacher, Senawakowak. One day I pointed out to him that he had a mosquito on his forehead that he might wish to swat. "They have to live, too," he told me.) In fact, I now have a small portion of my lawn I do not mow, my own little protected wildlife area, where the ants can play and prosper without the noise and physical threat of a lawn mower.
This is surprising in a way, because it was ants that provided my first bee sting. How can this be (so to speak)?
I loved my ants and wanted to do something nice for them. So, one evening before bed I sneaked into the kitchen, got a chair, climbed up into the cupboard, and carefully removed the china sugar bowl and its spoon. I had observed that ants carried little bits of things in their mouths -- although sometimes far larger than themselves -- like grass, insects, and pieces of dirt. Since I liked sugar, and little pieces of sugar seemed to be just about the right size for an ant's mouth, I provided my ants the nicest gift I could think of for them: three teaspoons of sugar crystals around the entryway to their home. They had already gone to bed, so the next morning I awoke early to see if the ants appreciated my thoughtfulness. Much to my disappointment I found that the morning dew had transformed the sugar to syrup. Almost simultaneously, and to my much greater disappointment, I discovered bees, their love of syrup, and their mean-spirited willingness to sting little boys. Mother removed the stinger, applied a paste of baking soda and water to the wound, soothed my broken heart, dried my tears, and explained that ants probably wouldn't eat sugar anyway. But I still like ants -- and am cautious around stinging creatures.
There was no threat to the ants this first time I was permitted to mow the lawn. If I did not know every clump of grass I at least knew every clump that held an ant hill and protected their homes even then.
I was mowing! The metallic whir of the blades on the cutting edge, the spray of grass bits, the smell, the thrill of this initiation ceremony into adulthood -- or so I thought. I can do this! Just like the grownups.
Honesty pulls from me the confession that the memory is dim. The memory is that I mowed the entire front yard. Is it likely such an accomplishment would have been mine? Perhaps it was my father who was mowing the yard, and I only pushed the mower down the hill, following which he finished the task. Would we have had a "lawn boy”? Highly unlikely. This was the depression. Money was scarce. Hobos would stop at our back door asking for food. Mother would usually give them something, even though it often meant we would have less to eat at our next meal.
Would Mother have been mowing the yard? Probably not. She was a teacher, and a poet, and a dancer. But she was also a worker. She would get down on her hands and knees to clean the kitchen floor. She could build cabinets. She certainly could have mowed the lawn. But I have no memories of her doing so.
Dad could have mowed the lawn, too. He was a big, athletic man.
Mother told me the first time she visited his folks on their Kansas farm Dad got on a horse, threw his hat on the ground, rode a couple hundred yards away, then came galloping toward her, swung down the side of the horse, picked up his hat, put it on his head and circled back to her. (I never saw my father on a horse; but I have seen the farm, and where he rode, and the vision is clear.)
Growing up in Kansas he had been a boxer. And a pitcher. He wanted to play in the big leagues, and might have made it if he had not crushed his hand in a printing press -- a rather dramatic way to change careers from ball player to writer I always thought. But he rather preferred what Senator Bob Dole once said of the Vice Presidency: "indoor work with no heavy lifting." I don't remember there being many tools around the house: a hammer, saw, pliers, screwdriver. That was about it. I found the resources a little limited when I wanted to build an entry for the Soap Box Derby. Mother must have, too. Maybe she had her own secret stash of tools. Dad's brothers told me that on their Kansas farm he used to walk behind the horse-drawn plow reading the little Haldeman-Julius paperback shirt-pocket books. It didn't make for very straight rows, but it did create a desire in this lanky, stuttering farm boy to get out of that field and into the one he ultimately chose -- or chose him -- speech pathology.
So I don't think Dad spent a lot of time with the lawn mower, either. Maybe I did mow that enormous lawn all by myself. Maybe most of the enormity was in the eye of the child.
Or maybe Bruce did it.
Exploring our house one day, I discovered it had an attic. Moreover, it contained evidence that someone was living in a corner: a mattress on the attic floor, a couple shirts, a stack of books. How could someone be living in my house and I not know it? I don't remember having much contact with Bruce, though I do remember seeing him. After we moved, in 1941, someone told us he had gone to fight World War II. Later my mother told me she learned he was killed in the Pacific. I was very sad. He had been a part, however remote, of my early life and now had contributed my first knowledge of death and the war that was dominate my elementary school years.
Maybe Bruce mowed the lawn, and it was he who let me push the mower one day.
Our new house came with a new lawn mower. It was kept in the garage, with my locust shells. It had rubber grips over the metal handles, and hard rubber tires on the wheels. But it made a similar metallic whirring sound when you pushed it, and threw the little bits of grass you could feel stick to your bare legs, and made that sweet summer smell of newly cut grass -- a smell which, in high school, I came to associate with mid-August football practice.
I have a friend named Mason Williams who wrote a book about all the cars he owned. He called it his "auto- biography" -- the story of his life in automobiles. This is not going to be my "lawn mower-biography," but mowing the lawn is an ongoing activity that has played a role in my life.
One high school summer I got a job as part of a mowing crew for the University of Iowa. We all had push mowers, sweated profusely, and tanned rapidly without our shirts -- as skin cancer had not yet been invented. The crew leader rewarded our efforts with gallons of root beer from the A&W Root Beer stand. There was considerable prestige associated with the job, as the seventy-five-cents-an-hour wage made it one of the best paid jobs in the county.
There came a time in my life when, as chair of the National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting, I had to raise a considerable amount of money for the organization. Just as Willie Sutton replied to the question, "Why do you rob banks?" with the line, "Because that's where the money is," I found myself hanging out with liberal and radical millionaires because that's where our money was. It inspired me to think about the ways in which one could live like a millionaire without having any money.
Many of them were vegetarians, walked and rode bicycles, and wore old clothes. All those things I was already doing.
They traveled widely -- something I could not afford to pay for. But I could do it by travelling the public lecture circuit. I couldn't pick when I would go, but it was likely I would, sooner or later, hit most of the resort areas they favored.
Finally, they had someone else to worry about all the details of running their half-million-dollar homes. That one had me stumped. They not only had a roof over their heads, and a roofer to fix any leaks, they didn't even have to spend time talking to the roofer. A staff person did that for them. Had I the skill to fix my own roof, I couldn't even afford a small house, not on the $5000 a year I was paying myself at the NCCB. How could I solve this problem?
And then it came to me: live in an apartment. Let the owner and the manager worry about the roof, the furnace, cleaning the swimming pool -- and mowing the yard.
And so it was that I came to retire from lawn mowing for nearly 15 years.
Now, back in the house the family moved into in 1941, 1 am mowing lawns once again. I have a power mower, called "Lawn Boy," although I am my own lawn boy. (Mary, when asked if she has a dish washer, says, "Sure. And his name is Nick.") Ever since I drove my uncle Chet's little Ford tractor around his Ida County farm, the first vehicle I ever drove, I always wanted a Ford tractor. Still do. But I never really wanted one of those riding mowers. They remind me of golf carts. Mark Twain said golf is "a good walk spoiled." With a cart it's not even a spoiled walk. When I watch a 300-pound guy hanging over the seat on one of those riding mowers the vision I see is a man on a tricycle about eight sizes too small, a circus act. If you're not even strong enough to push a power mower you probably ought not be getting out of the house at all.
But my neighbor, a cultured guy who used to run the art museum, expressed quite clearly to me his distaste for the sound of the power mowers in the neighborhood.
Moreover, the pollution from them is supposed to be far worse than that from automobiles -- like the difference between the tobacco-filtered smoke in the lungs of the smoker and unfiltered smoke in the lungs of the bystander. And power mowers are ecologically unsound, a kind of unnecessary use of petroleum resources.
So Mary and I went off in search of a push mower. Today's push mowers are of similar design to the one I first operated over a half-century ago. But there the similarity ends. The sponge rubber cover on the handles of the new ones slowly shapes to your palms. The watch-like precision of the construction produces a metallic whirring sound that seems to have passed through a muffler. The mower we chose is all black, a stealth mower, with enough adjustments to satisfy the most demanding macho man.
And it cost more than both of my first two cars combined. (Lest the reader think I have gone totally profligate in my old age I should probably explain that the first car cost $25 and the second $75.)
I like mowing. In a world, and a life, of uncertainty and unfinished tasks, there's a kind of finality, a finished quality, to mowing a yard. You pick up all the sticks and other objects first and then debate whether to use a grass catcher and add to the compost pile, or leave the clippings to fertilize the lawn.
There are many other choices. You can mow in one direction, or in both directions. (I would never mow in circles.) You can finish a logical section, or mow across the sidewalk to the front porch, doing two lawns at once. You can be compulsive or free form.
However you do it, you can see where you've mowed. You know when you're done -- at least for this week. I have come to like memorials, reminders of those who were dear to us and are no longer. As my mother was dying of liver cancer I told her that I had planted in my garden the seeds for a giant pumpkin, one of which was beginning to form. It was called "Edna," I told her, in her honor.
"I'm not sure how much of an honor that really is," she said, eyes twinkling until the last, "except, perhaps, for the pumpkin."
Although there's a bit of debate about it, and Mary's mother denies it, Mary remembers that her late father liked to edge his sidewalks. So I do that, too. I call it the Wayne Vasey Memorial Edging, since we have an Edna Johnson Memorial Flower Garden in the front yard (no pumpkins). I have not yet come up with any better way to honor Wayne, and the memory of this Johnny Appleseed of schools of social work. Like my father, he, too, was a boxer, a story teller, a delightful personality -- and, in fact, a friend of my father's. Though I rather suspect that he might have about as much enthusiasm for the honor of an edged sidewalk as my mother had for the pumpkin.
Whoever it was who first introduced me to the lawn mower,
whatever may have been the circumstances, and the quality of my first effort,
I am grateful. There's no satisfaction, no beauty, quite like that of a
freshly mowed and sidewalk-trimmed yard -- especially the next morning
when you rise early and go out to admire it, and check on the ants, and
don't get stung because you've learned not to make them gifts of sugar.