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My Older Brother Recounts Mowing the Lawn in the 1960s
A Near Retiree Mowing His Lawn
Greetings to all:
Hope everyone is enjoying this time of year when all is green and blooming. Here in western South Dakota we are having an exceptional cool and wet spring making it ideal growing conditions for lawns in general and mine in particular. Last Monday I came home from work and took a tour of the premises and determined that it was once again time to mow the grass for the fourth cutting this year. If I could figure out how to bail it and sell it as a cash crop I'd turn a pretty penny this year. My second option is to let it grow and put it in a CRP program but I'm sure the neighbors would object and the county would assess punitive damages. And so I backed the Du-Rang-O out of garage, grabbed the handle of a shiny new red Toro self propelled lawn mowing machine that I bought in Spearfish, SD last fall, pushed her out on the driveway, hitched up the grass catcher bag and gassed 'er up. Two or three pulls on the starter cord the engine sprang to life and we were in business. I eased the handle forward and the rear wheels kicked into drive and I drove it over to the north pasture and steered it into a sea of green. It effortlessly began chewing up grass and mulching it into the rear bag at whatever pace I wanted to walk. Amazing. I am 64 years old and this was my first self propelled rear bagging, mulching, adjustable height, easy start , shiny red aluminum deck mowing machine marvel. This was not always the case and I have many not so pleasant memories of lawn mowers one of which I would like to share with you good folks. If this sounds too boring or if you may be offended by some of the characters in this short tome, please feel free to hit the "x" in the upper right hand corner of your computer screen. I won't hold it against you. Much.
Enter the Green Machine
I am transported back to my preteens in southwestern Michigan where my mother, father, infant brother and myself had moved into a new (well new to us anyway) two bedroom house on the corner of Tucker and Royalton roads. The lot was of good size and had two apple trees, several shrubs and other obstructions on it. Tucker street was graveled and Royalton was of chip and seal construction (that means every spring the county would lay down tar and attempt to throw a limestone gravel layer about pea size on it but would never stick to the tar and would form wind rows around the edges of our lot that sand burrs found made good breeding grounds). Neighbors included Mr. Tucker (yep, after the street) to our west, the Millers to our north (who had a wondering yellow Labrador retriever dog who liked to plant land mines in our yard), and others to our East and South; some of which had kids of varying ages. We moved into the house in early fall just when the wormy apples were ripening and sand burrs turned a vicious brown with poisonous spears and barbs.
One day my father (who was a self employed contractor) came home from work and parked the old '58 Ford pickup next to the sheep tied fence under a catalpa tree that separated us from Mr. Tuckers' vegetable garden and our lot. In the bed of the truck was a pair of black rubber handles attached to a shaft of some sort that couldn't be made out from a distance. We were having supper that evening and the old man (I didn't call him that then because I valued my life but I can now because well.....he is old and after all.. a man who can't move as fast as I can most of the time) cleared his throat. He said to no one in particular as he poured gravy on his mashed potatoes.
"Went by the golf course today and they had thrown away a perfectly good gas powered lawn mower of exceptional quality and high value. They used it to trim the putting greens so that makes it even more valuable. After supper boy" he said looking sideways at me, "you are going to get acquainted with it and from now on it will be your responsibility to keep the lawn in proper character. I will make a complete list of all the weekly chores I want you to do and post it on your bedroom door. Upon my weekly inspection of your work I will pay you a respectable wage."
And so that was how I was introduced to the Green SOB. It was painted green at one time but most of it had peeled off exposing bare metal rust in some places and shiny metal in others which meant it was still shedding its skin. It was an ancient reel type self propelled rear bagger (of sorts) one lunger. It had a side mounted cast iron flywheel with a special notch in it that you wrapped a separate knotted rope pull cord that you yanked on to start the thing. There was an important trick to that pull cord. If you didn't follow through and complete the pull the piston would backfire and knock your fillings loose. If you did follow through the rope would fly off the flywheel and smack you in the face. You always had plenty of time to prepare for this as it always took 15 to 20 pulls to get it started. Once started it had one speed.....zoom. There was a lever up by the black rubber handle grips (or what was left of the rubber) which you turned with your left hand to engage all the exposed belts and pulleys which turned the only two wheels which also had remnants of rubber on them which turned the cutting blades that clipped the grass and anything else that got in its way. You had to be quick with that lever and get your left hand back on the handle bars because once that sucker was engaged you were going places. Mostly in circles if you tried to one hand it. More likely than not though you went about 30 feet and the engine would stop and you had to start all over again once you remembered where you threw the knotted pull rope.
One thing I did like about it though was that the handles vibrated so much that after a minute or two your hands and arms were numb and there was no longer any pain. As I mentioned, it had a rear canvas bag with a metal plate for the bottom and the top was completely open which was supposed to catch the grass clippings from the turning reel but because there was no throttle control the clippings and what ever else it devoured bounced off of you and ricocheted either near or in the bag...mostly near... missing it completely. It did not have a muffler on it (they hadn't been invented yet when the SOB was born) and I still have tinnitus in both ears from its constant use.
I can vividly recall one early mowing episode shortly after the stunted, wormy rotten apples began to fall and the neighborhood toughs had been roaring up and down graveled roads in their souped up Ford an Chevy coupes throwing stones along the side of road. Earlier I had seen the Millers' blond Labrador retriever strolling back home but paid it no mind. I had the Green SOB moving at a fast pace along the roadside where mature sand burrs spawned and started pelting my t-shirt, pant legs, and shoe laces with a vengeance. I stopped the machine and spent the next 10 minutes or so plucking them out of my skin and clothing until my fingers bled and ached with pain. After that I wrestled the machine a few feet closer into the yard to avoid the burrs and continued my appointed duty absorbed in the thought of spending my weekly allowance on some inner tube patches to fix the flat tire on my bicycle when I saw and heard them before I actually felt them. Sparks started coming from the steel cutting blades and strange popping sounds where coming from somewhere near the Green SOB. Almost at the same time rocks and stones started hitting my face nearly knocking my glasses off and a couple of the larger ones found my lower lip. My immediate reaction was to protect myself and cover my face which left the Green SOB to fend for itself which it did by heading towards one of the apple trees under its' own power. After checking that none of my teeth were chipped or broken, I raced after the run away mower slipping and sliding on fallen rotten apples. When I finally reached the handle bars a new sensation and odor began spraying my glasses. Immediately bad apple cider came to mind and just as I confirmed my suspicions a new and fouler odor hit my open mouth. Blond dog mess - no doubt about it. As I turned my face to the side to avoid further disgusting things the Miller house came into view the there was the yellow Labrador retriever sitting near the road wagging its's tail with a goofy grin on its' face and eyes bugging out of its' head. Somehow I managed to throw the Green SOB out of gear stopping all forward motion but not the engine. To do that there was a unique metal bar that you pushed into the spark plug and if you didn't do it just right gave you one tremendous shock rendering your arm useless for hours afterwards and of course I didn't do it right that time either but the engine died and everything came to a silent end. My lip was bleeding, my teeth hurt, my glasses were smeared with applesauce, a few errant sand burrs were poking into my crotch and I had a huge case of bad breath and thoughts of round and tape worms filled my head and on top of that I had lost all feeling in my right arm. I needed first aid. I needed water and a toothbrush. I needed fresh underwear and socks. I walked over to the one and only outside water spigot that had a garden hose on it and turned it on myself holding it over my head and just let the water run down over my bruised and bloodied body. About that time the old man came around the corner of the house and almost ran me over. "Darn it" he said. To this day every time I hear that word my immediate response is to say "Yes sir?". "I'm not paying you 50 cents a week to play in the water. Now get back to work and don't forget to sweep out the garage and wash the car. I ought to send you to military school where they'll teach you some manners and respect".
The Little Brother and the Dream Machine
A few years after that we moved again across the river to a new subdivision and school system. I started working odd jobs around town but the Green SOB followed us anyway. I lost track of it sometime during my senior year of high school or the first year at Lake Michigan College. Vietnam was ramping up and the draft was nipping at my heals if I didn't take a full course of study in the fall. I chose to enlist and the Navy was as good a choice as any. Beat living in a fox hole. A lot happened in the four years that followed but I won't go into that now. I'll leave that for a future epistle.
I came home in June of 1973 on leave just before I was to be discharged in August. The old man had built a rather nice home along the shores of Lake Michigan and there my mother, the old man and my younger brother Bruce ( that's not his real name. I don't want to embarrass him by using his real name. Wait a minute. That might be his real name after all. Think I'll call him Buck......or....Bucky. Yeh. Bucky 'll do just fine) lived and prospered. I had only been home a day or two and was sitting outside on the balcony with the old man (who had mellowed somewhat) talking about nothing in particular when Bucky walked up and asked the old man if he could mow the lawn. Again. "Why of course Bucky," the old man said. "You know where the keys are. Have fun son," he said. "Sure don't have to get after that one to mow the lawn," he said to no one in particular.
Keys? "You need keys to mow the lawn?" I thought to myself. The Green SOB didn't need no stinking keys to get it started. All you needed was a knotted rope and a catchers mask. About that time there came a tremendous roar from the garage and out rolled Bucky sitting on the biggest... baddest riding lawn mower I had ever seen. We're talking huge here. Monster type machinery. The size of an adult Zamboni huge. It had dual quad headers mounted on twelve inch risers. It had four wheel posi-traction, dual exhaust and a 40 pound Shaffer clutch. It had a four speed Hurst transmission with a gold plated human skull for a shifter knob. It had titanium/mag wheels and glass packs for exhaust. It was pure quantum physics in motion. Bucky stopped just at the edge of the driveway and surveyed the landscape he was about to pulverize. He paused to look up at the old man who gave him a grin and a thumbs up. Bucky adjusted his ball cap, dropped the transmission into first gear, gave a "yeee-hawwww" and hit the turf. The Dream Machine didn't run on normal gasoline good buddy....oh no....it ran on pure nitro. Nothing could stop it. Fence posts and mail boxes were only snacks for it. It would mow down sumac and sassafras trees just to sharpen its' blades.
"How old is Bucky now?" I asked the old man. "About the same age you were when I brought home that exquisite self propelled reel mower the golf course was going to throw away. The green one they used to trim the putting greens with. You know , the one you always complained about," he said.
Soon Bucky was finished with his lawn mowing chores and came up on the balcony to join us."Dad," he said. "Can I take the dirt bike out for a spin now?""In a little bit Bucky," the old man replied. "Why don't you sit awhile and have some fresh squeezed lemonade your mom made for you. It sure is hot out here today." "You have a dirt bike Bucky?" I asked him."Yeah," he replied. "Just a small 500cc with a stinger pipe on it dad got a good deal on.""We don't let Bucky actually drive it on the highway yet," the old man volunteered. "just on the 50 or so miles of dirt track here in the dunes." "Of course," I said. "wouldn't have it any other way I'm sure."
Yep. That all happened oh so many years ago. Bucky grew up and got himself a good college education. Has a family of his own and they live somewhere in the tropics now. He spends his time fly fishing for huge tarpon and bone fish. Has his own tropical fly fishing show on some outdoor channel .......or so I'm told.
The old man retired to one of the northern tiered prairie states and builds remote controlled airplanes just because he can and he's good at it. I see him from time to time and we have buried the hatchet so to speak. I call him grandpa now because he is one and a good one at that also.
As for the Green SOB I don't know whatever happened to it and don't really care. In fact I hope it came to a horrible end and was melted down and sold to the Chinese for pig iron. All I do know is that I really like my new Red Bull and while I don't actually like mowing the lawn to this very day, it is easy on these tired feet.
As for Bucky....love you man.Gregg