On an otherwise fair June afternoon when I was 12, my father beckoned to me from behind his huge and terrifying orange lawn mower.
"It's high time you start mowing the lawn," he said.
The mower was a 1955 Jacobsen Estate — a laughably polite misnomer. "Estate" evokes images of lawn parties, dainty cucumber sandwiches and tall glasses of iced tea, a world far away from the malevolent mechanical beast that was the Jacobsen. It was reminiscent of Maximum Overdrive or the truck from Steven Spielberg's 1971 made-for-TV chase movie Duel. Constructed of steel and cast iron, there were no safeties on it. The front cylinder blades were like a vicious bared mouth chewing through everything and anything in its path.
Dad pulled the starter cord, and the mower roared to life. "This lever puts you into gear," he yelled over the din, "and this one is your clutch."
"Clutch?" I said, bellying up behind the handle and shifting into gear.
The Jacobsen lurched forward, pulling me along with it. I trotted behind it thinking, so far, so good. Then the curb loomed closer and closer, and my panic mounted. I swerved frantically as the Jacobsen pulled me into a one-girl version of crack the whip.
"The clutch! The clutch!" Dad screamed from across the lawn.
My turn had gone awry, and I was headed for a tree. "Dad!" I yelped.
"Pull the clutch!"
I went for the lever. The Jacobsen stopped just inches in front of a towering oak. I sighed relief, heaved the mower around and pushed down the clutch, and hung on for dear life as I traced another harrowing path in the lawn. From then on, I called the Jacobsen the Haybaler.
There was no collection hopper on the Haybaler. Grass blades would stick to my sweaty ankles and get inside my tennis shoes; stones and twigs would fly out of from the blades like murderous projectiles, dinging my shins. The Haybaler assaulted my every sense. Not only was it deafening, the mower generated a constant cloud of blue smoke as thick and acrid as anything Republic Steel had to dish out, which, by 1977 Cleveland standards, was saying something. So for the duration of the mowing, I traveled along in my personal pollution pod.
In today's world, if you so much as fired up the Haybaler in front of a 12-year-old, the authorities would immediately arrest you. My father, on the other hand, did not regard my ordeals with the Haybaler as endangerment. He thought Erin + Jacobsen = funniest thing ever. When I would mow every weekend, he would pause his endless tinkering to watch me, then chortle and hissle-giggle and shake his head as he puffed on his Marlboro and sipped his Stroh's. Did any of this scar me for life? Hell no. But it did instill me with a stalwart prejudice.
I do not approve of riding mowers.
I'd better lay out the exceptions before the John Deere contingent amasses to take me out. I concede the following points: If you have trouble getting around or if you have a large lot, I understand why you might need a riding mower. You decide what "trouble getting around" entails; just keep in mind that the move to the seat of a riding mower puts you one step closer to Viagra Falls. As for "large lot," that should damn well mean more than an acre, but I'll err on the side of indulgent generosity and cut that back to three-quarters.
We are here in regular America, people. It is my God-given right to watch bare-chested guys moseying along behind their lawnmowers all summer: muscular, hairy man-legs emerging from the frayed edges of cut-offs, sweaty backs and doffed T-shirts swishing back and forth like tails as they hang from back pockets. That vision, which broadcasts roughly from May through October, is responsible for about a quarter of the births that occur from February through July. Finish up the tree lawn, baby, and take a quick shower, and then I'll show you some trim.
But that guy in the golf shirt atop a gleaming Cub Cadet that he can barely turn around on his postage-stamp lot in Parma Heights — he can forget about it. Go have another Dixie cup of Kool-Aid, Boy Wonder.
There are extremes. Guys who have 17 non-operational mowers in their garage always have shitty-looking lawns, maybe because none of their mowers work. I don't understand riding decks or sulky seats, but I do understand a geezer toiling behind an old-time manual cylinder mower. I have a lot of respect for that, or for any broad mowing her lawn with attitude.
Being the consummate "broad with attitude," when I mow, I mow. If it's in front of me, it gets mowed. Sticks, roots, tennis balls, mud; I don't care. I don't mow in rows either. I just sort of mow around, pushing the mower here and there, and skipping parts that I don't think need to be mowed.
"Why didn't you mow over there?" my husband would ask.
"Because I didn't want to mow over there!" I'd bark back defiantly, fist on hip. Not surprisingly, I was relieved of all mowing duties very early in our marriage.
The other day, I was returning home from a long punishing walk that not only failed to exorcize the demons in my mind, but also included having to pass any number of maddening riding-mower scenarios. I approached our humble domicile, wholly dissatisfied and scowling.
The familiar sound of the Toro was emanating from our lot, but it was not my sweat-sheathed dearly beloved manning the lawn mower. Instead, he had enlisted our darling 12-year-old daughter to do the chore for the first time. She was grimacing and bending forward with effort, clutching the handle and shoving forth into the stuff of her future.
I stopped, winked at Dad's ghost and laughed until tears squeezed from my eyes.
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