Cutting Grass

Author’s Note: Please excuse and indulge this divergence from the topic at hand, although it is in fact tool related. I wrote this essay about 12 years ago and came across it tonight. Given the time of year, I thought it timely. It brings back some fond memories of my own boys, and also reminds me of a certain nephew of mine who loves to cut grass…

I’ve been cutting grass for as long as I can remember.  I guess I must have been about 8 years old when my dad finally consented to let me drive the “riding mower.”  It was a red Toro with white trim, not large or powerful, but to an 8 year old boy it might just as well have been a mammoth John Deere tractor.  By this age, I had some minor experience with the push mower, a white Briggs and Stratton motor with a hole in the muffler, bolted to the top of a nondescript gray chassis.  No bag attachment or height adjustment or self-propelled feature in those days.  It had a large semi-circular hole in the upper left side of the mower deck, the product of a violent altercation with large tree root in my grandmother’s yard, which my mother failed to address with the proper respect.  You see, everyone cut grass periodically at my house.

We always seemed to have a varied assortment of push mowers from which to choose.  This was most likely due to the genetic flaw in my father’s side of the family that makes all of us physically incapable of getting rid of anything regardless of its age, condition, value, or provenance.  It was not until my grandmother died in 1998 that we cleaned my grandfather’s clothes out of the closet in the upstairs bedroom of her house.  The pockets of his coat still held the cigarettes and buffalo nickel he carried the last time he wore it.  He died in 1935.

Oh yes, we had lawn mowers.  One had a rotary crank on top that required turning to start.  It didn’t run at all as far as I know.  However, that did not diminish its value as a “backup mower.”  We also had a non-motorized rotary blade mower that I used briefly… once.  We even had a mower with no motor, just the mower deck.  Actually, that one was mine.  I found it in a trash dump in the woods behind Stephen Smith’s house and immediately recognizing its potential value as an object of random retention, faithfully dragged it home.

Cutting grass, at least to me, was always a cathartic experience, a means of purging the day to day evils of childhood.  It was never a chore.  An interruption, perhaps, of other things I’d have rather been doing, but never a chore.  Climbing up on that riding mower, the world took a back seat.  I felt like a farmer preparing to plow a field, and I’d ride off to the edge of the yard to begin tilling my rows.  I patterned my swaths just as I’d seen the big tractors do.  One or two rows across the ends of the yard, and then perpendicular rows up and down the length.

Cutting grass was not a task I took lightly or rushed to complete.  I practiced making the endless cuts as straight as possible across the longest part of the yard.  This was accomplished by fixing my eyes on a distant point of reference and walking or driving straight toward it without looking at anything in between.  Singular focus was essential and distraction a sign of fatal weakness.  A straight cut was the epitome of grass cutting perfection and I was relentless in this pursuit.  It is something that I unconsciously do even today.  I would hone my skills by deliberately cutting curves and arcs, and then straightening them again on the next pass.  Missing a clump here or a tuft there was unthinkable and inexcusable.

I learned that, whether riding or pushing, it was best to overshoot the end of the row prior to making my turn.  Curved corners were sloppy and left an uneven cut.  I also learned that cutting the grass in the same direction every week produced what I privately called a “grain” to the yard that was most unattractive.  Alternating directions each week produced better results, and changing the direction by 45 degrees on a weekly basis was preferable above all else.  I found that when the grass was too tall, I could get fine results without raking by cutting at twice the normal height, and then crosscutting the yard again at 90 degrees, this time at the normal height.  This resulted in a mulched effect long before anyone thought to market mulching as a feature.

In later years, and not too long before he died, my father purchased a “lawn tractor.”  It was a very large (by comparison) red Wheel Horse with an 18hp Kohler engine and a 52″ cut.  It was delivered on the back of a large flatbed truck with ramps that extended down the back.  I must have been 15 or 16 at the time and was in heaven.  I cut every damned thing in site for all of 2 or 3 weeks.  I even cleaned and cut the ditch on the (country) road between our house and my grandmother’s lane.  Beyond the other side of the yard I cut a nice slice of ditch 30 or so feet down the road that gradually curved away from the cornfield to the road itself.

Now I need to jump in here and make clear that our yard otherwise was not what you might call manicured.  I’d never seen a bag of fertilizer.  In fact, at the time, I was quite perplexed as to why anyone would encourage grass to grow in such a manner.  After all, I spent much of my time reducing it to a respectable height.  No, the weeds in our yard were healthy and robust and I don’t recall questioning their existence any more than I did the grass itself.  My sole artistry was in the cutting, not the growing.

On my 16th birthday, I came home from the DMV with my license, and with determination forthwith headed straight to my first job – cutting grass.  It was the “estate” (as I liked to call it) of Dr. and Mrs. Norman Rock Tingle.  Dr. Tingle was my doctor.  Hell, he was everyone’s doctor in the upper end of Lancaster County, Virginia.  I’m recollecting that it must have been about 10 or 15 acres – 10 to 15 acres of viridescent wonderland, fronting the Rappahannock River about 10 miles or so before it emptied into the Chesapeake Bay.  Bordering the property along the gravel road leading up to their drive was a long hedge of huge wiry bushes that far exceeded my height.  The paved driveway itself wound through towering pines and expanses of slightly rolling grassland that closely resembled a golf course.  From many areas of the property the house was not even visible.  Standing at the back porch overlooking the river, the yard sloped gently down to the water’s edge, transitioning from earth and fescue to sand and sea grass that bordered the shallow but respectable beach.  Extending out into the mile wide river was a dock (pier), whereupon in cooler weather I would have my lunch.

Situated across the parking area that faced the garage doors of the house was the shed that housed the yard tools and mowers.  I knew my employers well, if only in a doctor/patient way, but that combined with the innocence of youth precluded any feelings of nervous uncertainty at starting my first job.  Besides, the challenge that lay before me was quite clear and I was in my element.  The yard was, in my opinion, in a terrible state of mismanagement.  My predecessor, a school acquaintance one or two years my senior, obviously had neither the respect nor eye for lawn detail that I had.  The yard was suffering from “graining,” the result of constant mowing in one direction.  Worse, the grass around the trees and bushes was not properly trimmed, the edges and boundaries of the yard left haphazardly hacked at or conspicuously ignored altogether.  My counterpart “worked with me” for a couple of weeks to “show me the ropes.”  He gave me his version of what the expectations were and how much and how little I needed to do.  It was all completely irrelevant and I found his lazy discourse annoying and lack of pride offensive.  My mission was clear before I ever set foot on the property.

Within a month I had the yard much improved and was rewarded with sincere kudos and compliments that the place had “never looked so good…”  Though I didn’t say so at the time, I was a little puzzled by this recognition.  It never occurred to me that anyone (who cared) should not cut grass the same way.  I simply did it the only way I knew how, with attention to every detail, with respect for the magnificence of the property, and with passionate pride in perfection.  Partly for my effort, but mostly because the Tingles were nice people, I was rewarded with an open invitation to partake of the soft drinks kept in the bar refrigerator, just inside the lower level of the house.  This was a privilege I enjoyed with some constraint and considerable appreciation.

The cutting of grass facilitates a distinct perspective of the world.  The very nature of the task isolates the individual and deprives everything auditory; the abrasive drone of the engine allowing only the voice of thought.  Yet, while so isolated from the distractions of sound, the operator is paradoxically interconnected to the open expanse of all outdoors.  The permeating smell of cut grass and dust, the stifling heat of midday summer sunshine, the tactile vibrations of a mechanical beast rolling over undulating earth overwhelm the senses and lull the driver into trancelike euphoria, facilitating a spectacular playground for the hungry imagination.

The sheer size of the property necessitated long leisurely hours spent atop the big Cub Cadet, time that afforded the sweet luxury of colorful daydreams and inexhaustible adolescent introspection.  I concocted endless fantasy dates and detailed romantic relationships with the girls I knew.  Relationships ultimately destined to remain confined deep within the fragile chambers of my imagination, bound by the demons of insecurity and low self-esteem, and closely guarded by teenage male ego.

I had a particular romantic interest those days in a young lady who quite by chance, lived within bike riding distance of the doctor’s estate.  She knew that I worked there and I made a point of mentioning the days and times I’d be around in hopes that she might wander by, perhaps on her bicycle and perhaps wearing “Daisy Dukes” and a bikini top.  She gave all appearances of being superbly, magically and magnificently mammiferous, and of this I was enamored.

She was an odd sort of girl, a loner, very shy in a group and not at all popular.  She was not beautiful in the cheerleader sense, but pretty enough in my 16-year-old opinion.  She had amazing deep auburn hair, sparkling blue eyes, and the skin on her freckled face was the softest thing I’d ever felt.  There was something about her that I found irresistibly charming.  One on one, she was delightful – funny and chatty, yet always mysterious.  I still remember her laugh.  I liked that she was not popular.  Being with her felt… less competitive, more comfortable.  She was surprisingly easy to talk to, and with her I could just be myself without the high school machismo.  I probably could have fallen in love with her.  There was just something about her…

Of course she never came by while I was working, and despite my mostly honorable and completely sincere feelings of affection for her, we drifted apart after 6 or 8 months of periodic dates.  For whatever reason, Joan was not interested in me, would never even let me kiss her on the lips – only her cheek.  My heart could only take so much rejection.  There were other yards to cut, other bushes to trim.  I mowed on.

I guess I cut the grass on that estate for four, maybe five years before college got in the way, even during the summer break.  I didn’t know it at the time, but it would be some years before I would again cut grass.  Being young and distracted by new adventures of life on my own as a college student, I never looked back at the life I was leaving.  I suppose that is normal.  Still, I cannot remember the last time I cut the doctor’s yard.  There was a last time.  There would have to have been.  I just can’t remember it.  I had already moved on and I missed it, even as I put the mower away for the last time.

Last Sunday, I got my mower out of the garage.  A black Briggs and Stratton motor bolted to a nondescript gray chassis.  No bag attachment or self-propelled feature.  My 11 year old followed at my heels and asked when he would be allowed to cut our grass.  I cut around the outside boundary of the yard for him, and then showed him how to cut straight lines in neat rows up and down the length.  “Go past the end of the row prior to making your turn.  Curved corners are sloppy and leave an uneven cut…”




About Bryant
Bryant is a business management and organizational development executive with over 20 years’ experience focused on financial and operational efficiencies, talent development and optimization, improved employee engagement, and cultural alignment of teams within the organization. He has diverse experience in successful financial and strategic planning, brand management, leadership analysis and talent development, as well as designing and executing improvements to teams’ cultural efficacy and organizational alignment. Bryant has experience in both International Public S&P 500 Corporate and Non-Profit Sectors, and also runs his own entrepreneurial business venture, a consulting company specializing in helping small businesses and organizations improve operational efficiency, leadership development, and employee engagement . Bryant holds a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) and a Bachelors in Fine Arts (BFA).

2 Responses to Cutting Grass

  1. odgreen says:

    Ok Bryant, you got me. I found you because I am cleaning and tuning some old planes I acquired at auction. I read one post, then another, then another and now I’m here. My wife and I started cutting grass 20 yrs. ago at a time when we hoped desperately we could make a go of it. Now all of our home schooled children are a part of the family business and with all that help, I have been able to spend more time working with wood! Your description of how to properly cut grass sounds almost exactly like the mantra I have instilled in all 7 of our children! I have added you to my daily read, thanks so much for your knowledgeable instruction in old tools.

    Liked by 1 person

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