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Dumb Mowers

by Charles C. Cole

The summer after eighth grade, my parents decided I needed to “mature through responsibility,” so they put some distance between me and my nonconformist friends. They fixed me up as resident groundskeeper for this wealthy family from church. A poor performance meant military-themed high school in the fall.

When I wasn’t sulking in the basement apartment of the 31-room mansion, I was pruning bushes, weeding gardens or grooming the four sweltering hours’ worth of extensive lawns. Why did I struggle with a “push” mower, when Dr. Viji clearly had money for an upgrade?

One day as I considered quitting, I ran over a protruding weeping willow root. I killed the power, but too late. The worst of it: Dr. Viji was hosting the neighborhood garden party the next day, a once yearly blowout, and I was only one-third done.

I was wallowing in self-pity when I caught the mating call of my mechanical companion: the purr of another mower beyond the Langston-Kimballs’ pine fence. The Langston-Kimballs were relatively new to the neighborhood and eccentrically private. They had erected an eight-foot high fence, running straight back to the edge of the swamp.

Harry Langston-Kimball was an inventor who hit it big with a device that allowed automobile high beams to automatically dim when confronted with another set of headlights at a certain distance.

How would a mad inventor mow the lawn? With an air-conditioned golf cart maybe? I climbed the willow for a peek.

Though the rectangular property was bordered on one end by open swamp, “the lawn” was a circle, flat and even. In the center was a magnificent sundial, a platform maybe six feet in diameter with, done up in an Italian-style mosaic, the face of Thomas Edison. I kid you not.

But what caught my eye: their mower was the same make and model as ours, a fire-engine red, Sears’ Lawnboy 2000. Unmanned, the menial servant was leashed by a long rope which ran from a loose ring dropped over a rod at the center of the sundial to the handle of the mower. The effect was a slowly widening spiral. Little did the mower realize I would liberate it from the drudgery of routine labor.

Time was ticking. I rang the neighbor’s doorbell. No answer. Out back, the mower was maybe half through. I dashed onto the “putting green,” feeling for all the world like I was freeing a caged lab animal.

It was a simple affair: the leash was clipped to the loose ring which rotated freely around a short rod protruding from Edison’s nose. With the Lawnboy cutting at a plodding pace, I unclipped the tether with ease.

The commuter train zoomed by, startling me, and I dropped the line. I was that nervous. The mower continued uninterrupted, in a slow spiral, unaffected by the loss of the leash.

I was pleasantly surprised, watching the little go-getter go-get. From where I stood, the Lawnboy showed no signs of tampering, no extra controls. Surely, there was technological cleverness afoot.

I experimented. I raced ahead and teased, calling as if to a dog. “Here, boy! Come on!” I even lay across its path, daring it to stop, then scrambling when it didn’t. I nudged it off-course, and it nosed its way back. Finally, the little engine sputtered and died, out of gas.

Now was my chance. I gassed “him” up and wheeled my fainted companion to our side, aimed him in the right direction, and pulled the starting cord. He jumped to life with a boisterous purr, pausing a moment as he got his bearings, then advancing with blades whirring.

I cheered, until he started turning in a natural continuation of his familiar spiral pattern. I chased after him, vainly pleading for him to stop. I grabbed his handle and dragged him backward. I redirected him, guiding him in a straight line for thirty feet, then let go, testing him. Sure enough, he turned.

“I’m desperate. I’ll be in big trouble if I don’t finish the lawn. I need you to mow like a normal mower, in rows. You can do it.”

It worked, so long as my hands were guiding him, my boy did not resist. I risked disaster once when I took both hands away to swat a bee. Straight as an arrow he went, leaving me proud and satisfied.

When we finished, I took him home and put him where I’d found him, leash re-attached.

“Your masters don’t give you enough gasoline, leaving you unsupervised and without company. You’re doing all the hard work and doing it well. They’re lucky to have you. Thanks for your help. Sorry about your brother mower. I’ll watch out in future.”

The lawn party was a success. I wasn’t fired. My parents paid for the repairs. And, with new empathy, I paid closer attention while mowing.

There was one tragic side-effect. The next time the L-K’s utilized my boy’s services, somehow his tether frayed and broke, probably having been caught in the blades. The way I figured it, my boy decided to “mow like a normal mower, in rows.” He went right down the yard and right into the swamp.

I learned his fate only when I heard an unfamiliar motor over the fence. From my perch in the willow, I observed a “professional” in a blue jumpsuit, cruising along on a rider mower. The L-K’s had contracted professionals. I bumped into their cleaning lady at the train station. After some introductions, I asked about my boy.

“Ever see the backyard, perfectly round and flat? The Langston-Kimballs had one just like it in Kentucky. Mr. Langston-Kimball thinks machines like routines. Every time, the same thing. That’s how the lawn mower worked, not because it was smart, but from years of repetition. Then, it turns out, it wasn’t even that smart. Just one dumb mower.”

I considered debating the point, but what would have been the use? What did I know? To adults, I was just another dumb mower.

Copyright © 2014 by Charles C. Cole

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