Friday, May 23, 2014

Sunbeam Summer

This a short story, in the sense that it is relatively short and one might call it a story. One might also call it a memoir, as most non-fiction seems to be these days, but it probably falls short of the French root of that word. It is appallingly lacking in romance.

We wonder what part of our bodies will go first as age looms. Will it be a fatal failure, such as a heart that simply quits, or merely an irritation like that persistent map of liver spots growing ever closer to each other as they change the hue of our arms? Since I told you there is no romance in this tale, your mind might go there. You know, there.

For me, the first failure of age started when I was 13. There is a lot we don’t know at 13, and this precursor was one of those things.

I might digress—hell, this is my memoir, I will digress. The male members of my family seem to have a penchant for losing digits. They are not merely misplaced, but removed by force. I have several cousins in the ranching side of my family who can count backwards on their hand and tell you the number of times they failed to move quickly enough when wrapping a rope around a saddle horn before that horn took the weight of an 800 pound steer.

My immediate family, of which I often claim to be a member, was more likely to opt for mechanical dismemberment. My older brother played one day next to the well pump, an electric motor with an open pulley and belt system. Mom caught him kicking at the whirring mechanism with his foot and warned him strongly not to do that anymore if he didn’t want to lose a toe. At the same time he heeded her warning, he decided to test it. With his finger. It turned out Mom was right. Kent has since made the I-was-just-stirring-my-coffee-with-my-finger-and-look-what-happened joke a part of his regular routine.

My father—we called him Pop—was a cowboy, so might have been expected to de-digit in that time honored way mentioned earlier. He was a careful cowboy, though. Not so much when it came to mowing the lawn. The sidewalk between two sections of lawn was raised up about three inches above the grassy surface. There were probably a dozen ways to move the lawnmower across the sidewalk that did not involve picking it up while it was running, but none of them occurred to him at that moment. Somehow in lifting it, Pop turned the mower upside down. As he turned it back over it occurred to him how foolish it was and that it he could have lost a finger. When he looked down to count them, he found them all there, but one of his favorite thumbs was missing. More accurately, the first joint of his right thumb was now being carried off by ants. Or something. We never found it.

By the way, Pop traded the rotary in on a self-propelled reel mower about the time he got the stitches out.

My oldest brother, Kim, has so far avoided the family curse, though he was once hit by lightning in about the same spot where Pop lost his thumb. Don’t call him an underachiever.

Which brings the story, inevitably, around to me. When I was 13 lawn mowing technology had advanced considerably. I was now the chief operator of a snazzy little blue mower made by the optimistically named Sunbeam Corporation. The powder blue machine was probably 20 inches across and sounded more like a vacuum cleaner than an appliance for cutting grass. It was electric. I received an ample ration of ribbing from my best friend about operating such a wimpy little mower. I remember turning it over while he was there one day to clean out the build-up of caked grass beneath the deck, revealing  the two tiny sets of blades beneath. They were pitted and dulled from hitting rocks. This inspired Monty to ridicule the little machine, and by extension me, for its petite little choppers. He speculated that one could just reach in and stop the blades with one’s hand, if one had donned a heavy set of leather gloves. I disagreed. If he had taken the opposite tact, claiming the blades would tear off one’s fingers without even slowing down, I would have disagreed with that. Our relationship was, and still is, based on arguing. We never agreed about anything. I would probably have challenged him on the spot if we’d had a pair of heavy leather gloves handy. We did not. Which is why people still call him Monty instead of Lefty.

In a way, my looming misfortune was Monty’s fortune, because it happened shortly after the development of his reach-in-and-stop-the-blades hypothesis. He was still searching for appropriate gloves.

When mowing with an electric mower of that vintage, one mowed a little differently than with a gas powered mower. Rather than going round and round until the last plot of grass in the middle of the lawn was shorn, you went back and forth. You started up close the house, mowed straight ahead until you came to the end of the lawn and, with a practiced flip of the handle release, you pulled the handle over the mower to push the machine back the other direction. This complicated ballet was necessary so you didn’t mow across the cord which grew out of the end of the handle. It worked well, reducing the number of times you ran across the cord to maybe three or four a season.

As with all things rote one tends to pay less and less attention to the mechanics of the movement. In my case I was probably singing “Help Me Rhonda” enthusiastically inside my skull while pushing and flipping and pushing the mower. Which is why I didn’t notice the cinderblock.

We had moved into town from the ranch that summer after Pop died. The little house where Mom and I lived was perched on a two-foot hill. That is, the lawn was built up all around it and sloped down to our neighbor’s lawn on one side. I had an ongoing disagreement with the neighbor kid about where the property line was. He insisted that it was at the top of the hill because the previous owners had planted some bushes at the top of the hill, clearly—to him—indicating the property line. I was of the opinion that the bottom of the little hill was the property line, reasoning that if it were otherwise we would have a little cliff between the houses, not a little hill. It mattered not at all except when it came to mowing the grass. A smarter kid might have just acquiesced to the dim-witted neighbor kid and let him mow the grass on the side of the hill. I chose to claim the property by attacking that strip of grass every week.

I’m pretty sure the cinderblock wasn’t a trap set by the amateur surveyor next door, but I can’t say what its reason for being there on the neighbor’s lawn was.

Given the nature of electric lawn mowing I would push the mower down the little hill, flip the handle, jigger the mower to the right, and push it back up the hill. Much of this little dance would actually take place on the neighbor’s lawn. That is, my feet would be on the lawn though the mower never crossed that magic line to “their” grass.

I was mowing along expertly, imploring Rhonda to get her out of my heart, when I made that handle flip/dance step and encountered the cinderblock. I started to stumble over it backwards. To catch myself I pulled back on the mower handle, which brought the deck of the little grass whacker up over my foot.

I don’t remember if I actually fell down. I do remember calmly turning the mower off by the little red switch on the handle. I walked calmly to the side door, avoiding the nearer front door because I didn’t want to get blood on the carpet. I was inadvertently trying a new fashion, the open-toed cowboy boot. With geyser.

Mom rushed me to the hospital, which was about 10 miles away. I remember making a comment about a passing car from the back seat where I rested with my foot in the air wrapped in dish towels. For some reason it made Mom feel better that I could identify the make, model and year of the car, even as the dish towels were soaking red.

Emergencies weren’t as popular back then, so that didn't have an actual room devoted to them. We just went in the front door of the hospital. Some lingering toe flesh was inexpertly cut away and the whole thing was wrapped in a cartoon bandage, which I would wear for the remainder of the summer.

Technically, I did not quite follow the family tradition, because I did not lose a digit. I lost a nail and associated structural support of same. Eventually the nail grew back and you would be hard pressed to find any evidence of the old injury today.

You would be hard-pressed. I would not. As you’ll recall, if you haven’t drifted off somewhere between here and the beginning of the story, this is about finding out which part fails first as one ages. That’s my part. I frequently get an echo of that summer of the Sunbeam as it shoots up from my toe in the form of persistent arthritis. It doesn’t always hurt, but I am excruciatingly aware of it when it does.

When that old ache is jabbing at me I think back to those days and can’t help wondering if Monty has found that glove, yet.

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