Saturday, April 16, 2005

Mowerly Musings (Volume 1, Number 2)

A continuing series of short stories, notes, and sometimes disjointed mental snapshots, swirling ‘round my brain while in the process of my favorite outdoor labor, lawncare…

Acting like a grown-up
On Saturday evening we traveled to Chattanooga to visit my daughter Amy and take in her latest thespian effort, a one-act play that she wrote, as well as another in which she acted. It was all part of a quarterly event UTC’s Theater Department puts on that they call The Coffeehouse. It’s a sort of free-for-all evening showcase in which all of the students of the department can “get in the act” to display their talents in a more-or-less freeform circumstance. The Coffeehouse is all student-written and conceived, with as little direction from faculty as possible.

Amy made us proud with both her performance as well as her playwriting skills, which we had never really seen previous to this.

The whole show was a lot of fun. Afterwards we took her out to dinner at Chili’s and had a great conversation with our little girl…

Little…? Who the heck am I kidding?

I’m so proud of her. She is just short of having enough credits to officially be a senior, but her senior year of college will be three semesters long. She’ll be taking the Spring Semester of 2006 to participate in a foreign exchange program in the Czech Republic, then come back in the Fall and (hopefully) graduate in December ’06.

What does any of this have to do with me mowing my lawn? Nada. But it was on my mind Sunday while I was doing it, along with something else that happened along the way.

Sunday, April 10, 2005
It was a great day to be outdoors. The temperature: a near-perfect 86 degrees with no appreciable humidity; bright sunshine, a cloudless sky, and a lilting, cool breeze. Whenever we have that kind of day here in Middle Tennessee, I’ve always referred to it as “California weather,” because it so reminds me of the remarkably consistent, typical spring and summer temperatures I grew up with in SoCal. It’s honestly the only thing I really miss about living there.

The mental soundtrack: Old Habits Die Hard by Mick Jagger (with Cheryl Crow). This time there was no ironic correspondence between the song in my head and anything else I was doing, unless of course you count the fact that this wonderfully cathartic exercise of turf tweezing has become such a familiar a habit to me. Whatever the reason, that tune stayed with me all day long.

Of course, with the weather being so awesome, I gladly cashed in on one of the many inalienable rights I enjoy as a male of the species:

Goin’ topless.

Yeah baby, this was my lily-white pecs’ official coming-out party for the season. And while I may have momentarily blinded a few passersby, I do not believe that any auto accidents that might have occurred in my neighborhood could be attributable to my shameless sun-worshiping bod that day. And while I may be chenin blanc right now, I’ll be a glorious Bordeaux rosé by mid-summer. That’s my best-case scenario. Worst-case, I’m raspberry kool-aide doin’ the melanoma mambo.

I’m so jealous of people who actually tan.

• Call it a real lucky brake
One thing that’s almost as certain as death and taxes is, as soon as I get out in the yard and start working, one of my neighbors always seems to follow suit, and vice-versa. I’ve been aware of the phenomenon for quite awhile. I’m not sure whether it’s the pure inevitability of the need to get yardwork done at the only point in time in which everyone can do it — the weekend — or if the sound of one man’s lawnmower is some kind of clarion call to inner soul of other men that stirs them to action. I dunno; all I’m certain of is that I’m never alone when I’m mowing the yard. And last Sunday was no different.

It’s time for a little geography lesson, boys and girls. Here’s the layout of AJ’s cul-de-sac. If one is facing the end of the cul-de-sac (the rounded end, that is), from the perspective of a clock face, my house would be roughly located in the 9:00 position, with my direct neighbors, SM1 and SM2 located in the 8:00 and 10:00 positions, respectively. Our neighbors directly across the street from us, in the 3:00 position, are a really nice couple with two kids, an adolescent son and an elementary school-aged daughter.

As I began mowing in the front of my house, sure enough, within 15 minutes, out comes my neighbor, Reggie from across the street to start piddling in his yard as well. I wave and smile; he waves and smiles.

Reg is a great neighbor. Nice guy, good father; friendly and quiet. He’s a pretty shy fellow, but we’ve always gotten along well. As I caught a glance of him trimming the shrubs beneath the window of his daughter’s bedroom on the far right end of his house, a thought flashed across my brain that hadn’t dawned on me in a very long time.

I want to say it was eight or nine years ago, but it might have been ten. It was a weeknight in the summertime and Reg’s daughter was just a toddler if that. The house to the right of ours (at 10:00), now inhabited by SM2, was still owned by the couple who built it. There's was the first house built on our street; ours was the second.

That original couple, Steve and Kayla, were nice enough, but Steve was a little on the haughty side. I won’t go into all the reasons for my saying that, but let’s just say, he was a proud guy, and very well off financially for his age. He was smart with his money, and he didn’t mind telling you about it.

As you can guess, Steve was a pretty proud guy, and prided himself on doing all the right things — smart things with his money (he was a C.P.A.), and smart things with his house. He and Kayla were pretty young — early 20s, but yet he had the “right” way to do everything. He had the habit of asking your opinion about something and then later informing you, “well I decided to do it this way instead…” I’d just think, “Whatever…” and sort of chuckle to myself about his “humble hubris.”

He loved his job. He loved his pretty wife. He loved his home. And he especially loved his medium-duty Chevy truck. He washed and waxed that vehicle every weekend. Steve grew up in the country, and it seemed that shiny black truck was some kind of symbol of manhood for him I reckon.

I always assumed that it was because he didn’t have the room, but for whatever reason, Steve always left his truck parked in the driveway, while his wife’s Nissan sedan was always kept in the garage. He liked to back the truck up the driveway so that he could just drive it straight out into the street. But because his driveway was so steeply sloped (as is mine), he always placed blocks on the downhill side of his front tires to make extra sure the vehicle wouldn’t roll. He was real cautious that way, always wanting to make sure that he had everything under control.

Well one night, something went out of control; something that certainly wiped the smirk off of neighbor Steve’s face, and could have wiped out something a whole lot more important.

Let’s revisit our cul-de-sac geography lesson for a moment, shall we? Remember the relative positions of mine, Steve’s and Reggie’s houses — 9:00, 10:00 and 3:00 respectively? Well what I neglected to mention was that our entire end of the street is built on a fairly steep hill. On Steve’s and my side (the left side), the properties back up to a privately-owned five-acre wooded area, situated on an even steeper part of that same hill. So as you’re facing the cul-de-sac, the topography of the hill slopes from uphill on the left side to downhill on the right, diagonally. When the developers cut in the street, they leveled it slightly at the top of the cul-de-sac, but not completely. And the properties on the uphill side were built up even more as the lay of the land dictated. So long story short, if you were to drop a basketball on Steve’s driveway, it would roll straight downhill onto Reggie’s front yard.

Well on that memorable summer night, Michelle, the kids and I were all in the living room watching TV, when we heard a huge crash, as though a tree had toppled onto a house. I rushed outside in time to glance to my left and spy Steve sprinting across the street toward Reggie’s house; his wife Kayla was standing in her driveway, stiff-bodied, with her hands against the sides of her face in horror. I then turned my attention back to Steve, now standing in front of Reggie’s garage, his arms limp at his side, as if he can’t believe what is there before his eyes — a pile of displaced brick, splintered wood and crumpled drywall where Reggie’s single-car garage door used to stand. The tailgate of Steve’s truck protruded from the point of impact.

Apprarently Steve had neglected or forgotten to place those blocks down that night, and the parking break had failed. The truck rolled headfirst from his driveway (from about a 15 degree incline), all the way across the street before impaling Reggie’s garage door and taking out half of the dividing wall which separated the garage from the house in the process. The crossbeam above the garage door was now nearly snapped in half and sagging, so the structural integrity of the entire face of the garage was in serious question.

As nearly everyone within earshot of the crash spilled out of their houses to see what the commotion was, confusion reigned in our quiet little cul-de sac. Reggie and his family were obviously the first ones out on the scene, followed shortly thereafter by everyone else. The buzzing of the neighbors milling about was hushed and serious, but once everyone was assured that no human casualties were a result of the mishap, the mood lightened considerably, and people began to recognize just how much fate had smiled on the circumstance as it turned out.

You see, fortunately for Steve, and most fortunately for Reggie’s toddler-aged daughter, the truck didn’t roll straight from its point of origin. With the angle at which Steve’s truck was parked on the driveway, had it rolled unimpeded, it would have made a beeline straight for the far right end of Reggie’s house, directly into the bedroom in which their little girl, Kelsey was sleeping at the time. Given the damage done to the garage door and retaining wall, which were the ultimate point of impact, it’s a safe bet that Kelsey would have been severely injured or even worse.

As fortune would have it however, the truck apparently hit the curb just to the right of the driveway, taking out the mailbox and also kicking its trajectory to the left, towards the garage side of the house instead.

A lucky brake indeed.

It seemed like months before the damage to Reggie’s house was completely repaired. I’m sure it was painful for neighbor Steve, each time he stepped out his front door, to look out across the street and be reminded of how close had been his brush with disaster. Not so coincidentally, after that harrowing night Steve seemed to be a lot better neighbor; a little more humble; a lot less condescending. I guess that sometimes things need to go a little crooked in order in order for one to be scared straight.

• And speaking of goin’ straight…
Later on, I was trying to figure out why exactly I thought about that story in the first place, other than just seeing Reggie out in his yard, which I’ve obviously done on many occasions since the last time Steve’s crash had crossed my mind.

I decided it must have been my guilty conscience. Remember that thing I mentioned in the beginning that had happened the previous day when we went to see my daughter’s play? Oh no, I didn’t have an accident, but I did get a speeding ticket on the way to Chattanooga. We were running late and this time I was the one who thought I was above it all. The speed limit went down to 55 in a high mountain pass area. I flew right past a State Trooper and got nailed for it. So maybe in my remembering neighbor Steve, someone was trying to tell me something in the process as well…

And I sort of doubt that was just my imagination.

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