As winter turned to spring, thousands of boys became men. It happens on sunny Saturday mornings when fathers wake up their sons to teach them an important part of being a man. The lesson extends beyond how to fill up the gas tank, check the oil level, and how to prime the engine. Its a lesson of pride and responsibility, of a hard day’s work, of representing the family. The first time that 11-year-old pulls the cord to start the engine, the father has extended a right of passage into manhood.
The first time I ever attempted to mow the lawn, I was 7 years old. My dad, presumably as a joke, asked me if I wanted to drive our riding mower. It took about 15 feet before I steered into the chain link fence. 1 It was four years before my dad asked me if I was ready to cut the grass again. Before we even pulled the mower out of the garage my dad was already giving me lessons.
Being a civil engineer, my dad is very detailed-oriented so that morning he sat me down at the kitchen table to go over some important things. He had a piece of paper and my art supplies on the table. He drew two rectangles and handed me a marker. “I want you to color in this box,” he said. I uncapped the marker and started scribbling back and forth until the box was totally full. He took the marker from me and said, “There is a much faster way to color it in instead of going up and down with each stroke.”
With the marker now in his hand, he filled in the box with two long strokes across the entire length of the box. He then drew another rectangle, handed me the marker, and told me to do the same thing. I did just like him and took two long strokes, but mine was left with an uncolored white line separating the two colored strokes. “You see how ours are different? When drawing lines, or cutting the grass, you need to make sure that you overlap so there is nothing left in the middle. On the paper, its a white line, in the yard you’re going to give the grass a mohawk,” he said.
Once we got the mower out of the garage, my dad went over with me the ins and outs of everything. By now he had moved on to a more appropriate self-propelled push mower. He instructed me to start it up and take a couple of laps on the driveway experimenting with the regular and self-propelled features before I took to the grass. After about three times up and down the driveway, I cut off the mower and talked to my dad, telling him how I could really feel the difference between the settings. “Well, if you’re ready why don’t you start on along the road. I’ll watch you to make sure you don’t miss a spot and then I gotta take care of some stuff. After you finish that, head up front and then finish in the back. You’re going to run out of gas around the middle of the front yard, stop in and get something to drink and we’ll fill it back up.” As I ran it over my first blades of grass I started to feel nervous, not because my dad was watching me, but because I didn’t want to let him down. It was baseball–I didn’t care about getting out, I just cared about letting my teammates down.
It took me 10 minutes to finish the stretch of grass along the road. I took the mower back up to the driveway where my dad was and we walked the freshly cut grass. He pointed out a couple of spots I had mohawked. He asked, “How do your hands feel?” I told him they were still shaking. He laughed and told me that feeling lasts for about 30 minutes after you finish up. He then told me to go back over the spots I missed and then he’d see me when I ran out of gas.
Once I was on my own I focused on making sure I overlapped and didn’t leave anymore mohawks, but before long I felt confident and my mind started to wander. At first I started thinking about what I would do with the $20 my dad had promised me, but before long I was thinking about girls and baseball. When the mower ran out of gas, I went to the basement, grabbed the gas can, filled it up myself, and went back to cutting. I made my way to the backyard and as I was finishing up, my dad came out to watch me. Beer in hand, he took a seat on the deck and gave me a thumbs up. I had finished my first time and my dad was proud of me.
As spring faded into the summer heat of Atlanta, I began to hate cutting the grass. My dad would always tell me to wake up early to beat the heat, but I was home by myself in the summers and getting out of bed before 11 a.m. was pointless. The early afternoon was spent riding bikes or playing baseball, so I wouldn’t get around to cutting the grass until late in the afternoon when my parents would be coming home. I never understood why my dad cared so much when I cut the grass until much later when I realized the pride he felt returning home from work to see that his son had upheld the Moskal family tradition of having one of the sharpest looking yards in the neighborhood.
Most teenage boys use grass-cutting as their first source of income, relying on elderly families down the street, spinster ladies across the street. It’s a great introduction to book keeping and budgeting when you tried to figure out how many lawns and how long it would take to have enough money for a new CD changer. It’s also the easiest way to job over Uncle Sam on taxes.
It has to be a special moment for a father to pass down the reins to your son. Having a clean, well-manicured lawn is something that every man takes pride in and being able to trust your son to maintain that sense of family pride is a momentous occasion. No self-respecting man should ever outsource his grass cutting duties to a lawn care company. Will it to your son, or if you have daughters, allow the kid down the street to turn a buck. 2
Just yesterday, at the age of 27, I cut my parents’ grass. And just like when I was 11 years old, I found it a great way to daydream. My favorite escape when cutting the grass used to be imagining I was a guest on Conan O’Brien or being a superstar baseball player. Yesterday I was thinking about the day when I’m a regular guest on Atlanta sports talk radio, what I would do if I won the lottery, and, as always, thinking about that special girl. I imagine as long as I live in Atlanta I’ll always go over to my parents’ house to cut their grass even though I stopped getting paid a long time ago. Fifteen years from now I’ll be driving my son over to their house so he can cut the grass while I watch some USA original programming with my old man. 3