Below is a story written by my childhood friend Mike. He wrote it a few years ago and it is one of the best examples of nostalgia short story form that I’ve ever read. Not only because I’m involved, either. I later did a revised version, but this one is the simplest and most direct.
It was the summer of 1981. Reagan was in the White House, Styx was on the radio, and I was about to enter junior high school, about to cross that bridge from elementary school just like the Billy Goats Gruff. The promises of junior high school, with its class changes, personal lockers, real sports teams, and cheerleaders, beckoned like the green grass of the far meadow. The threats of junior high trolls- adolescence, puberty, and ninth graders- were nowhere in sight yet, especially on that hot August day. What was in sight was a financial quandary. I needed twenty dollars to rent a trumpet to participate in band, which was another cool thing about junior high school. A kid could be in a real band with a real instrument making real music, and I’m not talking about one of those plastic flutophone-recorder gadgets from grade school, either. Real instruments.
The only problem, however, was that my mother did not have twenty dollars. I know, because I pestered her until I was sure that she was not withholding the money to keep her house noise-free. She remembered quite well the flutophone days. I had no other prospects lined up, and I certainly didn’t have that sort of cash stashed away anywhere. Things looked bleak to be sure. Then, like a messenger from Heaven above, my dear friend, Bobby, came to my door to announce that my problems were solved. Bobby was a couple of years older and already in band. Bobby did not need the money for instrument rental, however, because he played the French horn. The French horn is a school-owned instrument, with no rental fee required. He told me that we had been offered a job that would pay us each twenty dollars, exactly. All we had to do was mow five acres with a high-wheeled Yazoo mower. Five acres, a push mower, and twenty bucks apiece, I thought. What could go wrong?
Five acres, you say? I exaggerate not. These five acres were on the side of hill, too. I mean really on the side of a hill. I am not telling some “when I was in school we walked to and from in the snow uphill both ways with old men throwing rocks at us” story, either. And if you aren’t familiar with the Yazoo push mower, suffice to say it is probably the heaviest push mower made. Mowing with a Yazoo is like pushing a Chevette. But with visions of financial gain and future trumpet glory, Bobby and I accepted the job.
On the first day of mowing, we arrived at the homestead and got to work right away. Five acres does not mow itself. All day long we mowed, one pushing the Yazoo while the other rested, switching when the first got tired. We mowed. We mowed forever. It was the longest day of mowing that I have ever known. As heavy as the Yazoo was, it seemed to gain weight as it ate each strip of grass. Each strip was hopelessly thin however, and progress was slow. If only the cutting width of the mower matched the length of the machine, then we could have finished in a third of the time. It became dreadfully obvious that the Yazoo, while a fine mower, was not the best choice to push mow five acres with.
Finally, the day was coming to a close as the sun started to lower in the west. We had only succeeded in mowing about half of the five acres. Weary from the day of labor and daunted by another day of the same, we decided to take a break. I couldn’t help think that the builders of the pyramid had it easier than we did. I was willing to bet that the rocks they moved were lighter than the Yazoo we were pushing. We stood exhausted near the top of a steep slope that was near the north end of the property, overlooking a small creek that bordered the estate. We rested comfortably after a hard day’s work, but little did we know that a near-death experience was waiting for me at the bottom of that hill.
I have tried in retrospect to determine just how the discussion between Bobby and me came about, but I can’t remember how or who or when the question of debate arose. I only know that a theory was proposed, either by Bobby or me, that a person could ride on top of the Yazoo mower down the hill, jump off of said Yazoo, and stop the Yazoo from plummeting into the creek below. A part of me believes that I was duped into defending the belief that it could be done. Whether that is true or not can only be answered by Bobby, but he either does not remember or does not want to disclose such a thing. After a time of spirited debate, it became apparent that a real life test was needed to settle the argument and determine a victor in the dispute. As I was the advocate that the feat could be accomplished, I was the obvious candidate for test pilot.
I climbed atop the Yazoo and sat upon the motor. The sweat forming on my brow was not from the heat of the August day. I was internally trying to find a way to bow out of the experiment. Bobby, sensing my second thoughts, quickly challenged me with words that no self-respecting twelve year-old can back down from. My fate was quickly sealed as I gave a gentle push with one foot to get the Yazoo going. As the red mower quickly picked up speed and rocketed down the hill, I learned three things: No other mower would “handle” as well as the Yazoo with the high wheels in the rear, no man in history has ever traveled as fast on a Yazoo push mower as I was, and NO MAN, EVER, could ride the mower to the bottom of the hill, jump off, and keep the Yazoo from flying into the creek.
The mind is capable of great thought in time of approaching peril. I realized quite quickly that I had left out an important factor in my earlier argument. The Yazoo was not mine. And though I knew that I could not stop the Yazoo, I knew I must try. I had a terrifying glimpse of my future in which I would have to mow these same soul-eating acres for the rest of my life to pay for Yazoo. The bottom of the hill rushed at me, precious seconds lost. At the bottom of the hill, I jumped off of the mower, and grabbed for the handle. With speed and grace and skill that I have yet to match in my lifetime, I was able to successfully dismount the machine and grab the handle. Instant joy turned to instant horror as the Yazoo jerked my 115-pound body horizontal to the ground. A bystander viewing the scene at that split second might have marveled at the sight of a flying Yazoo push mower and the airborne young boy trailing quickly after it. Thankfully, I was unable to hold on to the mower, which flew over the six-foot drop into the creek below.
I turned to look at the top of the hill. My former friend was gasping for breath in a silent scream of laughter. I had to make a choice: Return to the top of the hill and beat him to death or save the Yazoo from a watery grave. I decided to kill Bobby later as I slipped down into the creek below. Luckily, the water was only a couple of feet deep. I tried in vain to push the mower up the steep face of the drop-off, but 115-pound boys cannot push Yazoo mowers straight up a cliff of six feet. Bobby had since made his way to the bottom of the hill. The tears streaming down his face were not in sympathy for me, and every time he regained any semblance of composure, a mental replay of the event would start the laughing fit once again. I turned the Yazoo down-stream and waded the mower to a low bank where I was able to get the mower back on the ground it was meant to mow.
The Yazoo would not start. “My God in Heaven,” I thought. “I will have to mow this stupid five acres for the rest of my life: My own personal Purgatory to pay for a push mower.” I quietly pushed the Yazoo up on the porch of the residence. Luckily, the owner was not home, and my mother picked us up minutes later. My wet clothes were explained by a voluntary swim in the creek to cool off from a long day of work. She seemed to buy the story. The story I would have to sell the next day would not be bought as quickly. I had already planned to play dumb as to the reason the Yazoo suddenly didn’t work. “Worked fine yesterday,” I would say, with a stupid twelve year-old look on my face. Bobby, who shared half of the guilt, agreed to stick with the same story. The Yazoo had just died in its sleep, or so we wanted the owner to believe. We thought it might work, as there was not visible damage from the ride. The story was our only chance.
I did not fall asleep easily that night. I practiced my lines until finally the exhaustion caught up with me, and I slept. The ride to the estate the next day was like a slow walk to the principal’s office. The homeowner had already left for the day, so all of my rehearsing would have to wait. Just to go through the motions, we pulled the cord of the mower. In true Yazoo fashion, it started right up and mowing continued, with a joyous and thankful heart I might add. I learned later that a wet spark plug had been to blame. An eternity later, the five acres was finished and twenty dollars each was paid. No mention of the Yazoo land speed record was said to the owner of the land and the mower. Nor was this tale told for many years after. God had saved me from death and debt, just like He usually does. I also learned many other things from the experience, including the toughness of a Yazoo, the importance of thinking things through, and the beauty of the French horn. It’s a school-owned instrument you know.