Free Reelin’

Not one to let grass grow under his feet, an alumnus from Ohio is devoted to a quaint tradition.

by David Termuhlen

Lawn Mower

Sputter ... chug ... rumble ... roar. As daylight breaks across the neighborhood, the cacophonous symphony fills the air. The weekend lawn jockeys mount their vehicles of choice and ride off to preserve conformity. Within the hour, their respective landscapes shaped, sheared and manicured, they will scan the shimmering emerald vista and bask in the glory of a job well done. But listen closely. Cup your ear. There it is, rising ever so subtly above the din, like the piccolo in the "Stars and Stripes Forever" ... .

Whir, whir, clip, clip, clip.

Recognize it? Listen again. Think hard. Somewhere, embedded in our collective cultural memory, we can all surely identify that distinctive echo of Americana, the unmistakable auditory anachronism, the telltale mechanical melody of a Scotts Classic 20-inch manually propelled reel mower.

Up and down the street, lawn-care trucks rumble by, hauling their vast assortment of power tools for cutting, edging, trimming and blowing the landscape into a state of artificially pristine grandeur. Atop military-grade vehicles more suited for a frontal assault than weekend gardening, the professionals race about, engaged in a convoluted cross between croquet and a monster truck rally. Undaunted by the chaos of unrestrained commercialism, I proudly wheel my cherished implement from its resting place, sweep off a few withered blades of grass, the last surviving remnants from last week's work, and liberally apply some WD-40 for lubrication. My entrance into the fray causes a few fleeting glances, several stares and one or two outright gawks.

It never fails to amaze me how such a simple yet elegant device can evoke such spirited conversation. Take last year at the neighborhood block party, for instance, as the crowd splintered into its inevitable subdivisions: young moms chasing after their rambunctious 3- and 4-year-olds; seniors relaxing in their frayed, slightly rusted but still serviceable lawn chairs; and over in the shade, gathered around the cooler, the revered patriarchs of the clan, the groundskeepers, the men.

I pulled up a chair, squeezing into this venerable circle, and nodded and chuckled in response to the endless stream of anecdotes about horsepower, fuel capacity, optimal blade clearance, transmissions and tuneups. Waiting for the appropriate lull, I raised my head slightly, noticed several heads turn my way, and blurted out (naively, I realized a moment too late), "I use a reel mower."

The ensuing silence was so profound, I distinctly recall hearing a glob of mustard slide along the entire length of bratwurst I held in my hand, drip off the bun and splatter onto the ground at my feet. Tony, the recognized chieftain of the tribe, leaned back in his chair, eyed me and turned and spat a watermelon seed over his shoulder. "Reel mower? You want a real mower? Get a John Deere, son."

Considering all the technological advances of the past century, why the attachment to a relic, a societal castoff better suited to gather dust in the attic alongside manual typewriters, telephones with cords and dials, and LPs?

Listen again ... whir, whir, clip, clip, clip ... close your eyes, breathe deeply and join in the mantra: whir, whir, clip, clip, clip. Turn back the clock. Taste the lemonade. Chase lightning bugs. Run full tilt into home base, kicking the can with all your might, shouting "Ollie, ollie, oxen free!" at the top of your lungs. Lazy summers past, lingering deep in the recesses of our minds, come to life once more, thanks to the simple repetitive hymn: whir, whir, clip, clip, clip. Granted, my earliest memories of cutting the grass, pitting my then-70-pound frame against the forces of nature, hardly qualified as a Kodak moment. In all fairness, though, how could a neophyte truly appreciate the complex aesthetics of manual labor? Like all fine arts, reel mowing requires dedication to refine it to the highest level.

Suddenly it hits me. Pausing in midstride, I gaze across the horizon. My counterparts, now finished, have moved on to the more mundane aspects of their lives. I stand alone. Whir, whir, clip, clip.

Was it Joni Mitchell? Or Bob Dylan? Maybe both. How did the song go, now? "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got till it's gone? They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

Whir, whir, clip. In our mad race for speed and efficiency, what do we gain, and what do we lose?

Whir, clip. Completing the final pass, sweat now cascading from my brow, my legs tingling with the slight increase in lactic acid, I gaze out over the lawn and pause. Is it all worth it? How many more years before I wear out? Then what? Someday, the time will come when it's just too much to push. I'll have to give in. Someday ... I'll buy a goat.

David Termuhlen (McC83), a former biomedical engineer, became a stay-at-home dad to spend more time with his three adopted children, learn the banjo, write screenplays, teach math part time and cut the grass in Kettering, Ohio.

Illustration by Jeff Foster

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