The average American spends 70 hours per year, the equivalent of nearly two full work weeks, on lawn and garden care. For some, lawn care is an onerous task, grudgingly accomplished, and for others, it is a source of personal pride and accomplishment. Over the past four decades, author John B. Marek has variously and intermittently fallen into both camps. In Ben and the Art of Lawnmower Maintenance, he weaves humorous personal anecdotes with fascinating historical facts and recounts his father's homespun wisdom alongside insight gained from his own suburban homesteading experiences.
The Wiry One
One cool spring day, it must have been '68 or '69, Dad loaded his shovel into the trunk of our Biscayne sedan and invited me to join him in the front seat. We rode off down Bayshore Road, past the U.S. Gypsum plant, and turned right onto a narrow, paved road that by all appearances led nowhere. A few hundred feet beyond the turn, Dad stopped the car, got out and looked around like he was trying to get his bearings. After a minute or two he walked around to the trunk, retrieved his shovel and motioned for me to join him as he strode off purposefully into the still-winter-brown weeds.
After a bit, we passed a line of concrete blocks set flush with the ground and nearly covered over by dormant grass. Dad stopped, looked back toward the car, hefted the shovel and began digging a hole. A few minutes later he moved a couple of steps to his right and began digging again. He repeated this sequence several times with no satisfaction. In my mind, he was digging for buried treasure, and in his mind I suppose he was too. Finally, on about the tenth pilot hole, he found what he was looking for and started the digging process in earnest.
The place we were digging was U.S. Gypsum property where company houses had once stood. The houses had been abandoned and demolished years earlier in response to government mandates which had essentially outlawed the employer-provided housing where many families, including my own, had lived during the post-war years. I had, in fact, spent the first year of my life in a company house before we moved into the two-story at the corner of Lake and Forest.
The lot we were digging up wasn’t our old homestead, though. It belonged to a buddy of Dad’s who, in addition to working as a maintenance man at the plant, had once operated a small saw blade sharpening business out of a shed behind his house.
It took Dad a couple of hours to finish the job, and when he was done there was a trench a foot deep and maybe 40 feet long. At the bottom of the trench was what looked like a long black snake. Dad began pulling the “snake” up from the trench, coiling it as he went. After about ten feet he handed me the coil and said, “hold this.”
Dad had dug up the entire length of a half-inch-thick electric cable that had once connected the long-gone saw shop to the long-gone company house. Shortly after our family had moved into the Lake and Forest house in '63, Dad had endeavored to build himself a tool shed. It was a simple structure, constructed mostly from scrap lumber, as evidenced by the mismatched windows and the too-small door widened with a couple of two-by-fours. He kept his growing collection of lawnmowers, garden tools and accessories in it, but its utility, as well as his ability to accomplish anything after dark, was severely limited by the lack of electricity. Our visit to the old company housing site was his attempt to solve that problem in a cost-effective (as in free) way. Exactly what spurred his memory about the cable that particular spring day I'll never know. Maybe it was something he'd been planning for awhile and just gotten around to, or maybe his buddy the saw sharpener had mentioned it to him, but whatever the origin of the idea, he had found his solution.
The cable had simply been cut and left in the ground when the buildings were demolished, so exactly how the hook-up at either end was originally accomplished was a mystery, but Dad had an idea, and like many of his ideas it was simple, elegant and almost certainly life-threatening.
We drove to the Western Auto in Port Clinton and bought a replacement electric plug and outlet. In fairness, Dad did pay extra for the better quality ones. He wired the plug to one end of the cable and the outlet to the other, inserted the plug in a basement receptacle, ran the cable out a basement window to the shed and voila! Electricity!
The list of codes, ordinances and rules of common sense Dad violated that day would be voluminous. A few days later, once he was convinced it would work the way he thought, he buried the cable, which likely added another volume. To this day, I'm not sure if it was luck, skill or divine intervention, but that jury-rigged electrical system didn't give us one lick of trouble between the time he installed it and the time the whole thing got upgraded when we built the garage in 1982.
Ah, the garage, but that's another story.
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