About this time every year, while I’m pushing my Ryobi Mulchinator across my little quarter-acre of grass, I start measuring the years by the condition of my yard and my yard equipment. There were the bad-broke years, when none of my sorry-ass lawn mowers would crank; there were the better years, when all my mowers cranked on the first or second pull; and then there are the recent good years, when all the mowers have worked just fine and life’s generally gotten better. I suppose I see my life the way John Paul Getty III sees his—dividing it into the years before kidnappers cut off his ear and the years since. For me, it’s the era of the dead, rusty lawn mowers vs. the years with my ever-reliable Mulchinator.
Back home in South Carolina, the Jowers house sat about 30 feet from a real-enough swamp. The ground west of the house was always saturated and the grass was always ankle-high or higher. Where the grass ended, there was a narrow creek full of painted turtles, crawdads, muskrats and water moccasins. On the far side of the creek, the ground was wet enough to suck down a thrown brick. I know that, because when my daddy, Jabo Jowers, gave my half-brother Geames the job of moving a big pile of bricks, Geames downsized the job by throwing most of the bricks into the swamp. Best I could tell, the wettest part of the swamp could swallow just about anything, given a little time to get the suction going.
Keeping the swampy side of the Jowers estate under control was a messy, tedious and endless job. Jabo went after the stubborn plants with a machete. My mother, Susie, raked up everything Jabo cut down, waited a week for the dead plants to dry out, then set them on fire. That was their pattern for years, until the day a water moccasin dropped down out of an oak tree and flopped onto my mother’s shoulder. After that, Susie did all of her yard-taming on the dry and treeless east side of the house. The next spring, Susie died from a heart attack. Her sister Thelma blamed it on the snake.
That summer, Jabo took on the swamp solo. It didn’t take him long to figure out that one man with a machete wasn’t going to overcome a swamp full of briars, baby trees and big snakes. Jabo let the swamp go for a couple years, then decided it needed trimming. So he went out and got—well, probably stole—a red tractor with a bush hog on the back. Later that week, Jabo and Geames built a metal bridge across the creek, so Jabo could drive the tractor into the swamp and run the bush hog over the bushes.
I watched Jabo fire up the red tractor, line up his wheels on the bridge, then drive across the creek and into the swamp. He hadn’t gone in 20 feet before his wheels started spinning and his tractor started sinking. Every time Jabo tickled the throttle, the tractor tires would throw up a rooster tail of gray mud. Every few seconds, one of Geames’ thrown-away bricks would ride up the rooster tail, then plop down behind the tractor and sink into some new mud. In less than five minutes, Jabo’s red tractor was sunk up to the axles. Jabo and Geames, muddy and cursing, quit for the day.
The next morning, I watched out my window as Jabo and Geames unloaded a big yellow gizmo out of Jabo’s truck. They wrestled the thing over to our backyard chinaberry tree, then lashed it to the tree with steel cable. That’s when I decided to go outside.
“What’s that thing?” I asked Jabo.
“It’s a winch, son,” Jabo said. “We’re going to use it to pull the tractor out of the swamp.”
“How’s it work?” I asked.
“I work it,” Geames said. “We hook the cable up to the tractor, I turn the crank and the tractor comes up out of the mud.”
And sure enough, Jabo cranked up the tractor, Geames leaned hard onto the winch handle and, between Jabo’s driving and Geames’ winching, the tractor rose from the mud and chugged across the bridge, back to the sturdy part of the yard. Jabo left it there, its gray belly dripping mud.
“I’m going on back to my house,” Geames said to Jabo, “and if you’re crazy enough to drive that tractor into the swamp again, you’d best just let it sink. I’m done with winching.”
The Jowers yard went downhill after that. A year after the tractor-raising, Geames was dead. Seems he had one married girlfriend too many. In South Carolina in 1968, if your married girlfriend’s husband shot you, well, you had it coming.
A year after that, Jabo and his new wife Montine drove to the Amvets Club in Jabo’s freshly washed Cadillac, and Jabo dropped dead on the dance floor while trying to bugaloo. Back at the house, the grass got so tall, I couldn’t even see the snakes in it. So wife Brenda and I sold the house and moved here.The last few years, what with work for me and Brenda, and high school and softball for daughter Jess, we Jowerses have let our yard get a little overgrown. This year, we’re going to start bringing it back.
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