The Blasted Heath

In 1953, in the summer of my eleventh year, we moved from Minneapolis to Richfield.  Richfield!  Gad, what a misnomer.  Where we’d lived on the second floor of a stucco triplex, we now occupied a box-like rambler.  Where Minneapolis gave us winding streets on low hills with huge elms and oaks for shade and gentile breezes, Richfield gave us a blasted heath.  There were no trees to be seen, not a one.  The place was semi-arid with a blistering wind blasting dirt and sand into our eyes.  The streets were laid out in a monotonous and featureless grid.  Ugh.

And the sun!  Oh Christ, the sun.  Each day it blazed down on our house heating the place almost to incandescence.  Heat waves shimmered off the softened asphalt streets.  Lawn?  Ha.  It was just a brown, dry patch of hateful weeds, chiefly sandburs.

Ever seen a sandbur?  No?  Well it’s a type of grass suited to a desiccated wasteland, such as our “lawn”.  The weed’s fruiting bodies appear on the ends of low-lying runners that creep across the lawn. These fruiting bodies consist of six-odd little burrs covered in unbelievably sharp spikes that at the slightest touch, go deep in the flesh and break off.  At the very least, these burrs stick onto your pants, your socks, your sneakers . . . anything, and must be picked off with leather gloves.

I felt like I’d been exiled to Mars.

Anyway, Dad agreed the so-called “lawn” was a travesty.  “We needed to lay down sod,” he said.  He made the call and soon some yard tenders came in, uprooted all the damned sandburs, poisoned everything else and the week after, came by with a truckload of sod.  Three weeks and a lake’s worth of water later, we had a lawn.  Back in Minneapolis, the triplex had a lawn but it was tiny and could be quickly cut back with the push mower.  The mowing duty was shared by Dad, Jim Schlafer downstairs and Harland Nasvik upstairs.  Not so in Richfield; thanks to my being a strapping young lad, the job was mine.  One evening Dad came home with a gas-powered rotary mower.  He set it up then tried it out.  It roared and stank.  “What the hell’s that?” I asked, pointing.  “Your new job,” Dad replied.  I was on Devil’s Island for sure.

In any case, Ma decided we needed a shrub to dress up the front lawn.  One Saturday afternoon she and Dad came home with a thing called a Mugo Pine.  It was supposed to become a decent sized shrub at some point but what Dad hauled out of the trunk was a runt.  It was just a ball of roots topped with a little green thatch.  “Give it time,” Ma said.  Out came the shovel and a half-pint of sweat later, the Mugo Pine was planted, it’s ugly little top barely peeking above the grass.

Now you need to know Ma and I got along like two cats in a gunny sack.  Our relationship died years before and, by 1953, we spent much of our time tormenting each other.  One deadly July day the  following year, I was sitting in the oven-like house with a fan blowing on my face when Ma came in.  “Listen, buster,” she snarled.  “The lawn needs mowing.  Now get cracking.”

“Ma.  You gotta be shitting me,” I exclaimed.  “It’s a hundred degrees out there.  The sun’s at its zenith and there’s not a cloud in the sky.  Not a breath of air moving.  I’ll die!”

It was no good.  In mere moments I found myself standing outside with cotton stuffed in my ears, a hankie wrapped over my nose and goggles to keep the debris out of eyes.  I pulled the starter cord, the engine chugged to life and I was off.  With each pass I cursed Ma and the goddamned lawn.  I mowed the back yard first, working my way around the sides, saving the front yard to last.  Well, as I was making my umpteenth pass across the front yard, I saw Ma’s Mugo Pine out of the corner of my eye.  “Humm,” I said to myself, “There may be an opportunity here.”  The mower was running low on gas so I headed back to the garage for more, mulling over the possibilities for mischief and smacking my lips in anticipation.

Back out on the front yard, I restarted the mower and took up where I left off.  The Mugo Pine was but two passes away.  Then there it was, dead ahead, squat and ugly.  (In truth, the pine really was hard to see, especially through sweat-streaked goggles.)  I advanced the throttle to full power and headed straight into the little shrub.  Bang.  Thunk,  Buzz, Whir. Thunk.  A cloud of dirt, bark, wood chips and pine needles went spraying everywhere leaving naught but a tattered stump.  The deed was done.

Back in the house and rehydrated from my ordeal, I flopped on the couch in front of the fan, picked up a copy of Collier’s magazine and thumbed through.  Ma didn’t see the assassination of her Mugo Pine until the following afternoon.  But when she did, she came rolling in the front door at full boil.  “You little son-of-a-bitch,” she yelled, stamping her foot as she often did in situations like this, “What did you do to my Mugo Pine?”

“What?” I asked, feigning innocence.

Ma went on to detail the death of her beloved pine.

“Your Mugo Pine?  Is that what I hit?  Aw, Jezus, Ma!  I remember hitting something but my goggles were filthy and I couldn’t see well — I just assumed I’d hit  another dried-out dog shit.”

Ma proceeded to call me everything in the book.  Then, gritting her dentures said, “I’m going to take a nap,” and down the hall she went.  Slam went the bedroom door.

Payback’s bitch, ain’t it?


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