Fun With Briggs & Stratton

I can tell it’s Spring by the sound of lawnmowers in my neighborhood.  It’s been cool and wet for the past couple of months where I live, but the weather has warmed and things are blooming and growing.  Especially grass.

The sound of a lawnmower in full throat takes me back to my boyhood.  My Dad would advance me enough money at the beginning of a summer to buy a lawnmower: 21-inch cut, Briggs & Stratton engine, and self-propelled – by me.  I would line up customers and spend the summer pushing that mower across expanses of bermuda grass.

Mowing Bermuda with a dinky mower in the hot, humid fullness of a South Alabama growing season is like trying to hack your way through dense jungle with a Swiss Army knife.  Many of my customers – the cheapskates – insisted on having their lawns mowed only every other week.  By the time I arrived, the bermuda would be three inches high or more.  For three months, I would propel that mower with my skinny teenaged body under blazing sun, praying for rain so I could go home, and dreading rain because it made the bermuda grow that much faster.

But I persevered.  By the end of the summer, I would have made enough money to repay Dad’s loan, with a little pocket change left over.  Being no dummy, I knew what Dad, that sly devil, was up to: keeping me occupied and out of trouble.  I suppose it worked.  I have no criminal record.

And then one Spring, I escaped.  Dad approached, loan money in hand.  “Au contraire,” I said, “I have a job at the radio station!”  I spent that glorious summer in air conditioned comfort, spinning records and dedicating mushy songs to my girlfriend.  It was powerful incentive for a career in broadcasting.

But my lawnmowing summers were not wasted.  In my novel Captain Saturday, teenaged Wilbur Baggett self-propels an under-powered lawnmower across expanses of North Carolina lawns, struggling against heat, humidity, vegetation and a sense of powerlessness.  Later, when grown-up Will Baggett, Raleigh’s most popular TV weatherman, loses his job, he falls back on his boyhood profession. 

Writing books of fiction is somewhat like mowing lawns.  You struggle against the elements – fear, self-doubt, failures of imagination, rejection --  and just keep applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair until you arrive exhausted at the far end of the thing and write “The End.”  In the process, you go time and time again to the well of your experiences, transforming them into something new.  It’s what my teacher Barry Hannah called “fracturing reality and putting it back together as truth.”

A good writer never throws away anything.  Even a wretched old lawnmower.

Robert Inman’s novels are available on Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, and Kobo e-readers.