I cut grass for 39 straight days that summer

I cut grass for 39 straight days that summer

Armed with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Notre Dame and possessed of a plan that promised unlimited possibilities, I promptly ran head-long into the Real World.

The resulting collision shook me to my sneakers, rattled the bare-bones skeleton of the life I wanted and changed me in ways I still find shocking.

So much happened — most of it hideous — that I remember thinking, “Things just can’t get worse,” which is the absolute wrong attitude to adopt when the winds of change gust to gale force.

But what did I know?

I was a 22-year-old English major, four years removed from high school with little ambition, no marketable skills and a girlfriend who would, within a matter of weeks, return to South Bend and promptly betray me.

It wasn’t the best time of my life.

You know what it’s like, I’m sure, to find yourself washed up on a desert island, metaphorically speaking, grateful to be breathing but wondering why coconuts keep falling on your head.

The wreckage of my life in the late summer 1977 still serves as a reminder of the validity of a Jackson Browne lyric, one that goes, “Don’t think it won’t happen just because it hasn’t happened yet.”

To some, those words are too cute by half, offering only a glib reflection of the pain buried beneath the pithy turn of phrase, and that’s fine. Because if you’re not into Jackson, you’ll never get it.

But back then I was a believer in his message of love, loss, redemption and rebirth, a combination I hold close to this day.

When you’re young, there’s a tendency toward delusional, egocentric and faux world-weary angst, one that convinces you whatever the latest setback might be, you’re the first one to ever experience it.

Such was my case, but even as I fought for a losing cause, there was a nagging notion it was all a lot of sound and fury signifying not only nothing, but worse, the futility of the effort.

You get to a point — and it can take a while — when you come to the conclusion it’s better to laugh than to cry.

So I tried to right my ship.

The first step was to find another girlfriend.

This proved to be easier than I’d ever imagined. It happened so quickly, so intensely in fact, I chose not to believe in it and naturally lost her too.

“You’re just a drifter,” she wrote in her last letter. “I’ll miss you.”

Clearly my approach needed work, and speaking of work, that became the next step on the road toward stitching my life together.

The only experience I had, aside from writing, playing cards all night, listening to music and losing girlfriends, was lawn care.

I could cut grass with the best of them.

But with autumn approaching and another Northeast Ohio winter not far behind, I had to broaden my palette, expand my options.

Thus I found myself on the lowest rung of the landscaping ladder.

I was the new kid on a hollow-eyed crew of lifers, a crusty, jaded, tough assemblage of men who, even more than their after-work tavern time, liked nothing better than to break guys like me.

I represented something if not threatening, then certainly vulnerable, and this opportunity proved too tempting to resist.

You have to understand this was an entirely different reality than the one I’d experienced over the course of the previous three summers. I was part-time help, a college boy who worked hard at planting and weeding and mowing and painting and picking up trash using a stick with a nail in it.

That was acceptable to the full-timers because they knew, once September beckoned, I’d be gone until the next summer.

Plus they liked me because I almost always lost at Boo-Ray.

Never heard of it?

It’s a fast-paced card game that separates the pros from the suckers within minutes, a furiously pathetic exercise in reading the future.

Not that I didn’t work for my $1.25 an hour.

“Dewey, grab a push mower,” the boss would grumble every time he looked over the bunch of us waiting for our afternoon assignments, and I was fine with that. I was alone, and I liked it.

It became something of a catch-phrase, as in, “Dewey, grab a push mower,” whenever I joined my friends for a round of putt-putt, which was a freebie for those of us who worked for Parks and Rec.

I cut grass 39 straight days that summer, a record that still stands.

But when I started as a full-time paid professional in the fall, toiling for that nursery/landscaping business, I realized two very bad things almost immediately.

No one wanted me there, and even if I proved myself, they’d never accept me. It was like a poorly written scene in “Our Town,” one Thornton Wilder trashed as soon as he’d committed it to paper.

I was given the worst, the most physically demanding and the most dangerous jobs those old men could throw my way, including dragging hundreds of pounds of dug-up shrubbery from the lawn to the truck, hour after endless hour as they glowered and chuckled.

It was in a neighborhood I knew well, the richest one in town, and I had friends who lived there. They were all off on their own then, having landed good jobs or gone back to school for their master’s.

And there I was, breaking my body even as my mind rebelled, plotting my escape … into what I didn’t know, but I had to get out.

Then the long muscle in my right forearm tore, snapped in half, sending serious messages of pain to my brain. A few hours later, I was in my doctor’s office, and she was direct and to the point.

“What in the world are you doing?” she asked, wrapping an acre of Ace bandages around my wounded limb. “I thought you were going back to grad school.”

She prescribed two-dozen Valiums and told me my days as a professional landscaper were over, at least for a month or two.

I quit my job over the phone Monday morning and began covering football games for my hometown newspaper that Friday night, the living definition of love, loss, redemption and rebirth.

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