In the back yard, I drop ants of differing appearance into the reservoir portion of a spray bottle filled with water. Peering into the neck of the bottle with one eye, the ants appear as huge as cars and people. They can walk along the walls of the bottle and do so, carefully gathering air into a diving-bell about their rear body segment. When one kind of ant encounters a different sort of ant, they battle ferociously until one is dead.
Much to my parents’ puzzlement and occasional frustration, I hated working in the yard. I wanted to help, and the yard’s size really needed extra hands. But for whatever reason, or constellation of them, nearly all my memories of working outside at my childhood home are unhappy.
I made reference to the first one of these earlier in the week. The blizzard of ’78 blew snow up over the roof of the house’s garage. My father and I, as well as my sister and mother, worked for two days or so to clear the drive and the walks. The experience made me reluctant to shovel snow, although I recall (however self-servingly) having accepted the snow-shoveling chore as mine by the end of high school. My recollection is that I realized how relatively infrequent heavy snowstorms were, although the entire time we resided in Bloomington, a heavy accumulation of snow from December through March was the norm.
I recall one singularly unpleasant spring afternoon when I volunteered to help my dad in the yard, hopefully determined to learn from him and to try to understand his sense of pride, interest, and accomplishment. He set me to weeding with a 12-inch tool designed to aid the ept in the removal of weeds such as dandelions, which send long tap-roots down into the soil and should be removed with as much of the long tail as possible. Typically, I was unable to use the tool with any accuracy and failed to bring up a single weed-root whole. Frustrated, I recall asking my dad why this was, him attempting to demonstrate, and my inability to grasp his technique resulting in my angry insistence that I would do it my own way or none. We shouted at one another for a while and I retreated in tears.
One stormy night, a power line fell in our back yard, near my mom’s garden. The arcing line lit up the woods and house in terrible, phantasmagoric flashes, white steam and sulfurous smoke billowing up from the naked wire grounding itself in my mother’s topsoil. I had the presence of mind to grab my Pentax K1000 and shoot in the night as the firefighters and linemen secured the scene.
Of course, mowing the lawn fell to me, a task which I at first found difficult for reasons of physical strength. The lot is not level, and we had a typical gas mower of the time with no drive wheels, all-steel and push only. I think when I started mowing the lawn I was about eleven and weighed darn near 90 pounds. It was frightening for me to wrestle this barking machine with whirling blades that weighed half as much as I did. The broiling heat and wretched humidity of the Indiana summer combined with the mower chaff to create a truly miserable experience. With creativity and determination, I was on some occasions able to flog myself with this particular willow branch for eight to ten hours.
In the garage, a forty-year old refrigerator, all streamlined white enamel and chromed aluminum, holds bottle after bottle of cold Big Red. No matter how many I drink, it’s still too hot, and I’m still thirsty. I open another one and watch the condensation run off the bottle and down my wrist.
Later, during high school, I had more or less figured out that if one really threw oneself into something horrible it would get completed more rapidly, so I would attempt to run while pushing the mower in order to complete the task as rapidly as possible. I recall with much greater clarity the day I awakened with the first of my truly gargantuan hangovers, epic spectacles in which the armies of Hannibal clash with those of Rome. Up and down the length of my peninsula they rage for thirty or forty years. Hotly contested rear guard actions vie with undammed rivers, fountaining past the gates of my teeth. Such intensity of struggle makes man or boy weak in the knees and not well suited to pushing loud hot steel about under a 98-degree sun. On this day the mowing lasted a full eight hours but seemed to take much, much longer.
Four-foot black garden snakes writhe, intertwined, in the grass of our lawn, mating. With a nine-iron, a neighbor beats the snakes to death as they mate.
I tried to be of assistance to my mother in her garden, but again, the weather defeated me. The terrible heat and humidity of these summer days and the thuggish strength and scope of the intolerably cold winters led me to wonder what sort of madmen would have chosen to settle where we lived. The entire time we lived there, I was told that winters were not always so cold and summers not always so hot. The hottest days I recall featured a week of 100% humidity and 110 degrees around summer 1986 and the coldest a streak of minus 30 degrees one winter around that time, ’85, ’86, or ’87. Friends tell me winters are much milder now.
My father hopefully planted a grape arbor in the back yard one summer, and the vine started but only fruited a few small, sad grapes before slowly ceasing to grow. I think it was taken out by a subsequent owner.
Sometime in the ’80s, a large oak fell into our yard from Mary’s side of the fence. I helped Dad trim it and lay it so it was not terribly in the way. As we were doing so I had the bright idea of seeing if it could be sold to a local lumbermill, as there is an active forestry industry in Southern Indiana. To my surprise, I was able to do so under Indiana law and the lumbermill was willing to buy. I can’t recall how much the log fetched but I think it was over a hundred bucks.
In spring, flower poachers wheelbarrow daffodils from the lanes of Mary’s farm out to the highway. Are they family, or are they thieves?
Laughing, I throw the balsa and styrofoam airplane again and again, amazed at the added distance the innovation of formed airfoils to the toy has made. Catching a thermal, the blue-and-tan craft rises and rises before falling off the air spiral and coming to rest nearly a mile away. I catch up to it breathlessly, amazed and enthusiastic.