Tuesday, March 20, 2007

For Burney

Perhaps you’ve had the opportunity to be the first person on your block to own a really cool item. Did this propel you to the level of popularity you had hoped? I’ll sure bet it did. I remember when my neighbor, Burney was the first person on our block to get a powered lawn mower. It was 1970, and back then, powered mowers were usually reserved for lawn care professionals, those wealthy enough to have a lawn larger than a welcome mat, or, in Burney’s case, someone with a delicate self image who believed that owning cool things would make him likeable. Anyway, Burney’s new mower fulfilled every desire he had for popularity, and made him an instant celebrity. I’m surprised the local paper didn’t stop by to take a picture of him proudly perched over his ½ horsepower gleaming green beauty. Not only could he now mow his 350 square foot plot of sod in less than 45 seconds, but he could effectively scare every cat within ear shot into the next county. Yep – Burney was sitting on top of the world.

One afternoon while I was hanging out with Burney on his front steps, he brought out his little baggie of tobacco and rolled up his cigarette like he always did. He said he had to smoke outside because his wife didn’t let him smoke in the house. I was five years old – what did I know from tobacco? All I know is that whatever kind of tobacco he was smoking, it sure smelled a lot different than the kind of tobacco in my parent’s cigarettes. He used to smoke his cigarettes differently too – taking long drags on them and holding the smoke in his lungs for a really long time. Sometimes he’d burst out in coughing fits and have to take a slug out of his can of Coors to quiet himself. He'd take a long pull on the can, then fling his head forward with a resounding Ahhhhh. "Don't drink beer, Tommy. But when you're old enough, make sure it's cold. Ice cold." Yeah, Burney was a really funny guy. One day after smoking a cigarette on the porch he decided to mow his lawn. I reminded him that he had just mowed it before lunch, but he didn’t seam to want to listen to me. He just laughed a little, pulled the rip cord on the mower and started her up. He started coughing again as the mower blew exhaust toward him, so he walked away from the mower to get his Coors. As soon as his back was turned, the mower started moving forward. It rolled straight off the lawn, over the sidewalk, off the curb and into the street right in front of a car. The car managed to stop with a skid and Burney looked toward the sound, dropped his Coors, and ran into the street. He was a fast runner for an old guy of 30 or so, but not fast enough to grab the mower before a car coming from the other direction smashed into it and sent it sailing 50 feet through the air and careening off a parked van.

Some of our neighbors heard the raucous, and came out to see what was happening. Both drivers from the cars ran over to Burney who was frantically trying to turn what was left of the mower off. I don’t know why, but it took three people two minutes or so to shut down that engine. I stayed on the curb, watching the whole incident go down. I remember the three men trying to yell above the noise of the mower, all the while black smoke billowed from the exhaust. They finally shut it down and lifted it onto the sidewalk. They talked for a while, exchanged their versions of what had just gone down. During the commotion my mom ran out of the house, thinking the car skid and resulting casualty may have been me. She stood next to me until things calmed down a little then took my hand and brought me back inside our apartment.

The next day I walked over to Burney’s house and found him working in his garage. He had several Coors lined up along his workbench, and was bent over the warped carcass of his mower, sweating and talking to himself. I didn’t say anything. I sat on a stool and watched him for about twenty minutes. He didn’t even know I was there. Finally he glanced toward me and blinked. “Hi Tommy.” He said. “Hi.” I replied. “Is it broken?” I asked. “Naw, just banged up a little.” Burney said, looking back down at the heap of twisted metal. “Heck of a wreck though yesterday, huh? Did you see how this thing flew when that car hit it?” “Yup.” I said. Burney paused, looked past me for a moment as if he was formulating a thought, then gave me a half smile. “You’ll probably tell this story to your kids someday.” He said. At that age I had no real concept of time or any notion that I’d ever be a father. “Uh huh.” I said. “Well, do me a favor if you do tell this to someone okay?” “Uh huh.” I said. “Tell them that I got the mower up and running the next day, and it worked just fine. Will ya do that for me?” “Sure.” I said. “Thanks Tommy. You’re a good boy.” And with that, Burney leaned back over the mower, tightened a couple of bolts and started it up. It looked and ran just like new; and Burney spent the rest of the afternoon mowing every lawn along our street; stopping only occasionally to take a sip of ice cold beer offered by his gracious neighbors.