News From Terre Haute, Indiana

April 4, 2010

The Off Season: Let me tell you a little, dirty story…

Mike Lunsford
Special to the Tribune-Star

. — Until just a few days ago, it had been at least four months since I’d gotten really dirty. I haven’t had mud on my pants since late November; I haven’t had dirt under my nails since the weather turned cold, and I haven’t had a pocket or cuff to pull inside out since I don’t know when.

I remedied that situation two weeks ago. Home from work on break, I grabbed my grimy old jeans and a stained cotton work shirt — still unwashed from where I left them in December — off a peg in our garage, shook them once, and pulled them on to head outside. My right pocket still held two quarters, an old pocket knife, an s-hook, a lock washer, an Indian bead and some sand.

During the winter, I am a notorious pencil pusher. I grade papers, plan lessons and spend countless hours in the quiet of lamplight reading and studying and scribbling notes. But come springtime, I cut my hours in my carpeted cocoon to get after my mowing and trimming and digging, all tasks that come not only as necessities of home ownership but also with an almost instinctual, familial need to get dirty, to play in the mud again.

I turned some soil over in my little garden on my first day of freedom, and I remember saying to myself that the dirt smelled good, that its scent, mixed with a little sunshine and newborn grass, reminded me of the days I spent with my grandfather in his garden. It is a memory that comes to me often in the spring.

It’s a shame that so many of our kids now aren’t encouraged to get filthy when they can; I think I know a child or two right now who will never be allowed to get good and dirty, who will forever be in pressed pants and crisp shirts and clean socks. Kinda sad.

I have never encountered a substance I couldn’t eventually get rinsed, washed or scrubbed off, and I know that despite the challenges and drudgeries of wash days, my mom would have much rather been cleaning my grungy blue jeans and cruddy T-shirts than watching me stare at a television or poke buttons on something held in the palm of my hand. I know my wife, Joanie, thinks that, too, for it won’t be long when she’ll be out potting and planting and painting right alongside me. We, in turn, encouraged our two kids to get dirty.

Among my favorite photos is one of my daughter and me standing near a backyard gate; it is a warm summer day, and I am about to rinse the then-3 year old off with a garden hose. She is already sopping wet and splattered with mud; Joanie had just discovered her “swimming” in a mud puddle behind our barn, as happy as any robin that wades into brown water to bathe. It is a memory made possible by dirt, a good portion of it deposited in her hair and on her face and on the striped shirt that hid her chubby belly.

My son — who, as a pre-schooler, used to get so filthy playing with his trucks and tractors at his sister’s softball games that my wife made him change clothes before he could ever get back into our car for the trip home — still manages to make a mess of himself, but he has finally learned one basic tenet we keep: Get as dirty as you want to, but go no farther than the garage door to my office when wearing boots and polluted work clothes. His socks, alone, could make an EPA hazardous materials list, but in spite of just starting a career that will have him in suit and tie for the next 30 years, I believe he’ll never hesitate to get his hands dirty or invest his sweat in hard work.

Before the rain set in to spoil things for a while, I managed to get much done around our place. Joanie had reminded me more than once that we should get our birdhouses cleaned out, that we didn’t want to lose our bluebirds or wrens just because we’d been slow with our spring cleaning. So, I grabbed my ladder and dutifully climbed into our maples and crabapples to snatch down our houses and crack them open like walnuts. One of the houses rattled with the coarse twigs of a wren’s nest, while another, a cedar box that sits on a green metal pole, held a nest that was shaped like the box itself, a carefully woven bed of grasses that I believe was manufactured by a bluebird. Other boxes that sat on corner posts, and the one that is screwed into the side of a storage shed, got scoured, too, and one, much to my surprise, had a healthy colony of fat black ants already inside, milling about in anticipation of a long summer of work and profit.

The chore shouldn’t have taken as long as it did, but I worked deliberately and slowly because it was one of those kind of days on which I tend to drag my feet just to watch the sun set. I repaired a few of the boxes, including one that needed a little modern-day technology — some silicone sealant — to keep its new occupants from complaining to the landlord about a leaky roof.

I clipped and snipped and raked, too. Each spring, I thin the yuccas that grow along our drive; they bloom better that way, I think. I scratched the last of the fall’s leaves away from our irises and noticed that already the coneflower and black-eyed Susans and peonies were pushing their way upward. Because I like to see the winter frost settle on the tall ornamental grasses we grow, I always put off cutting the yellow stalks until spring, and so I finally did that, as well.

Many of my rock borders and walls need re-stacking — the winter cold and freezing rains send them spilling over like water in a too-full bucket, so a small portion of the day was spent nipping and tucking at those, too. Some walls, like the one along our front porch, need some gentle deconstruction and re-building before they can ever look good again, but that job had to wait.

I planted some new grass in a spot near the road where I have more gravel than soil in which to grow it, and, in a moment of perfect antithesis, went to the barn, tossed the tarp off my mower, plumped its tires, filled its tank, installed its battery, and fired it up. Truth be known, I unofficially became the first person in my neighborhood to mow a few high spots in his yard that day. There is no award for such an achievement, although some folks did point at me from passing cars.

As is a springtime custom of mine, I walked my yard, filling my wheelbarrow times over with twigs and pinecones and scarlet pin oak leaves, raking little piles here and there to which I’ll return. I could have dumped the loads anywhere along my wood line, but felt much better about walking them to a spot behind our barn, where I occasionally burn a few sticks of wood for conversational purposes. The tinder I offered went up in flames quickly, its warmth welcomed despite the light sweat I had under my shirt.

I stood next to the fire and watched the sun dip lower, satisfied that I was tired enough and just about dirty enough to head to the house.

Mike Lunsford can be reached at hickory913@aol.com, or C/O the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, 47808. He will be speaking and signing books in Vermillion, Vigo, and Clay counties in April. A complete listing of those events can be found at www.mikelunsford.com.