News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 2, 2009

The Off Season: Proving persistence, one pull of the rake at a time

By Mike Lunsford

I have spent much of the past few days raking leaves and cleaning my yard. The yearly ritual burns my time like cordwood, but it’s not really work at all when I compare the clear blue skies and cool breezes of late October to the sweaty miseries of July and August workdays.

A friend of mine says I should just wait for all of the leaves to fall, then, in one massive Normandy invasion on my yard, be done with it all. But I would rather plug away at it little bits at a time, enjoying my green grass and its speckles of newly fallen gold maple leaves, rather than wait for the brown shifting carpets of the dead to swirl and blow into my open garage or crumble on my porch floor.

Fall signals the waning days of control over my yard. Soon, I’ll have less interest in spending time outdoors with snow shovel in hand or as I fist-fight dead car batteries and bitter winds and knee-deep drifts.

I want to soak in a little more outdoors for now, keep a few calluses on my hands, too. I’ll be sitting at my office window peering at the bird feeders soon enough, so for now, I don’t really care if I head indoors after the television news is over or supper is a little cool, or my back is a little sore. Besides, I like to watch the sun set, to gaze at the evening stars, and to see the wisps of my breath in the air, too.

Autumn raking teaches me persistence. For virtually every morning that follows an evening of loading my crummy old tarps with poplar leaves and pine needles and inky walnuts, I walk amid the ruins of another battle lost. The breeze and gravity persistently do their jobs over night, so after a day of teaching and chalk and notebook paper, I come home to slip on my boots and grungy blue jeans to work at my raking. I work alone and I enjoy the time by myself.

My generation, and the generations that have come after it, are not as persistent as those of our parents or grandparents. Technology and convenience stores and laziness have replaced that quality with impatience. I used to watch my grandmother and mother peel basket after basket of apples, the paring knives in their hands rarely slowing for a glimpse at their worn blades. I marveled that not once did I see them slip up and lop off a thumb or bleed into their work; it was almost a seventh sense for them. They snapped beans and cut corn and cranked tomatoes through a grinder for hours on end, the only entertainment between them being their own conversation. That seems too quaint, too old-fashioned, too time-consuming to most people now.

I remember spending time with my old pal, the artist Salty Seamon, and once, while I stood with him at the studio basement table on which he constructed his own picture frames, he casually mentioned that he had not only built the studio — his house, too — but that he had dug the studio basement himself, as well.

“I didn’t know you knew how to use heavy equipment,” I told him.

“I don’t,” he replied. “I know how to use a shovel, though. I used to come home from work and spend an hour or two filling my wheelbarrow,” Salty said. “Sometimes I’d come out after supper for another hour or so, too.”

I can’t remember now how long he said that it took him, but countless hours, and I imagine more than a few aching spines later, Salty had his basement dug. He then learned how to pour cement and lay concrete block. After that conversation, I think I admired that man’s perseverance nearly as much as his skill with a paintbrush.

In summers long ago, I used to work with my grandfather as he tried to earn a few extra dollars with his retired time. It was hard work for a 12-year-old boy, but he’d come down to our house by 7 a.m. or so, his black coffee and toast already gulped, to drag me out of bed to go with him to hoe strawberries at a neighborhood farm. I remember standing at the end of those roes in my Huck Finn get-up, shoelessly toeing at the sandy soil, as the newly planted strawberry plants — a year away from yielding fruit — stretched out in long straight rows toward the horizon. We’d hoe until lunch, eat out of our dented aluminum boxes in the shade of a few locust trees, then hoe some more, and we did it for 75 cents an hour.

My grandpa thought jobs like that would “make a man” out of me. At the time, I just thought they made me tired. He, on the other hand, was a hoeing machine, and if I couldn’t keep up, which inevitably I couldn’t, he’d just hoe himself a good distance away from me, a blur of his worn hoe blade and wrinkled skin in the far distance. But it was his lessons in hoeing that kept me going years later when I insisted on cutting a 100-foot sycamore tree into fireplace-length pieces, a mall and sledge and ax and sweat all the resources I had, and it took me from midsummer until the snow was flying to get the job done.

I hear of great tales of persistence: a man who has read the Encyclopedia Britannica, a woman who collected aluminum cans until she could pay for a community swimming pool, a tough old guy who tore a barn down a stick of wood at a time, took it to his new farm in numbered pieces, and put it all back together again. Just a few days ago, I read about a man who had completed a trip around the world in his own old car. Small strokes do indeed topple great oaks, as Benjamin Franklin reminds us.

Raking leaves isn’t like building one of Egypt’s great pyramids, nor is it like laying blocks in the Great Wall or digging the Panama Canal. It’s just me, with a rake, and a paint-spattered tarp, scraping the earth for its yield of leafy crumbs and twigs and pine cones, and I enjoy it, even after a day of work.

It re-teaches me that little battles count for something, whether it be digging a basement or hoeing strawberries. It teaches me that there is something satisfying to be learned from cleaning a yard and waiting for the stars to come out.

Mike Lunsford can be reached at hickory913@aol.com, or through regular mail, c/o the Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. His second book — “Sidelines: the Best of the Basketball Stories…” — will be released this month. Visit Mike’s Web page at www.mikelunsford.com.