Terminal condition is how to best describe the status of the old acquaintance of mine who lingered through the fall months before succumbing to paralysis on a frosty morning in November.
If ever my trusty friend’s demise seemed imminent, it was when I tried to revive his ancient system after the first night below 25 degrees. He coughed and sputtered, seemed to gasp for breath and then relapsed into coma, neither dead nor alive.
Tears formed in my eyes as I recollected all the miles we had traveled, the wide swaths we had cut in life and all the natural truths revealed since our paths crossed 17 years ago. Never had I seen such dependability and grit, strength and determination. Even when he fell out of the bed of a pickup truck and landed on his side, my friend ignored his injuries and answered the call of duty.
The 22-horsepower lawn tractor has been my weekend companion since the mid-1990s when I was chagrined to spend a small fortune to buy a mower for cutting grass on a four-acre West Tennessee yard in Chester County.
My family’s relocation to middle Appalachia – a land of winter ice and snow but intense grass growth May through September – forced a decision: Pay the movers to haul my lawn and garden equipment north, or sell out and re-equip. I decided on the former.
The moving company unloaded our family’s furniture, appliances and miscellaneous into several rental units. I shopped for properties for six months, finally settling on a 40-acre farm with an 1898 house in sore need of remodeling.
With all the carpentry and plumbing work required of me on weekends, I could not afford to fiddle with a balky lawn tractor. Swing Blade (a nickname foisted on the machine by my twenty-something-year-old college student sons) was always game, roaring to life on the first turn of the key and ready to engage sharpened blades in the 48-inch mowing deck.
Oh, the glorious summer Saturdays when Slide Blade and I revved and ripped through the lush grass around the house, then tackled the orchard grass-covered hillside that, for reasons of my own, I decided to make resemble the close-clipped surface of a golf course. Neither blackberry thickets nor creek banks were obstacles. Nimble as a goat and just as hungry, Sling Blade tackled all types of vegetation, whether vine-crawly, briar-gnarly, swamp-mushy or woody. He was an ATM, all-terrain mower, because most of the land around the house, barn and sheds was sloped.
Once, Sling Blade’s rear right tire came off the ground in a tight turn on a steep incline. Before I knew it, front and back end swapped, and the lawn tractor was sliding downhill. Sling Blade’s tires bit and thrust, thereby avoiding a rollover that might have resulted in broken bones or worse.
Many were the times when operator error damaged the trusty mower. When my wife ran over a tree stump – twice — despite having been shown where the obstacle was located, she was never allowed on Sling Blade again. The noise of rending blades and screech of bent shaft broke my heart, but a visit to the local small engine shop and $350 later, my favorite mower was as good as new.
Over the years, metal fatigue and mishaps took their toll. My sons, just last summer, laughed when I mowed around the patio, with the lawn tractor’s plastic hood duct-taped to the chassis, the seat overflowing foam rubber and rocking me because of collapsed springs and elastic cords holding the grass discharge door.
Of course, the headlights have been gone since 2007, the result of a miscalculation involving a low tree limb. And the plastic steering wheel is cracked, along with the mower deck height adjustment lever and instrument display.
But the heart of Sling Blade was still strong until the fateful day before Thanksgiving when I opened my friend’s stable – intending to mount and mulch maple leaves in the yard – only to find him on death’s door. Despite all the remedies I had used in the past to revive him, even dismantling the carburetor, Slide Blade was unresponsive. I tenderly held his choke control as he slipped away.
His carcass sits in a place of honor in the barn and will do so until I purchase another mower. This one likely will be a compact tractor with four-wheel drive, power takeoff, garden tiller, front-end loader and other tools.
The scoop will be handy for digging a four-foot deep hole suitable for Slide Blade’s internment once the ground thaws in April. I will not allow him to be cannibalized for parts. Too much turf has passed under us. Perhaps far in the future someone will exhume a mummified lawn tractor and wonder about whether Pharaohs of fescue once existed.
■ Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor in Tennessee and Alabama.