Going old school with my new mower


As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, August 21, 2016.

White smoke belched from my gas-powered lawn mower, accompanied by random, and quite ominous, popping sounds.

“C’mon, Murray,” I said, calling the old mower by its brand name. “Just let me finish.”

I was in the middle of my front yard on a sunny Saturday morning. Since the previous summer, Murray had been revving erratically every time I mowed, but I’d hoped its dirt-caked engine would hang on long enough to get me through one more season.

The loudest pop yet punctuated the balmy air as Murray emitted a white valedictory puff and abruptly went silent. I pulled on the starter cord again and again, but it was no use: the mower was beyond resuscitation. Crows squawked a requiem from a telephone wire above.

I looked at my lawn: half was cleanly clipped and half was still shaggy, a hippie holdout for the moment. The time for a new mower had come.

Lawn mowers are a fairly recent invention. From ancient Rome to the 19th century, the scythe — a large, curved blade fastened to a long handle — was the principal tool for taming yard growth. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that a clever Englishman named Edwin Budding revolutionized how we cut grass.

Budding’s mower, made from wrought iron, featured a bladed reel or cutting cylinder mounted on a wheeled cart that was pushed from behind. It proved to be a welcome and efficient alternative to the scythe for manicuring yards and fields. In 1830, Budding was granted a British patent for his invention and not much has changed since then: modern reel mowers are remarkably similar to his original design.

My grandmother on the Walsh side had a reel mower that she kept in the basement of her Providence bungalow because there was no shed or garage. Getting the mower in and out of the cellar window — often my brother Rob’s job, with Nana’s help — took as much time and energy as cutting her grass did.

Things were easier down the street at my maternal grandfather’s double-decker. Papa did have a garage, where he stored his reel mower, and his lawn was smaller than Nana’s. But thanks to the perpetual shade thrown by River Avenue’s towering oak trees, grass was sparse in the front yard. Mowing produced more dust than clippings, and the stirred-up clouds invariably drifted across the driveway, giving Papa’s shiny black Buick Skylark a dull brown veil.

“I just had that car washed,” he said, shaking his head after I had mowed one day.

Later that summer, my grandfather replaced his front yard’s anemic grass patches with a new “lawn” — two raised beds of freshly poured cement which, in a nod to realism, Papa had tinted lime green. I loved to “water” the new hardscape, ridding it of acorns and dead leaves. Meanwhile, the pristine Skylark, no longer subjected to mower-driven dust storms, gleamed.

Now, with my Murray expired, I headed to Lowe’s to find a successor. I was browsing power mowers by Troy-Bilt and Bolens when it suddenly occurred to me: what about a reel mower? My front lawn wasn’t much bigger than Nana’s or Papa’s had been, and my back yard was mostly pea stones and flowerbeds.

I saw a Scotts 16-inch reel mower at the end of the aisle. It was love at first sight.

Back home, Scotts made good on its promise of “easy assembly without tools.” In less than 15 minutes, I was ready to finish trimming the shaggy portion of the lawn. I pushed the mower and was instantly soothed by its gentle snip-snip-snip sound. It was like hearing a favorite song from summers long ago.

My son Evan walked onto the front porch and looked at me, dumbfounded.

“What’s that?” he said.

“A lawn mower,” I said. It could have been a dinosaur bone.

Resuming my mowing, I heard Evan say, “That’s so cool!”

Hats off to Edwin Budding. After 186 years, his ingenious invention is still cutting it.


Saying goodbye to the family beach house


As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, July 19, 2015.

I spent my summers as a boy at Scarborough Beach in Narragansett, thanks to Henry Ford’s assembly line, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s efforts to get the country out of the Great Depression, and my Auntie Tina’s powers of persuasion.

The popularity of Fords and other automobiles prompted the paving of Point Judith Road in 1928, easing access to the shore. FDR’s Public Works Administration developed the beaches at Scarborough and Sand Hill Cove in the 1930s, accelerating the transformation of Point Judith Neck into a popular summer vacation spot. Modest cottages sprang up in increasing numbers.

As for Auntie Tina, her husband, Frankie, purchased a tiny house three blocks up from Scarborough in 1951, and she convinced her brother-in-law, sister, and uncle – my grandfather – to buy adjoining lots. (Technically, Tina was a first cousin once removed, but that translated into “Auntie” in my mother’s large, close-knit family.)

My grandfather built a three-bedroom cottage on Elizabeth Road in 1957, three years before I was born. It was a study in funky woods: vertically grooved plywood siding (known by its trade name, Texture 111) and knotty pine interior walls. The house, painted vibrant red with white trim, faced south, allowing sunlight to pour through its big picture window. Relatives and friends poured in, too – the front door was always open.

Going to Scarborough as a kid meant curling waves and salty skin, hot sand underfoot and frozen Charleston Chews in hand. Someone would invariably ask Uncle Harry if he was going to swim to League Rock, which juts out of the ocean almost a quarter mile off the shore.

“Water’s too cold,” my uncle would say, as if that were his only reason for deferring.

Lifeguard whistles turned my head often: Was someone being swept away by the perilous undertow that my mother and aunts warned me about? Crackly PA announcements sounded a common refrain: “Attention please, we have a little lost boy …”

Fortunately, I was never that lost boy. At the beach, I always had family close by.

When it rained, we played cards back at the house – rummy games on the porch for the kids, canasta in the kitchen for the adults. My cousin Anne usually won the penny pool, while Auntie Etta was forever ruing the cards she was dealt: “What rotten paper!”

On August 2, 1975, temperatures in Providence reached a record high of 104 degrees. My grandfather closed his baby clothes store on Federal Hill, and just about everyone in the family streamed to Elizabeth Road. At 10:00 that night, some of us were still down at the beach, soothed by the cool caresses of the ocean, like a great, moving well of ink beneath the hazy moonlight. Amid invisible splashes, I tried to block the opening scene of “Jaws,” the summer’s blockbuster movie, from my mind. It didn’t work.

The entire family came together again the following Sunday to celebrate my grandfather’s birthday. Papa stood in the backyard, smoking a cigar and smiling as the party swirled around him. I never asked, but I was pretty sure this is why he had built the cottage – to have a place at the beach where his children and grandchildren (and, someday, great and great-great grandchildren) could gather.

The house stayed in the family through 2014, when we lost the last of a line of legendary matriarchs, sweet Auntie Marie. A “For Sale” sign went up, and someone from New York bought the property in a blink.

This past June, I headed to Narragansett, and Scarborough, for the first time since the sale. When I turned the corner at Elizabeth Road, I gasped: the house’s familiar red paint was gone, covered now with grey vinyl siding.

My reaction surprised me, and then I chuckled. What had I expected – for the cottage to stand unchanged forever, like League Rock out in the swells off a beloved stretch of beach?

It will always be my grandfather’s house to me. Vinyl may have buried its grooved wooden siding, but it can’t obscure the memories I have of summers spent there.

What a blessing they were.

Play Ball! Wiffle Ball, That Is


As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, June 1, 2014.

Baseballs and city neighborhoods don’t mix. Windows loom; shattered glass and lost allowances are just a line drive away. When I was a kid, we didn’t even think of playing hardball in my backyard on River Avenue in Providence. But we didn’t have to. We had Wiffle ball.

In 1953, in Fairfield, Conn., David Mullany came home to find his 12-year-old son trying to throw curves with a small plastic golf ball, to no avail. Mullany, a former semi-pro pitcher, knew that throwing breaking balls wasn’t good for adolescent arms. So he set out to design a ball that would let his son do so without harm.

Mullany found inspiration in an unlikely place: the hard plastic orbs that served as packaging for Coty perfume bottles. After cutting holes of various sizes and shapes in the re-purposed spheres, he arrived at an eight-slot design that made them curve and rise and sink when thrown.

While Mullany was the inventor, his son was the marketer. The 12-year-old came up with the name for the ball, a play on “whiff,” which is slang for “strike out.” (Whiffing batters was the whole point of throwing curves!) In an act of typographic economy — and branding brilliance — the Mullanys dropped the “h” in their spelling. Thus, the Wiffle ball was born.

In the early 1970s, Mullany’s plastic masterwork transformed our tiny Providence backyard into baseball heaven. We threw curves like Steve Carlton, with no fear of shredding elbow ligaments. We swung for the fences like Harmon Killebrew, with no worry of destruction.

Our playing field was quirkier than Fenway Park. The trunk of a maple tree and a clothesline post became our foul poles. An eight-foot concrete retaining wall, adorned top to bottom with a painted garden mural, provided a welcome backstop. We oriented home plate in front of one of the wall’s giant sunflowers. The span of its petals formed our strike zone.

And there were strikeouts — the curving, rising, sinking Wiffle ball lived up to its name. But there was plenty of contact, too. We rapped liners off den windows for doubles, dinged the dormer of my bedroom for triples, sent long balls over the roof for home runs. When a gutter swallowed the ball (ground-rule double), my little brother would climb out a second-floor window, creep down the crunching shingles, and pluck the ball from its aluminum holding pen. Don’t tell Mom!

The copy on the Wiffle ball package explained why the ball was a godsend to those of us playing in city backyards: “BAT IT! BOUNCE IT! SAFE ANYWHERE!”

Anywhere but our dog’s mouth, it turned out. A bouncing Wiffle ball turned Georgie into a canine Bert Campaneris. When she chased down a ball, we were one chomp away from disaster. We’d carefully pry the ball from her clench and then banish her to the house.

When a Wiffle ball did crack from all our mashing and Georgie’s gnawing, duct tape prolonged its life. And when a ball was beyond repair, we pooled our change and ran up to Wolcott’s five-and-dime on Chalkstone Avenue to get a new one. There is nothing better than pitching with a brand new Wiffle ball.

My brothers, friends and I all played Little League baseball, of course. I remember one Opening Day at Nelson Street playground: a blaze of sunshine and promise. Crisp uniforms bore the names of local sponsors: the Lawyers and the Medics, Quinn’s Funeral Home and Lions Cleansers, Fifth Ward Democrats, the Elms.

But as much as we liked organized baseball, it was Wiffle ball that we lived for. You could always get a game together — Wiffle ball accommodated various numbers of players. And best of all, like basketball, you could play one-on-one.

My best friend, Chris, and I squared off against each other for what must have been 60 Wiffle ball games in the summer of 1972. I know that the Yankees, my team, won the regular season and that the Orioles, Chris’s team, took the World Series. After the seventh game, we ran into the locker room (also known as the garage) to celebrate. I poured champagne (soda) over Chris’s head, and he took it as the honor it was intended to be.

A grainy Super 8mm film from 1967 plays in my mind: I see my father in Bermuda shorts, cigarette in one hand, Wiffle ball in the other. He pitches to me, and I hit a hard liner off his calf. “Ow!” he mouths, grabbing his leg. Then he grins at me in approval.

Cross-fade to a video from 1997: now it’s me as dad, throwing a pitch in the backyard to my 4-year-old son. I watch as the Wiffle ball, like the arc of my life, bends to his eager swing.


Saying Goodbye To Summer

Technically, summer doesn’t end until September 22 at 10:49 a.m. But let’s face it: the start of school on Wednesday effectively put a fork in the lazy, hazy days we love. This weekend is summer’s swan song; Labor Day, its last hurrah.

So what exactly is a swan song? The term has been around for centuries, based on the legend that swans sing a beautiful song just before they die. Never mind that there’s no truth to it, as Pliny the Elder tried to point out in 77 AD. The idea proved irresistible to everyone from Chaucer (“The jealous swan, sings before his death”) to Led Zeppelin, which named its record label Swan Song Records.

Last hurrah, on the other hand, is a modern term, meaning “a final appearance or performance”. It comes from “The Last Hurrah” by Edwin O’Connor, published in 1956. The celebrated novel tells the story of Boston mayor Frank Skeffington and his unsuccessful reelection run against a young upstart. O’Connor was a Rhode Islander, a graduate of La Salle Academy, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1962.

Of course, the end of summer is neither swan song nor last hurrah. The seasons continue their eternal cycle, proving that “this old world must still be spinning ’round”, as James Taylor sings. So mark your calendar: summer returns next June 21 at 1:04 a.m.

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