The Mowtown Mowdown 2016

I was in Motown; Motor City, Detroit to the layperson, standing near a makeshift bonfire under a starlit sky surrounded by every manner of men and women; all who stunk to high heaven of sweat and gasoline, oil and grass (just like me).  Gas generators powered pole lights while the gang-leader barked praises to a bunch of semi-inebriated lawnmower jockeys.  Had I not known better, I would have associated such a scene with some bizarre Lord of the Flies nightmare.  But it wasn’t.  This was intentional.  I meant to be there.

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Detroit, MI – Motor City, USA

For nearly three years I had been trying to join up with the infamous Detroit Mower Gang.  It has taken nearly that long to come to terms with my original exposure to the group.  You see, while reluctantly watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, for the first time I witnessed some real beauty in the Motor City through the camera’s lens, even if I had to squint to see beyond that big-headed, Clark’s shoe wearing, smug hipster deity that is Bourdain.  Toward the tail end of the episode, my soon-to-be new addiction presented itself.

After Bourdain’s monologue, which I assumed came from the pages of a well-worn Moleskin, splattered with droplets of Chateau something-or-other, carefully dubbed ever so delicately in post, a beautiful scene unfolded behind the long-winded host.  A dream, a vision in the form of a bunch of rag-tag heathens attacking the inner city grass with part hatred, part vengeance, and part committed resolve.

“Meet…the mower gang,” Anthony’s voice offered over a frame of grass-spewing slow motion opulence.

The Gang Leader, Tom Nardone, was introduced via my television set.  When I finally did meet Tom in person I realized his camera fearlessness illustrated on Parts Unknown would be replicated many times over.  This guy has a true confidence and resolve that springs from some inner place I have yet to find in my own self.  And he’s fucking nuts…if that helps.

My eyes were glazed over watching the short clip unfold.  The Misses, far too familiar with my previous hair brained adventures, including driving cross country by motorcycle several times (once to the Arctic Circle), and a boat trip down the Mississippi in a seventeen foot 1960’s aluminum cuddy, recognized the twinkle in my eye immediately.  Eyes rolled as the interview continued.

“Even kids need some justice, don’t you think?”  Tom asked the screen.

“Hell yea, we all deserve just tits!”  I screamed at the T.V., now giddy with excitement.

“You heard what he said dummy.  You’re acting like a madman.”

“I know I am babe.”  Cue the obligatory triumphant background music.  “You know why?”  Now standing, hands fisted against my waist, my imaginary cape flapping in the wind.  “Because I’m going to join the Mower Gang!”

She gave me the yea-right look, but deep down I think she could tell I was serious.  I nearly spilled my beer I was so excited.

Fast forward three years.  I would love to say the stars aligned and that fate was the underlying reason I was finally making the trip north, but ultimately they hadn’t.  It had been a rough spring already.  While planning for the trip to Detroit, I began a spell with my cluster headaches (also known as suicide headaches.)  I won’t bore you with the medical mumbo-jumbo, but they’re really bad.  The only treatment that seems to work for me is a hero’s dosage of the steroid Prednisone.  And to add more insult to injury, literally, the Misses had severely injured her foot when the mowing trailer jumped its stand and landed dead center of her right foot.  Fortunately, the trailer was empty.  More fortunate was that it wasn’t broken, even though the Doctor and X-Ray tech initially guaranteed us it was.  We ended up spending Derby Day in the emergency waiting room.  For two red-blooded Kentuckians, that was a pain only surpassed by the busted foot, and just barely.

So, my steroid-induced hyperactivity coupled with my wife’s injury-induced cabin fever prompted her resounding affirmation for me to head north to help strangers in a strange city mow for strangers.  After reading through the Mowtown Mowdown description on the Gang’s website, I decided I had what it took to become the Grand Champion.  That is, the person who mows the most grass during the twelve hour marathon.  I owned several manicured acres for practice.  I had fine-tuned experience in operating my zero-radius, a weed-eater and all equipment associated with lawn care.  I possessed endurance, stamina and the mechanical ability to keep my craft continually mowing during the most perilous of circumstances.  I might as well send my measurements so the Mower Gang could tailor the championship belt to my size.

I spent several days prior to departure preparing for every foreseeable incident that would thwart my chances at victory.  Everything on the following list was either loaded into my trusty Toyota “Blair,” or placed on my trailer:

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The Set Up

—12’ plastic coated log chain with hooks (for pulling out stuck mowers or securing the equipment from theft at night)

—Two short extension cords

—Duralast wrench set

—Portable air tank

—Kobalt two gallon air compressor

—Floor jack

—Two jack stands

—Piece of pipe

—Wood block

—3/4” Craftsman air wrench

—Set of three spare mulching blades

—Assorted bungee cords

—5 quarts Valvoline oil

—One quart bar and chain oil

—Stihl two-cycle oil

—Mix fuel tank

—Small five gallon tank

—Twenty-nine gallon portable fuel tank

—Two sets of spare belts

—Large and small bolt cutters

—EZ Reacher (grabber)

—Lowe’s 5 gallon bucket

—Ball peen hammer

—Rope

—Ratchet straps

—Dust mask

—Ear protection

—Eye protection

—Grease

—Miscellaneous hand tools

—Tape

—Gloves

—Razor knife

—WD-40

—Fix-a-flat

The mowing equipment consisted of the following:

—Husqvarna 435 chainsaw

—Stihl KM 110R weed eater and trimmer

—Stihl BR 600 Blower

—Husqvarna 223L weed eater

—Echo SRM-225 weed eater

—and the star of the show:  EX Mark 60” zero radius mower with weed eater rack

To gain some much needed style points, I outfitted the mower with a new paint job and a portable speaker with iPhone compatibility.

After all the preparations, spray paint job, and blade sharpening, the day to present myself as a challenger as the mower champion finally arrived.  I met the Misses in town.  She was freshly outfitted with a Robocop boot and was elbow deep cleaning one of her Airbnb rental properties. I felt bad for leaving her in such a condition but she insisted I go.  I kissed her good-bye and climbed aboard Blair, bound for the big city.

To keep my mind from missing the Misses, I decided to occupy my time by coming up with a name for my mower.  She had never been properly christened, and I realized I had better do it quick.  Detroit might just be her final voyage.

Hmmmm, it has to do something with Detroit.  Motor-man?  Nah, that’s no good.  Nardone-drone?” Nah, no good either.  Ok, what is Detroit known for?  Cars?  Steel?  Crack?  No, good Detroit; not media-Detroit.  True Detroit.  Mowtown?  Yes, that’s a start.  How about Diana Ross?  That’s pretty sweet.  Or Eminiem?  No, too chocolatey.

Then it dawned on me.  I remembered!  Pam Dawber is from Detroit!  As in Mork and Mindy!  As in coked-up Robin Williams bouncing off the screen and into living rooms, far sooner than his time, and hers!

“From this point ye shall be known as Mowing Mindy,” I barked to the trailer via my rear view mirror. The freshly dubbed Mindy nodded her approval by way of road bumps as I navigated through Cincinnati mid-day traffic.

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Mindy

The GPS acted as a constant countdown, complete with occasional “T-minus” updates.  My nerves twitched with excitement.  I went to a dark place the closer the city loomed. Given the current condition of Detroit coupled with all I had heard and read, I wasn’t sure I would even make it out alive.  Blair topped the bridge as a SUV with huge rims pulled alongside.

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I was nearing Motor City.  Time to get my head right.  Get my mind right.  Time for some attitude.  I leaned back deep against my seat, taking a “don’t-give-a-fuck” stance while Rage Against the Machine blared from the speakers.  Time to present myself to the town.  Down the windows went.  I’m sure to the average observer; I looked like a big dumb cracker, obligatory mower in tow to complete the white trash image.  But in my mind, I was tough.  I was ready.  I was local.

That facade came crashing down when I stopped for fuel.  I pulled into a Shell station without first checking my location.  Eight Mile.  I was on freakin’ Eight Mile!  Toughen up.  Show no fear.  Outside I felt Street, but inside I was a sniffling  little girl with pigtails.  I want my mommy!

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Eight Mile

Just like anything, there are degrees of perception.  The Eight Mile I was sitting at was not the Eight Mile that made Eminiem.  This Eight Mile was just like any street in America.  I went a few blocks more, closing in on my Airbnb lodging for the weekend to find beautiful mid-century modern houses and buildings, beautiful people, a hipster bicycle caravan and a kid walking the biggest Rottweiler I have ever seen!

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My Ferndale Airbnb House

Not much rap-ready angst there.  The only roughness I found was from the neighbor to the right of my house rental.  As I dropped my trailer she came out to give me dirty looks and ask that I be quieter.  She wanted “mommy time,” which I assumed meant a secret smoke break since she was palming a Marlboro, and asked that I not interrupt ‘Cyrus’ from his nap time.

Since Detroit was much softer than I had imagined, at least the faux Detroit I had entered, I decided to explore the city.  I headed toward downtown as the dusk sky changed over from orange to blue.  As I drove I came upon an entire section of town without power.  Only a few flashing police lights remained for sparse illumination.  Shadows of people moved all around, morphing into an unlit collage just beyond my sight line.  It was eerie, and I felt uneasy, so I cut my tour short.

Before heading back to my cozy bungalow, I had to refuel with some much deserved dinner.  I self-elected myself to the position of Single-Day Ambassador.  The first task of my new post was to finally put to rest the decades’ long rivalry between Lafayette Coney and American Coney.  In case you didn’t know, Detroit locals take their Coneys seriously.  And while there may be much better off-the-beaten-path Coneys out there (and the OTBP ones usually are), I’m a tourist…nay ambassador.  Therefore, I had to partake of at least one touristy thing.

I started at American.  It was nice.  Clean.  Friendly staff.  And the Coney was damn good.  But let me tell you about Lafayette.  It was a full blown madhouse.  Upon entry, the sounds of people yelling and hustling about mixed with the smells of all manners of bad-for-you late night eats which resulted in a sensory swirl that was borderline hypnotic.

I slipped into a chair at one of the many communal tables.  A small glass was quickly filled with water and slid in front of me by a heavy accented attendant.  I’m sure this routine is even more of a necessity as the late-night drunks begin filing in.

“Whaddya have?”  No menu, everything you need is written on the board.

“Two coneys and some cheese fries.”

“You gottit.”  He barked at the kitchen and returned.

“Uh, I’ve never been in here before.  I haven’t paid.  Should I…”

“Nah,” he reassured me.  “Just sit back ana’ chill.  First you eat, then you-a pay.  Ok?”  I nodded and pulled the bar down inside my mind, now mentally ready to ride this ride.

The food arrived and I dove in head first.  I never knew a damn hotdog could be so good.  It bordered luxurious.  The chatter continued, but I managed to tune it out with the concentration of a major league pitcher, deep in blissful concentration.  I had forgotten I brought an empty American Coney bag inside with a half-drunk bottle of water.

“Whaddya doin?  Got a little taste test a-goin?”

“Oh yea, I forgot.  I went next door before here.”

“Well?  Who’s is better?  And be honest.”

“Oh,” I returned.  “You guys kicked the shit out of theirs.  Best fucking Coney I have ever had…seriously.”  He jumped up in a quasi-victory dance, one he has probably exhibited before to dump tourists like me.

“That’s-a whatta’ we like to hear!”  I smiled while my taste buds tingled all over.  And even though my choice to sample multiple Coneys in a strange town immediately preceding 12 hours atop a lawnmower was not the wisest decision I have ever made, for now I enjoyed it.

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7:00 a.m. Mindy and Blair ready to roll…

I was up and moving by 7:00 am.  The sun was hard to locate through the overcast haze that blanketed the street.  I began hooking up my trailer, checking tire pressures, oil levels, loaded weed-eater string, as my neighbor exited her house to begin her dog walk.  We chatted for a minute.  She was in a much better mood, especially once she realized that my presence in her city was one of peace and goodwill.  She wished me luck as I eased out the driveway and toward the one destination that would determine if the day would be successful or not:  breakfast.

Just up the street was a place I eyeballed the night before called the Fly Trap.  People started lining for entry into the Fly Trap 10 minutes before the doors opened.  While waiting in line, the lady in front of me found a treasure.

“One penny.  Oh two pennies.  You’re such dingy little guys.  Oh and a third!  I’m gonna wash you when I get home.”  I hoped some of her newfound luck would grace me by proxy.

I pushed my legs under the bar top, which was adorned with a gazillion embedded marbles.  Ha!  I get it, a marble top bar.  Cute.  The menu was littered with a plethora of good eats with names like Red Flannel hash, A Forager, Slacker Special and Crab cakes and Eggs.  I hoped the combination of delicious homemade organic food would make peace with the Coneys now rioting inside my belly, or else I feared they would gang up and both fight their way out of my ass amidst a long day of mowing with sparse restroom availability.  I passed on their homemade hot sauces for fear I would just re-insight the riot.  My selected dish had an assortment of beets mixed in with hash topped with an egg and a side of homemade sourdough bread.  The combination of beets and hash was amazing!  I couldn’t finish my plate even though I was on my final dosage of steroids.  It was amazing food, great people, and a wonderful experience.

Thoroughly satisfied, I left the Fly Trap with purpose.  It was go time!  I had to get ready for the war, the all-day assault against the grass.  I unbuckled all but a few key straps and tie-downs, that way I could exit the trailer with greater speed than the rest of the participants, I mean competitors.  As a Kentucky boy there was no way I was letting anyone else beat me out-of-the-gates!  I rechecked fuel levels and loaded equipment onto Mindy.  I began to imagine myself as the mowing version of the Knight Rider.  Note to self:  next year I need a semi-truck so I can exit off the trailer backwards while the truck is still rolling.

The Craftsman Mowtown Mowdown was the Mower Gang’s blue ribbon event.  The format was simple:  mow as many unkempt parks and playgrounds as possible in a twelve hour period, beginning at 10 a.m. and ending at 10 p.m.  Everyone gathers at O’Shea Playground for opening ceremonies, team assignment and general caveman activities like scratching, spitting, and walking around grunting while looking at your fellow shaved mastodon’s tools.  The event ends at Dorais Playground, home of the Velodrome, where dogs and burgers are cooked, beer is offered and stories are exchanged.  But most importantly, the Craftsman Mowtown Mowdown Grand Champion is awarded.

The Championship belt, which looks like a glorified Wrestle Mania title belt, and a set of Craftsman tools are given to the person judged to mow the most grass during the event.  Other awards are given, but I knew that belt was as good as mine.

Why?  Here’s why:  I live on a twenty acre farm in Lexington, Kentucky, which I mow and manicure constantly.  I cut multiple commercial properties that my family owns as well.  I had been unknowingly practicing for this event since I was a child.  I had all the tools.  I possessed the necessary skill to keep my machine running.  My motorcycle trip to Alaska helped further condition my iron-butt, and now that I found an organized event that both helps people as well as validates a life misspent atop spinning blades, that title was a cinch.  These amateurs didn’t know anything about mowing.  As Blair rounded the final bend on approach to O’Shea Playground, I realized I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I had driven face first into a circus.  The scene was that of an absolute madhouse.  Trucks and cars and trailers scattered the area directly in front of O’Shea.  Tractors and mowers and weed eaters and chainsaws were littered everywhere.  People were moving about wherever there was grass.  I was half an hour early but it still seemed like I was the last one to the party.  Cameras flashed, video cameras were set up on tripods, banners hung from the building.  A drone, that’s right, a drone was being tested as it hovered above the action.  I dropped my ramp and quickly unloaded Mindy.

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Gang Leader Tom Nardone

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I didn’t know what to do.  It seemed like beautiful organized chaos.  I dismounted my mower and stood there, dumbfounded.  Tom spotted me almost immediately.

“Hey, new guy, don’t think we’ve met.”  I spun around to find the gang leader walking toward me, arm extended.  His high energy always seemed to produce a dust cloud under his feet.

“Hi, I’m Chad.”

“Glad you could join us today.  Where you from?”

“Kentucky.”

“Kentucky?  Really?  That’s great!  Chad from Kentucky.  Kentucky Chad.”  And the nickname for the day was born.  “I can’t believe you came all the way from Kentucky.  Well, most of these guys are just playing around right now.  They get anxious and take off.  Hang out by the stage up there.  We’re going to make an announcement, take a group photo then have an official start to the day.”  He took the time to thank me for coming then took off as the eye of an entourage storm, dust cloud following.

Before the official start, the Mower Gang thanked their new sponsor, Craftsman.  Craftsman had given the Gang several brand spanking new mowers to use as they please, as well as some cool swag, my favorite of which was a wrench shaped bottle opener.    Tom talked a little from the makeshift stage via a generator powered speaker system.  The local news was on site as well as Craftsman’s marketing team.  After the intro, Tom asked that all grass gladiators hop up on stage for a group photo.  As the group stood there, dozens of lenses faced our direction.  I felt like a celebrity.  Then Tom presented the Mowtown Mowdown Championship belt for everyone to see.  Even though I would fail a post-Mowdown drug test, especially since my last dose of Prednisone was taken pre-breakfast, I was sure to be united with the belt a short twelve hours in the future.

Like a redneck’s wet-dream, the “gentlemen, start you mowers” command was given.  Dozens of mowers and tractors and chainsaws and weed eaters and blowers roared to life.  I climbed aboard Mindy, my weed eater resting against my shoulder, and joined the fray.  We mowed in formation, blasting shredded grass from the chute into the air.  A drone from Craftsman’s team hovered back and forth.  News crews scattered to catch the perfect angle for the perfect shot.  Tree limbs fell.  Debris was gathered.  The Gang absolutely attacked O’Shea.

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Gang Bangin’ the Grass!

At one point I ventured off to mow the former baseball field at the far end of the park.  I hammered across uncut grass bouncing and laughing like a madman.  I ended up straddling home plate and claimed myself the victor of some unseen mower baseball game.  But as I swung around I found a swarm of anxious mowers following my path.  Striking out sometimes resulted in a team of fellow grass assassins to give chase on the off chance that I knew what the hell I was doing.  We finished the field and rejoined the main group where I mowed, weed-eated and even helped trim around a blue whale in the playground.  I mean, how many people can say they got to mow a blue whale?

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Me “weed whackin'” the Blue Whale

About an hour later, O’Shea was done.  At this point the gang was instructed to break into smaller gangs.  Various team leaders waited on the stage for volunteers.  I walked over to the first team leader I came to; a gent named Blake Wilcox.

“You want me with y’all?”  Blake gave me a once over.

“Yea, we’ll take you.”  Blake had a down-to-business demeanor.  I wanted to reassure him that I would be a good edition to the A-Team, the title of our little sub-gang.  I was, after all, the future Grand Champion.  But I decided to let my mowing expertise speak for itself as my live resume.

Preparing to depart O’Shea I loaded my trailer as a middle aged black man sporting a jerry-curl with an 80’s sheen passed by me on a bicycle.

“You getting it together, right?”

“Yessir, I’m getting it done.”  He seemed to approve and continued his route.  At that point my inner Forrest Gump kicked in:  “I cut that grass for free.”

The first school to feel the blades of the A-Team was Burgess Elementary.  When I arrived I found another group already working on the school.  It wasn’t anyone from our small group, and since I drove fast (without properly lashing down my mower) I beat the rest of the Gang to the property.  Arriving at an abandoned school to find a rouge team already working would repeat itself throughout the day.  That group was mostly clearing trees and bushes from the side of the property.  They waved cordially, but I was in competition mode.  I circled the block an extra time, just to let ‘em know that lawn belonged to this dog.

Our focus was first and foremost the playgrounds.  Most of the schools had great playgrounds, some with vintage equipment and some with brand spanking new stuff, but with unkempt grass and nonexistent pathways, those otherwise pristine playgrounds were useless.  Enter the Mower Gang (da-da-dum, capes flapping in the wind)!

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After hitting the rear yard, I struck out on my own and headed to the front of the old school.  Mindy was outfitted with a striping kit, and I wanted to give at least one school the best manicured lawn in the neighborhood.  I painstakingly went up and back, up and back, laying down the perfect light and dark stripes running parallel to the sidewalk.  And then it happened.  I hit a paper bomb.

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Paper Bomb Aftermath!

I later found out paper bombs were a semi-common anomaly.  Old balls of paper swell and contract over time.  After a while, they break down and become harmless, but every now and then, at the perfect time, a careless driver (yours truly in this incidence) will drive over what looks to be a harmless wad of paper expecting it to shoot out the other side like a tennis ball.  Instead, an eruption of papers explodes from the side chute, darkening the sky with pulp ash until the eruption subsides.

My perfectly manicured yard now looked like it was Christmas in May.  I cleared it off the best I could and re-striped.  Satisfied, I loaded my mower and chatted with the gang.  Since my trailer had a built in ramp, it usually took me less time to load after each stop, thus boosting my productivity, allowing me to arrive at the next stop first and further  securing my lock on the coveted championship belt.  I rolled down the windows to vent my creeping work stench, blared the radio, and headed down the road.

On the way to Fargo-Oakfield Playground, something happened that instantly catapulted me to legendary status for the day.  I turned onto Oakfield Avenue at full speed, well ahead the rest of the crew.  About mid-block I slowed to check the addresses when a lady flagged me down.

“Yes ma’am?”

“You working today?”  She had no idea.

“Uh, yea, I’m working.  What do you mean?”

“Well, we got a letter saying we was supposed to clean our yard up and mow.  But my mower is broke.  What you charge for a yard?”

My brain couldn’t process this inconvenient pit stop mid-race.

“I’m not ‘working’ working.  I’m mowing playgrounds and such.”

“Well I need my yard mowed.  What would you charge me to do it?”

I looked over her shoulder.  It wasn’t a big yard.  It needed some serious attention, but it could be done easily with the equipment I had on board.

“Ah hell, why not.”  She grinned ear to ear as I dropped the rear gate and sprang into action.  I crossed the street aboard Mindy as the Mower Gang convoy passed by, hands waving and eyebrows furled.

The yard only took a couple of swipes.  The back yard was a different story.  It had knee high (or higher) grass that, due to an incapacitated vehicle, had to be entirely cut with the weed eater.  Chest out-jutted, cape flapping patriotically, I entered the back yard.

I cut and hacked that yard back into submission, one half-moon swipe at a time.  Broken glass and gravel occasionally nicked my bare legs.  I was already grassy, now bloody too, the benchmarks for a good day of mowing.

My audience was two little boys who seemed all too fascinated to watch a grown man do battle with an overrun yard while humming the Superman theme song to himself.  I eventually let them get in on the action, allowing them to take turns squeezing the throttle and helping me guide the weed eater around the yard.

When I finished, the mother came out already digging in her purse.

“Oh no ma’am.  Glad to help.  Hope the yard looks alright.”  I knew it did.  It was striped, edged and even the back yard was shaped up enough so that her kids could play.

“Oh thank you so much.  We really appreciate it.”  Her boys were already climbing on Mindy.

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Future Mowtown Mowdown Mowers!

Instead of payment, I asked if I could take a picture of her sons aboard my mower.  I told her I needed proof of my story so that my Team Leader and fellow mowers wouldn’t think I was slacking.  She and her two sons were all too happy to oblige.

I joined the gang already in progress another block up the street at Fargo-Oakfield Playground.  It was a large and smooth park with a playground right in the center of a field.  It was fairly straightforward, so we finished it quickly.  To make-up for my tardiness, I edged and blew off the entryway and surrounding sidewalks.  A couple of the guys asked about my detour.  They approved of my explanation and we continued on.

Viola Liuzzo Playground was our next stop.  It looked innocent enough.  It was flat. The grass wasn’t particularly high; pretty straightforward.  But we lost a lot of men at Viola.  A lot of good men.  Even our team leader’s mower had totally conked out due to a shot rear end and had to be pushed back to his truck.  At the half-way mark we were already down by half.  The A-Team had some serious ground to cover.  Thankfully the most American of salvations was next.

McDonald’s was our lunch spot.  Thanks to diligent and shameless fundraising in the off season, Mickie D’s agreed to provide vouchers for all the grass covered lawn knights who entered their establishment.  We arrived as a group looking like some sort of redneck carnival, parts and pieces hanging from disheveled pickup beds and trailers, weary zombies speckled with clippings and oil and sweat hobbled to the main entrance and inside.  I’m sure we provided nothing in the way of positive advertising for the American staple, but we were thankful for the break and bite nonetheless.

During our meal we conversed like men swapping glorious maritime tales of yard monsters and obstacles too fierce for weaker men to overcome.  One fella’ in our midst stood out.  He was an older gent who drove a van with ramps to load his riding mower.  He was the deal-maker of the group.  Seemed like every piece of equipment he owned cost $20.  The mower, the weed eater, the ramps; hell, I assumed even the van.  I never got his name (maritime rule of anonymity and all) but in my mind I teetered back-and-forth between twenty-buck-Chuck or twenty dollar Bill.  Either one a fitting name I thought.

Bellies laden with our compensation for working hard thus far, we headed back out for more.  The hillbilly procession set course for Courville Elementary.  The haze and occasional drizzle had passed.  I dropped the windows down, turned the radio up and soaked in a perfect day.  “Back in Black” by AC/DC blared through the speakers as we arrived at Courville.  The school was, or at least had been, amazing.  It looked like a sprawling English mansion.  Beautiful stonework and rising archways gave living tribute to craftsmen long since extinct.  It broke my heart to see such a beautiful structure slowly dying.  We could at least give the old gal a good sprucing up.

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Courville Elementary School

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The grass seemed to get thicker at each stop.  As the day lingered on, our numbers shrunk while the work got harder.  Equipment was rapidly failing at a time when we needed it most.  On top of our diminishing numbers were other new fears.

At Courville, I stumbled upon a particularly menacing hazard.  I dubbed this new nemesis the “Ghost Palisades.”  During the course of the day I noticed the peculiar absence of anything metal from these old schools.  I am told Detroit’s failing economy has given rise to a rampant scrapper population.  Scrappers hustle anything metal in order to make a quick buck at the scrapyard…thus called scrappers.  The problem is, they’re not all surgeons.  It’s a grab and go profession, which leads me back to the palisades.

At one point, many schools were encircled by chain-link fencing.  Sometime after the schools closed, scrappers swooped in and cut the fences off at the base, loaded up their bounty and headed out to cash in.  The problem left for me was dozens and dozens of serrated metal pipes embedded into the ground hiding just below the grass line.  As I mowed, I would occasionally veer onto a former fence line path.  Like protecting a medieval castle from approaching marauders, the Ghost Palisades would impale unsuspecting mowers and tires violently and effortlessly.  On one particularly bad pass, the deck of my mower jumped a steel spike and became trapped.  I quickly disengaged the unit to prevent further damage to an already overtaxed blade.  Mindy bucked back and forth against the snare, fighting for freedom.  Finally a little throttle goose-to-wheelie provided enough give to escape.  Although Mindy had her escape, Twenty-Buck-Chuck wasn’t so lucky.  During a rogue mowing pass his front tire had been run-through.  His day was over.

Our A-Team’s leader made this progress entry via Facebook:

“A-Team is making progress at Courville Elementary but is now down to two         mowers.”

On one hand, I was sad to see yet another member down for the count.  On the other hand, each person that dropped brought me closer to the inevitable union of man and championship belt.  Internally I laughed a most maniacal laugh while outwardly showing concern.

Next on the list was Mason Elementary.  Mason was bad.  I mean really bad.  It was the most intimidating school of the day.  There was no clear entry point, the houses surrounding the school were in rough shape.  All manners of stereotypical people scurried here and there.  I parked opposite the playground, found an opening, and drove inside aboard Mindy.  A rough looking group of men and women occupied the playground.  But I plowed full speed ahead, undeterred that there may be some people that did not actually want our help.

I went to work cutting and weed eating.  Since there were vines growing through parts of the playground, I unsheathed my secret weapon:  a Stihl base with hedge trimmer extension.  Saplings and vines fell.  I loaned a spare weed eater, which he called a weed-whip, to our team-leader Blake, aka Hannibal.  Right when things were going well, disaster struck again.

While finishing up the far end of the playground in tandem with the only other remaining mower jockey, his machine came to a sputtering halt.  He had run over, and I’m not making this up, a Scooby Doo Mystery Machine Slinky.  The blades of his yellow mower were entangled in a losing battle with miles of metal shrapnel.  I finished up and helped assess the damage.  It was hopeless.  Like, it’s all tangled up Scoob.  Ruh-roh.  The heat was really getting to me.

From Blake’s post:

“A-Team is done with Mason Elementary.  Headed to Van Zile Elementary.  We are down to one functional mower so if anyone is done early and looking to do a little more mowing we can use a hand.”

It was official.  I was the last man standing; the lone representative for the A-Team.  Don’t worry boys, I’ll do you proud!

Fortunately for us, Van Zile already had a fresh cut, so we headed to the Dorais Playground near the Velodrome.  Dorais was huge.  I was sure there was no way the Mower Gang would attempt to trim the whole place.  Likely it would hit the edges and call it a day, right?

I parked Blair near the Velodrome, an awesome high-banked track formerly used as a world-class bicycling loop.  Now it is in disrepair, but its former glory can still be seen by those with a little imagination.  It now functions as a sort of Mad Max proving ground for any vehicle pilot willing to brave its high walls.  I saw Mini-bikes, bicycles, scooters and even a guy on motorcycle drop into the toilet bowl for a lap or two.

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The Velodrome!

I thought about taking a lap on Mindy.  But I couldn’t rest.  I couldn’t let my team down.  I was so close to the finish line of this maddening do-good marathon.  I was the last man standing from our team but there would surely be other challengers.  My mind was shifting from philanthropist to competitor.  I was tired, but ready; smelly, but sound.  My machine and I were one.  Nothing could stop us now.  And then it happened:  my nemesis materialized.

I didn’t know Dan and Dan didn’t know me.  As I took a short break to regroup before tackling Dorais, Dan arrived driving a tricked out vehicle complete with bad-ass rims.  His mower was tethered to a matching trailer.  At least that’s what my sun-cooked mind remembered.  I snarled.  He was the one to beat, I knew it instantly.

I got to it.  Many of the other Gang Members swarmed onto the field unknowing that I was already locked in fierce competition with someone who didn’t even know we were competing.  Touché Dan…pretend you don’t see me.  Well, I can play that game too.

I began mowing the steep hill behind the Velodrone.  In my head I was putting on a clinic for controlling Mindy over such treacherous terrain.  But honestly, I did it because it was fun.  Up the hill and down the hill; it was like a roller coaster.  My blades were as dull as my mind, but damn it, I was having fun.

Back to business.  I needed to let Danger Dan know I was playing for keeps.  Most of the Gang was sport mowing by this point.  They would cut for a minute, drink a beer, have a burger and cut some more grass.  Not me.  I was on a mission.  I was a pro.  And I wanted…that…belt.

I waited until Dan was on the bottom sweep of his line.  Then I made my move.  I darted the mower toward my trailer like I was going to toss in the towel.  Then, I hopped off my ride, jogged over to the trailer like a pit-man at the Indy 500, and grabbed the fuel can for a quick splash and go.  That’s right Dan, I’m refueling.  As in, I’m just getting started.  Dan mowed off in the opposite direction, pretending to be oblivious to the epic battle that was waging inside my mind.

I kept mowing.  Fatigue was setting in.  The last remnants of the Prednisone left my body in parallel with the McDonald’s lunch.  I hit another paper bomb somewhere near the edge of the park.  I also dodged an agitated duck-chupa cabra hybrid that was hiding in the bushes.  It mounted a vicious offensive against my mower and I gladly retreated.  Somewhere during the duck attack, one of my blades became loose and stopped cutting.  My mower limped back to home base, defeated.  I should have stopped.  I was tired.  My mower was bruised and beaten, but my nemesis Dan provoked me.

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The Duck / Chupa Cabra Creature

As I arrived at my trailer, Dan pulled up a few feet away.  He hopped from his mower, grabbed a beer, and then one-handed refueled his mower.  Damn he’s good.  There’s no way I can stop now.  I countered by grabbing the jack from my trailer and crawling under the deck to tighten the loose blade.  Good as new.  What else you got Dan?

It was now dusk.  Mowers darted randomly across the giant green universe.  A bonfire near the track was flickering shadows across the field.  The smells of hot dogs and hamburgers lingered like a summoning fog.  Craftsman’s team sent out a drone that looked too similar to a UFO, circling the last remaining grass gladiators.  There were only three mowers still hacking their way through the darkness.  Then it happened.  The lights came on.

final three
Dan’s Lights

A swath of illumination sprayed from the front of the other two mowers.  Lights!  Why didn’t I have lights?  Fucking Dan!  I slid in behind the other two and followed their beams blindly, refusing to quit mowing, but totally blind.  This continued for a while until our team leader drove out in his truck to save us from ourselves and escort the remaining champions back to home base.  We arrived to a hero’s welcome of applause and beer spray.  The tribe approved of our sacrifice.

After loading Mindy, I walked over to the group.  I was pampered with all the spoils of war.  Doritos, hamburgers with toasted buns, and best of all…beer.  Oh, glorious beer.  Since I had been on medication, the post-Mowdown beverage was the first beer I had had in months.  Atwater Lager was the label in my hand.  It was soooooo goooood.  And if one was good, hell two…

The award ceremony was a loose and informal affair.  Tom stood opposite the bon-fire in front of a series of flood lights.  He yelled in competition with the small Ryobi generator that powered the lights.  After a quick speech and thanks to everyone for doing such a great job, it was time for some trophies.

Even the trophies had a Mower Gang twist.  Rather than spend valuable resources on gaudy towers that looked like every other trophy, the Mower Gang made their own.  And quite intentionally lazily I might add.  Trophies consisted of a mower blade, painted gold and hammered into a two-by-four with a magic marker dictating the actual title of the award.  Apparently the awards change from year-to-year and the Gang likes to be able to alter their selections on the fly.

The first series of awards were given.  I was called to the podium (slash gravel spot next to Tom) to receive an award.

“Blake, where’s your guy?  The Kentucky guy.  Folks he drove all the way from Kentucky just to help us out today.  How about that?”

Confused looks crossed the faces of fellow mowing dignitaries.  I fielded questions like a press secretary.

“How did you find out about us?”

“Uh, I think I saw an episode of America’s Most Wanted that featured most of you and decided to join up.”

“I love this guy,” Tom hooted as he handed my award to my free hand.  The other hand clutched the real trophy:  another can of Atwater.  And if two is good, hell three…  I departed the podium slash gravel spot next to Tom, gave a thumbs up and receded back into the crowd.

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This Guy!

Finally the grand finale of the day arrived:  the passing of the Championship Belt.  I knew I was in contention.  I had weed-eated, blown, carried, cleared and cut grass clear across the whole city of Detroit.  I was an ambassador, except in smells.  I was upbeat.  I even took time to help a family direct when asked.  And most of all, I had fun.  Lots of fun!

I was standing next to Dan when Tom began telling a story about this year’s champion.  The story was unfamiliar to me, so I knew who that Champ would be.  Dan was presented the Championship Belt deservedly and honestly.  He had beaten me in several aspects.  I knew I probably mowed as much as Dan, but the zero radius mower requires two hands to operate.  Dan always had a free beer hand.  Point One for Dan.  Dan had a much cooler car.  Point Two for Dan.  Dan had lights.  Point Three Dan.  And even though I had a good time, Dan had fun.  Point Four and Match for Dan.

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Grand Champion Dan

Of course my Chad versus Dan rivalry is totally tongue in cheek…mostly because Dan wasn’t even aware that we were emblazoned in a sudden death showdown.  It was totally a figment of my own mind, a mirage resulting in too much caffeine, to few vegetables, too much sun and the steady hammering of a shockless suspension.

After the mowing was done, we all drank beer and hung out by a fire already forgetting about awards and focusing on even more fun to end a wonderful day.  Anyone can take a trip somewhere; board a jet and you’re there.  We got to mow Detroit.  Anyone can go see tourist spots that an infinite number of eyes have viewed before.  We got to see places few ever get to see (and a few that nobody should ever see.)  We met people, ate food, laughed, and worked.  And we were rewarded for our work.  But instead of monetary compensation, we instead received a steady payment of smiles and smacks on the backs and thumbs’ up and thanks.

So there I was, surrounded by stinky men (and women), laughing and drinking and eating, dancing around the glow of the evening fire in a place that all the newscasters and all the statistics tell us not to be.  But we were there, triumphant in our unsung efforts to help people direct at the source.

The Mower Gang is easy enough to join.  Just bring a mower or “weed-whip” or blower or push mower or even just a rake.  No matter the implement, they will find work for you.  The initiation is hard work in a baptism of grass clippings.  There’s no membership fees, no dues, no Saturday morning fundraisers, just gorilla charity.  And unlike other gangs, you can leave any time you want.  Unfortunately for me, I’m hooked for life.  I’m already planning a drive from Kentucky to Detroit next season.

As a follow up, I wanted to offer a glimpse into my off season.  I’ve been training hard to make sure I can go the distance next year.  I’ve enlisted a team of personal trainers and nutritionists to help me with my efforts.  I use heavy weight training anchored on the end of a weed eater.  I carry stones on my back to simulate an overweighted blower.  I ride in a metal cart across a rutted out corn field to replicate the ridged ride of a mower without shocks.  I have even employed a full time NASCAR team to assist me with efficient and quick equipment repairs.  I eat raw eggs.  Eye of the Tiger is the only song on my playlist.  I am becoming a lean, mean, mowing machine!

Of course none of that’s true either.  For Mindy she got new blades, a fresh oil change and a trickle charger to get her through the winter.  As far as myself, I’ve been drinking beer, still eating too few vegetables and writing this ridiculous story.  A heavy regiment of beer and brat consumption is probably the best preparation for next year’s Mowdown anyway.  Oh and one last thing…I got a LED light bar for Christmas!  Watch out Dan and the rest of the Gang, Kentucky Chad will ride again.

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