My leaf blower died yesterday, so I’ve been finishing the job the old way—with a split bamboo rake and split-fiber deltoids and trapezius.
It’s been warm and sunny, the curled-up foliage mostly dry. My wandering mind carried me back to days of yore. I took joy in the tumble and jumble of brown leaves. My nose appreciated the musk of decay whipped up when my rake stirred them.
Just when my shoulders grew weary with the strain, who should happen along but my old chum Milo Bung, out walking his spleen.
“Ho!” Milo declaimed. “What have we here? Work being done? On a Sunday afternoon?”
“It’s not a sin, you know,” I said with greater asperity than the occasion demanded.
“But the Packers are on!”
“So, what are you doing away from the TV at a time like this?”
“Oh, I don’t follow them,” Milo sniffed. “But I thought you did.”
“I’ve been known to watch,” I admitted, straightening up and stretching my back. “But the city aims to pick up the leaves soon, maybe tomorrow. So I got out here, and it turned out to be a bigger job—”
“Y’oughta use a leaf blower.”
But now I had begun, he was going to get all three acts. “I remember when I was a kid, in Illinois—”
“Way back in the Fifties—”
“Exactly. See, we lived in various little towns, but the routine was the same everywhere. On the nicest Saturday in the fall, when all the leaves were down, everybody came out, and we all raked our leaves into the street. Then one of the dads would take his Zippo lighter—”
“They all had Zippos in those days,” Milo reminisced.
“Course they did. But you digress. I was saying, they lit them on fire!”
“Couldn’t do that now.” Milo shook his head. “Too many people. That’s why they have no-burn ordinances.”
“Oh, yeah?” says I, in hot pursuit of contention. “Then answer me this. Are there any more leaves?”
“Yeah, more leaves. Unless there are more leaves, you wouldn’t have any more smoke from burning them now than there was in 1955.”
Milo leaned back and stared down his nose at me.
“Don’t you see? It doesn’t matter how many people there are. We don’t have any more trees now than we had then. And they drop the same amount of leaves.”
“What’s your point?”
“My point?” I rubbed my chin. “My point. Well, something about—”
“How nice everything was, back when we could burn our leaves.” He grinned to show he had my number.
“That’s right! My mom brought out potatoes wrapped in tinfoil and baked them in the burning leaf-piles.”
“Oh, the humanity!” cried Milo. “Think of the cancer.”
“You don’t get cancer from baked spuds. Or burning leaves, for that matter.”
“Well, pollution anyway.”
I always knew he was a tree hugger.
“Look,” I said. “You remember it as well as I do. Don’t you miss those old days?”
“I don’t miss all the pollution, that’s for sure.” He raised his eyebrows as the AHA! of a new idea struck him. “The only reason burning leaves smelled good to you . . . was that as soon as we finished burning leaves, we started burning coal for the next five months, just to keep warm—and anything would smell sweet compared to that.”
“Good God, man. Have you no romance in your soul?”
“Not since they installed self-service elevators,” Milo said.
I knew what he referred to. Milo had yearned to become a professional elevator operator and suffered permanent chagrin when the occupation vanished in the Sixties. He had to settle for professing French medieval literature and has been sore about it ever since. But I wasn’t about to indulge his self-pity.
“Some people’s elevators,” I said loftily, “don’t go all the way to the top.”
Milo rolled his eyes. “Spare me.”
“Now for romance, I’ll see your François Villon and raise you two John T. McCutcheons.”
“Sure. You know, on the front page of the Chicago Trib. He was the guy that drew those panels about Injun Summer. You remember, the ones with the old man and the little boy, just finished raking leaves, and the day fades to dusk, and—”
“Yeah, got it. Check.”
“Well”—and neighbor, please know I infused that “well” with JackBennyesque hauteur— “doesn’t that move you with just a teeny bit of good old-fashioned nostalgia?”
“If it does, a little bicarbonate of soda makes it go away.”
Milo went off in what passes for a huff—but his huffs never last—and I got back to raking up a huge pile of leaves, the old-fashioned way.
It’s a good thing I’m not allergic to ibuprofen.
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer