It wasn’t that I didn’t want to mow the lawn that late summer afternoon when I was 13.
Well, OK. I actually didn’t want to mow the lawn. But I was willing to do it. It was my job in the family, and had been since my big brother Bob graduated from high school. I was used to pushing our hand-powered mower up and down the gentle slope of our lawn under the hot summer sun. Even though I didn’t actually like it.
So when Dad asked me to mow the lawn a couple of days early that week, I told him I would without even thinking about it. I mean, it was summer. What else was I going to do?
Then George called.
“Hey, you want to go to Lagoon?” he asked, referring to a nearby amusement park, with its white wooden roller coaster, its Dodge ’Em Cars and its Space Scrambler.
“It’s Postal Employee Day and we have an extra ticket,” George continued. “Dad said I could bring a friend as long as we let Patty tag along with us.”
Putting up with George’s kid sister would be worth it if we could take a plunge in the park’s huge swimming pool, filled with what radio commercials claimed was “water fit to drink” — which I’m pretty sure was code for “we’re not going to go to all the trouble and expense of chlorinating the pool, so swim in it — and drink it — at your own risk.”
Mom was unaware of Dad’s request that I mow the lawn that day, and I didn’t mention it to her when I asked if I could go. Why should I? It was Thursday, and I usually mowed the lawn on Saturday. I could mow it on Friday and still be early. I was sure Dad would be OK with that.
I was wrong. When I came home later that evening, Dad was on his knees, still wearing his suit pants and white shirt, edging the lawn with our hand trimmer. Even in the darkness I could tell that he had mowed the lawn himself — partly because of that just-mowed smell, and partly because my 58-year-old father’s shirt was soaked with sweat.
“Dad, I was going to mow tomorrow,” I said, defensively.
He didn’t even look up from his edging. “I asked you to mow today,” he said.
“I know, but George called, and they had this extra ticket to Lagoon and ”
“Your mother told me,” he said. “And I understand why you would want to go.”
He looked up at me. “But you made a commitment. I counted on you honoring that commitment.”
I was confused. “I don’t remember making any kind of commitment,” I said.
“That’s the problem,” he said, returning to his clipping. “You don’t understand that when a man says he will do something, he’s making a commitment. You don’t tell someone you’ll do something, and then not do it — not if you’re a man of honor and integrity.”
To be honest, my dad’s words didn’t mean as much to me then as they do now. So I just stood there, trying to wrap my mind around the fact that my father was mowing the lawn in his business clothes late at night on a Thursday.
“Do you want me to finish edging?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “You need to pack. We’re leaving in the morning to go to California.”
I was thrilled. Visiting my sisters and their families in California was my favorite thing in the world. I liked it even more than riding that rickety old Lagoon roller coaster, or swimming in water fit to flush. Suddenly, I understood why my father was so anxious for me to mow that day.
“Dad, if you had told me I would have ”
“I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to get away from work until today, and I didn’t want to risk disappointing you,” he explained. “But that’s not the point. You told me you’d mow, and you didn’t. I thought I could count on you to be a man of your word.”
I wish I could say I have lived a life of total honor and integrity from that day to this. Sadly, I’ve fallen short of the mark now and then. But I try to be the kind of person Dad wanted me to be — the kind of person who can be counted on to do what he says he’s going to do.
Regardless of roller coasters.
To read more by Joseph B. Walker, visit josephbwalker.com. Twitter: JoeWalkerSr