Contrary to what you might think, Old Blue was not my dog. Blue was the lawn mower that led to the salvation of my dog that was also named Blue. Together, these two formed the strongest, inextricably entwined cords of my youth. The one, a black lab puppy; four-and-a-half pounds of love, joy and energy that filled my waking hours and slept by my side. The other, a two-stroke, four-horsepower gas lawn mower; rusty red, stained grass green and spotted with black soot. When first fired up, Blue blew blasts of blue smoke so thick you would close your eyes and cover your face. Canine Blue would bark at it before high-tailing it to the safety of the porch.
We weren’t a wealthy family by any stretch. A younger sister and baby brother, a surly father and mother who tried her best to feed us on his itinerant pay. We never went without a meal but we’d have to fend for ourselves when Mom took on work as a baby babysitter or part-time secretary. As Blue got bigger, his food bill grew and loud arguments would revolve around “the damn dog,” escalating to threats of leaving him at my Uncle’s farm. I’d cover Blue’s ears in my bedroom above the garage.
My father left for good when I was eight. Even then I knew it was for the best and I didn’t grieve. Instead I tried to comfort my mother as best I could. Someone had to. The first few months seemed all right. Better even, without the shouting and the random quick clips across the ear. Blue and I would sit on the front porch, in my father’s old spot and watch the tumble and grind of our dusty street. Sitting there I would recall his gruff “Papers here!” when my bundle of fifty-plus newspapers were dropped off at the foot of the drive. With him gone, I felt it was up to me to wave at the truck driver before setting off on the two-mile paper route with close to thirty pounds of newspapers over my shoulders, Blue bouncing along beside me stopping to sniff at every leaf. In winter, there was often a foot or more of snow but in the summer time, it was bliss. September brought the treat of an apple from the McKlintoch’s tree about half up the windy hill. We’d sit up in the fork of the tree, Blue and me, and watch the freight trains rumbling across the bridge out over the bay.
One Saturday morning I got home to find Mom in the kitchen looking over some loose change. She had been crying. I knew it was about money. “You want me to pour you some coffee, Mom?” I asked. “There’s none left. We haven’t got enough,” she replied. Blue could sense distress in people and tried unsuccessfully to tuck his nose up under her arm.
I knew the value of a dollar. I knew that those who worked hard for it did not give it up lightly. Mr. Barrington once tore a strip off me for accidentally charging him twice in a month for the newspaper subscription. It was $1.65 but he screamed bloody murder and threatened to call the police. I was so humbled by the experience, I wanted to quit the paper route that day, but I knew I couldn’t. Every bit helped. My sister and I knew that and we would never complain. “We just all got to pitch in a bit,” I would tell her. But I knew it was coming. I knew Blue was a burden. I was prepared but still, I did not want to give up my dog. I would not give up Blue. I’d have to get another job.
Mr. Barrington lived by himself in a large house that looked out over the bay. It had a huge front lawn and an even bigger backyard that swept down a hill. He limped from an injury of some kind and the grass on the lawn was always a little too long. I was afraid of him. I thought of him as some kind of ogre. Blue felt the same way, cowering behind me until I finally mustered up the courage to knock on the door. “You want me to mow yer lawn?” I asked. He assessed me, my dog and the manual push mower I had pulled from our house a quarter mile away. “How much?” he replied. I didn’t know. I thought about it for a moment then asked, “You know how much a bag of dog food costs?”
Barrington watched me for an hour, struggling in the deep grass with the woefully inadequate mower until he couldn’t bear it any more. “Lookit. There’s a gas mower over there in the shed. If you can get it started, you can use it. Make yer job easier and I don’t have to watch this crap.”
Perhaps my father’s saving grace was that he was a good mechanic. “If you got gas, compression and spark, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t run.” I looked at the dust-covered mower in Barrington’s shed and cleared away the pile of junk around it. There was another mower buried deeper in the rubble. Both red, rusted and covered in bat shit. But there was gas in the first one and the motor spun freely when I yanked on the cord. After the fourth or fifth pull, it sputtered briefly and sent out a cloud of blue smoke before stopping. “That means there’s spark.” I could hear my father’s voice again. But something’s not right, my young mind rationalized. I examined the spark plug and spun the engine again. Within the shadowy darkness of the shed, I could see the little jolt of electricity meant to fire the piston and that didn’t make any sense. The spark is inside the engine, not out and I shouldn’t be able to see it at all! Looking around the clutter of the shed, I found the necessary tools and, with the plug in hand, I discovered a thin crack in the ceramic insulation surrounded by black burn marks. A cracked plug. “Look at that, Blue! Cracked plug!”
I had to negotiate with Barrington in order to get a new plug, which was $1.35 and posed a serious dilemma for a ten-year-old. On one hand, there was my anticipated pay of $3.00, which would cover the cost of Blue’s dog food. On the other, there was the cost of the new plug, which would bite into my profits but allow me to finish the job and get paid. He could tell I was torn. “Tell you what. Finish the lawn with the gas mower and if you can get that other mower working, you can have it. How about that?” I nodded. The dog food would have to wait.
I purchased the new plug with “an advance on payment” as Mr. B. called it. I installed it and moved Blue up to the porch where they could both watch from a safe distance. I primed the carb, set my foot on the mower and yanked at the pull cord with all my might. The mower roared into life, barking and belching a thick, stinking cloud of blue smoke. But it was running, and settled into a satisfying idle once I backed off on the throttle. I could see Blue peeking out from behind Mr. Barrington, happy to see that I was still alive amidst the cacophony and chaos.
Barrington ended up paying me the full three dollars for mowing both lawns and gave me a two-dollar tip for getting the mower started. But even more thrilling was the prospect of owning the second mower. Blue and I ran the quarter mile home to tell Mom the news. “I got us a mower!” I exhaled when I could finally breathe. My sister and brother shared in the good news even though they didn’t know what I was talking about.
I wheeled the second mower home on the weekend and found the problem immediately; the throttle cable had come loose from the carburetor. I fixed it with a kitchen knife. I also cleaned it, oiled it and asked our neighbour Mr. Phillips if he could sharpen the blades for me. He went one better and showed me how to do it myself. I cut his lawn free of charge that day while at the same time tested out my new mower. It worked perfectly. The rightness I felt for this tattered mower that I now pushed ahead seemed to parallel the pride and joy I had for the young pup following along behind. As such, I named it Old Blue.
There were plenty of lawns that needed to get cut in my neighbourhood and the Blues and I were known by all. With the paper round in the morning and lawns to cut on the weekends, we made enough cash to buy my sister some new school clothes and Mom a new pair of shoes. My friend Finny was always on at me to play baseball on Saturdays but I would say, with significant pride and confidence, “I gotta work.” They’d tease, and it grated on me to see my pals having such fun. But when I showed up on my new Raleigh ten-speed racing bike, they soon changed their tune. Finny asked if he could help.
We’d throw a ball around, Finny and me, when Blue was getting too tired to fetch. I liked him. I think he was my only true friend. But his parents didn’t like me and I never could understand that. After the fifth summer of mowing lawns and paper rounds, I had a crew of four helping me and in the winter months we expanded into clearing driveways. It was a contract of sorts with the neighbours bidding ever higher to get their lawns or driveways done first. I could do three lawns in a day on account of my strength and experience whereas the others could only manage one before they lost interest or got too tired. Generally, we’d end the day in good spirits sipping Mom’s lemonade on my front porch or tossing a baseball around. Mr. Phillips, who was the high school gym teacher, was watching us one day and asked me to throw him my best pitch. “Damn boy! That’s a fine arm you got there!” He told me I had to try out for the high school baseball team but I didn’t think I had time.
My high school years were as awkward for me as for many. I didn’t get bullied much because I was stronger than most and I had my own car which made me popular with the girls. I was still mowing lawns but I passed the paper route on to my younger brother who was also helping out with the yard care business. By the twelfth grade, I’d opened a small engine repair shop out of the garage while the other kids my age were still taking auto shop classes at school. “Me and You and a Dog named Blue,” I’d sing to my girl when the three of us took drives in the truck on the backcountry roads. Sometimes Blue would try to harmonize. He was a funny old boy, but he loved those rides on long summer nights.
On the last weekend of my twenty-first summer I was mowing Mr. Barrington’s lawn when he came out to shout at me from the porch: “Where’s yer dog at?” I stopped the mower and thought hard for a moment, about where I was, how I got there and how I should answer his question. “He died this morning, Mr. Barrington. He died in my arms. I held him. I told him not to worry. He took a deep breath and died right there in my arms.”
You couldn’t call either of us affectionate men but he hugged me then and there. And I cried. I cried for the first time in my adult life. I cried and I thanked him and I finished the lawn.