Set in rural Virginia in 1978, Claude Clayton Smith’s essay explores both the common Southern belief in do-it-yourself and the mythic ideas about distinctions in Southern speech. Smith and his wife have moved into a new home where improvements are needed on the land, and in procuring the equipment and supplies that he needs, Smith encounters a new euphemism.
by Claude Clayton Smith
The first problem we encountered in the mountains of southwest Virginia was that the grass in our new yard – an entire acre of it – was knee-high, like the rough at the British Open. The realtor had promised to keep it cut during our move from Washington, DC, but having earned his commission was nowhere to be found. My wife Elaine was more than eight months pregnant and therefore no help. The dog days of August were upon us, with our first child due in September. Appropriately enough, on Labor Day.
The second problem was the severe slope of the yard itself. It was as steep as the hypotenuse of a triangle. The basement wall across the front of our brick ranch house lay below ground, as you’d expect. But the rear wall – made of cinderblock instead of poured concrete – stood above ground. The house was on a cul-de-sac at the end of a ridge, its asphalt driveway descending to the carport on the same steep angle as the yard. The cul-de-sac, severely slanted as well, was as high as the crest of our roof.
Our lot actually measured two acres, with an acre of woods beyond the acre of grass. The whole was shaped like a baseball diamond. Picture the top of the driveway as home plate, with the house itself, which faced north, between shortstop and second. The woods formed the bleachers beyond the outfield, halfway down the back of the ridge. Thus a pop fly hit over the house – if not for the tall grass and trees – would roll downhill forever.
Beyond our two acres, the foothills of the Blue Ridge rolled away for miles, as smooth and dark and humped as river bass. Meanwhile, right out front where the pitcher’s mound would be, a gigantic tulip poplar shaded the house. And mountain breezes swayed our grass like amber waves of grain. In the face of which the little twelve-inch electric mower I had brought with us from our DC townhouse was hopeless. So as soon as the moving van left, I went shopping for a new mower. Which is when I first heard someone say rat cheer.
I’m still not sure what it means.
The lawnmower shop was a greasy barn out in the sticks, John Deere painted on its side. Just beyond, a few rusty washing machines sat in a sun-bright meadow of tall grass exactly the same height as the grass in our yard. The barn door was open, but inside it was black as night. And as my eyes adjusted, I began to make out mowers of all sizes – brand new, used, and under repair – including riding mowers. Which, given the severe slope of our new yard, would be as useless as my twelve-inch electric.
No one was tending the store except a mangy dog that growled at me from the corner as I entered. In the dog days of August, all mangy dogs in southwest Virginia seek the shade of barns and other outbuildings rather than suffer the heat. This particular one – a ragged mongrel lying in the straw and cool dirt – seemed too comfortable to get up and bite me. Still, I kept my hands in my pockets.
“Hep ya, buddy?” a creaky old man said, scaring the hell out of me. He’d
approached soundlessly, a grizzled old-timer in blue-jean overalls and a green John Deere ball cap. “Hep ya, buddy?” he repeated, a little louder.
I explained my problem. I needed a rotary mower. But it had to be a push mower. And it had to be tough, because our acre of grass – I pointed out the window – was as tall as the grass in that meadow.
The old man nodded, glanced about the barn, then stepped over and around a few mowers until he was standing beside a brand new industrial-model Lawn Boy. It had a one-gallon gas tank and a twenty-four-inch blade. This was in the era before the government decreed that no rotary mower blade could be longer than twenty-one inches—so it could stop in three seconds, thereby sparing the toes and fingers of many a Harry Homeowner across the United States. The twenty-four-inch blade of this dandy Lawn Boy would cut a swath double that of my little electric. Moreover, its front right wheel extended six inches farther out from the deck than the wheel behind it. For extra balance on steep slopes.
The old-timer pointed out the window as I’d done a moment earlier. “This here mower,” he said, “will cut that grass rat cheer.”
“Rat cheer?” I said.
“Rat cheer,” he confirmed.
My mind fled to a cartoon chorus line of rats in cheerleader outfits, high-kicking in unison across the slope of our yard. “I’ll take your word for it,” I said finally and whipped out my checkbook. Then I picked up a red two-gallon container for gasoline.
“All?” the old-timer said.
“Yep,” I said. “That’ll be all.”
“All?” he repeated, a little louder.
I shrugged, and the old-timer set a six-pack of engine oil beside the mower. “Takes one of these,” he said, “fur ev’ry two gallon’a gas.”
Of course. Even lawn mowers need all. Everyone knows that. So I headed home to my pregnant wife and acre of tall grass with a six-pack of all, a two-gallon container for gasoline, and a brand new Lawn Boy, its handle sticking from the trunk of our Nova with a greasy red rag tied to it. (The rag came free of charge.)
That Lawn Boy would last me twenty years and three more yards, until a mechanic in another state said it’d be useless to repair it. Whereupon I set it out by the side of the road and the first person that drove by stopped and carted it away. No doubt it’s still sputtering around somewhere, not quite ready for Lawn Boy heaven.
Meanwhile, by the time I’d negotiated the perilous hypotenuse of our driveway, backing down cautiously to the carport with the Lawn Boy in the trunk of the Nova, I’d devised my own rat cheer:
There’s the mower, there’s the grass. Come on, buddy, kick some ass!
* * *
That brand new industrial-model Lawn Boy threshed its way through our amber waves of grain like McCormick’s reaper, leaving me an acre of cut grass to rake and gather. Had the grass been any stiffer I could have started a broom business. As it was, I simply burned it in a little clearing in the woods at the bottom of the yard. Now that we lived out in the country – in the county, to be exact – there were no restrictions on fires in the yard (or cars on blocks, for that matter) as there’d been at Rockshire Green, our condo development back in DC.
But the mowing wasn’t that simple. Dressed for the chore in cut-off jeans, sneakers, and a tee shirt, I soon discovered that, in order to keep my balance, I had to keep the outside wheel to the downhill side. Thus, I had to push the mower across the yard and pull it back. My sneakers proved inadequate for the job, causing me to slip and slide as I traversed the steep slope. So I changed into my golf shoes, and their metal spikes did the trick. Fortunately, this was in the era before metal spikes were banned from all golf courses in favor of their plastic and less-clattery cousins. Plastic spikes simply wouldn’t have held their ground (no pun intended).
Elaine watched me at work from the shade of the carport, waddling into the kitchen every now and then to fetch me some Gatorade, returning at one point to see the Lawn Boy roaring across the back yard all by itself, with me nowhere in sight. I’d run over a nest of yellow jackets – the powerful vacuum of the rotary mower sucking them from the earth like a tornado – and the first half dozen out of the hole had stung me in the calves. Elaine couldn’t hear me screaming because of the roar of the Lawn Boy. Which, having worked its way across the yard, had come to rest in a shallow ditch between our yard and the neighbor’s. By then, I’d screamed my way around the house to the front yard and surprised Elaine on the carport. Where she abruptly set aside the Gatorade and waddled off after the Benadryl.
Undaunted, I retrieved the Lawn Boy and went back to work immediately, swollen calves and all. Rain was forecast for the next day, and if that tall grass got wet I’d never finish the job. Meanwhile, there remained one final challenge to the initial mowing of the yard—the proverbial snake in the grass.
The sun was setting by the time I’d worked my way down the slope to that little clearing in the woods at the bottom of the acre, where I’d later burn all that grass. And where, for the moment, I couldn’t believe what I saw. A copperhead – we’d been warned about copperheads by the absent realtor, who should have been cutting all this grass himself – had raised itself from a thick coil and was darting its head in my direction. It was obviously annoyed. But it was no match for the Lawn Boy, of course. So I took out my frustration on those yellow jackets by charging straight ahead at that snake, imagining it flying into the woods like so many coppery slices of salami.
But it proved messier than that. The thing got caught in the blade. Where it revolved for a minute before finally being ejected from the chute in a mangled mass, all hacked and bloodied, not at all like sliced salami. No matter. It was dead, the first real casualty – besides my calves – of my Blue Ridge yard wars.
That night, when Elaine got up from bed to waddle to the bathroom – the baby that would show up a few weeks later was always pressing on her bladder – I woke in a sudden moment of clarity. Earlier, I’d fallen into a deep sleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. But my subconscious had obviously been working on a problem that had been revolving in my brain since my encounter with the old codger at the John Deere place.
“Rat cheer,” I whispered, when Elaine slipped back into bed.
“Yes, dear,” she said. It was her standard middle-of-the-night reply.
“Rat cheer,” I repeated. “Right shear!”
* * *
The rain that had been predicted came the next day, a severe thunderstorm resulting in another yard war.
We watched from the carport as torrents rushed from the cul-de-sac into the ditch between our yard and the neighbor’s, draining the ridge above us and roaring through the woods below, eroding our property en route. Lightning crackled, thunder boomed, and sheets of rain bounced inches high on the cul-de-sac, gathering in a stream and funneling toward the ditch. Which began just to the right of the driveway, zigzagging its way past the carport and down the side yard into the woods, an irregular right-field line to our baseball-park lot.
The previous owner (our brick ranch house was only three years old) had paved the ditch with a thin layer of asphalt that had cracked into uneven chunks. Tall weeds laced the crevices, making the whole an unsightly mess. But I had a solution in mind. The problem was similar to one I’d witnessed as a kid in Connecticut, when our basement flooded one summer after a heavy rain. As my father had explained it then, we needed a dry well by the gutter downspout that was dumping rain too close to a cellar window.
“What’s a dry well?” Elaine wanted to know. “I thought wells were wet.”
“I helped my father build it,” I said. “We chiseled the bottom out of a metal garbage can. Then we dug a hole at the base of the downspout, sunk the cylinder, and filled it with gravel. This gave all that water somewhere to go—into the ground rather than into the basement.”
It sounded simple enough. But the cul-de-sac drainage problem was immense in comparison, requiring more than a dry well. “I’ll need a fifty-gallon all drum,” I said. And I knew where to find one.
Down the hill from where we lived was a junkyard that our first-born son would one day call The Mountain of Broken Cars. Because that’s exactly what it was. Rusted old beaters of all makes and models had been piled a hundred feet high, creating one of the major eyesores in southwest Virginia. The place did a booming business in scrap metal and what-have-you. And what I didn’t have was a fifty-gallon oil drum. But I knew how to pronounce it.
“All drum?” said the wiry longhaired man who came out to greet me, a pack of junkyard dogs at his heels. “Not a problem. We got a bunch rat cheer.”
Oh no, I was thinking. Here we go again. But I didn’t pursue it. A blowtorch by a stack of old tires had caught my attention. I needed a five-inch hole in that oil drum, six inches from the bottom. And the top would have to be cut out to boot. A hammer and chisel would leave ragged edges and be too much work.
The wiry, longhaired man was happy to oblige. Firing up the blowtorch, he cut the hole and removed the lid, leaving all edges smooth. And so I headed homeward from The Mountain of Broken Cars with a fifty-gallon oil drum in the trunk of the Nova.
Then I headed to 84 Lumber, the local Harry Homeowner heaven, to purchase a 160-foot roll of five-inch non-perforated plastic tile. This would be inserted into the hole at the bottom of the oil drum to carry the water down the hill and into the woods. Which meant I needed to dig – in addition to a hole big enough to bury that oil drum – a 160-foot trench for that snake-like tile.
I began by breaking up the asphalt in the zigzagging ditch with an iron pike. Then I hauled the chunks down the hill in a wheelbarrow and dumped them in the woods. This required my golf shoes again – to put on the brakes – otherwise that heavy wheelbarrow would have careened into the wild-wooded yonder. And me with it.
Elaine watched from the carport, waddling into the kitchen every now and then to fetch me Gatorade. And it was during one of those Gatorade breaks that we met our next door neighbor.
Ted was a perpetual graduate student at the university where I’d be teaching in September. He was working on his doctorate in something or other – he wasn’t quite sure himself – while running a karate school in town. He was a handsome young man, in excellent physical shape, but his light blue eyes had pupils like black BBs, giving him a strange, wild look. His girlfriend Jane – a tall, slim, blonde – taught math at the university, was a Black Belt like Ted, and had set her sights on getting him to the altar so she could have children.
Meanwhile, once a year, they hosted a party for all of the karate students, setting up a volleyball net in the front yard. When our soon-to-be born son was old enough, he’d attend that picnic every year, proudly retrieving the volleyball whenever it slipped into the side yard and rolled down the hill into the woods. Chunky legs churning, he’d chase after it, then huff and puff back up the hill, a pudgy arm around the ball on his hip.
Ted and Jane would eventually marry, have twin daughters they named Kitty and Dixie, then divorce. But all Ted wanted to tell us today was that the ditch was not on our property line, as we’d thought. The line was actually a few feet farther to his side. So our side yard was bigger than I’d figured.
“It runs along rat cheer,” he said, pointing to his right.
Elaine looked puzzled, but I didn’t want to get into it. I had to get back to work.
“Come on over on Labor Day,” Ted said as he hopped back across the ditch. “Me and Jane’re havin’ a picnic for the kids from the dojo.”
As soon as he’d disappeared into the side door to his basement, I returned to carting chunks of asphalt down to the woods in the wheelbarrow. The following day, I tackled the hole for the oil drum, digging it at the edge of the cul-de-sac to the right of the top of the driveway. The soil was mostly red clay, so the job was easy.
Then, using a mattock, I began the long trench to the woods – six inches wide and two feet deep – following the eroded path of the ditch. The next day, I put the oil drum in place, inserted the snake-like plastic tile, covered up the ditch, and scratched in grass seed. Finally, I sawed up two two-by-fours, nailed the lengths into a square, and covered it with durable wire screening. This was a cover for the oil drum. A gaggle of urchins lived farther up the ridge, and in time our son – and later his brother – would play with them. I didn’t want them falling into the system and getting flushed out in the woods.
The following day, it rained again, and we watched from the carport as the water gushed from the end of the tile far below. But my joy was short-lived. The long trench began to sink before our eyes. The packed dirt was collapsing at the base of the oil drum.
I’d inserted the five-inch tile into the five-inch-hole cut by the blowtorch, but the fit wasn’t snug enough. Water was leaking through. The constant pressure from the water dumping into the oil drum was loosening the dirt around it, collapsing the dirt along the length of the trench and washing away a good part of it.
When the rain stopped and the sun dried the yard, I knew what I had to do— go back to 84 Lumber, purchase a bag of ready-mix cement, and caulk the tile around the hole at the bottom of the oil drum. Then I had to rework the dirt along the sunken trench and replant the grass seed, from the oil drum all the way to the woods.
Years later, when Elaine and I returned with our boys to visit our old home in southwest Virginia, we found a professionally-constructed cement drain where the oil drum had been—with a proper iron grate and subterranean pipe—installed by county engineers at the insistence of the locals. Which confirmed my instincts about how to fight that particular yard war, although my jerry-rigged system had been removed.
But what came to mind during that visit was Ted and Jane’s Labor Day party, held not long after we’d first moved in. It had begun at noon with a karate exhibition, followed by the annual volleyball game, then dancing and drinking long into the night.
By then, of course, Elaine and I were in bed, falling asleep as soon as the rock music ended next door. After which I awoke with an air of revelation and nudged Elaine.
“Rat cheer,” I said ebulliently. “Right there!”
“Yes, dear,” Elaine muttered.
And then her water broke. Rat cheer on the bed.
Claude Clayton Smith, Professor of English Emeritus at Ohio Northern University, is the author of eight books and co-editor/translator of three others. His own work has been translated into five languages, including Russian and Chinese. For further information, visit his website.