Sod Almighty

All Seriousness Aside

Published in 2004 Southern California Rising Stars — September 2004

His shorts reveal winter-white legs. On his feet are sandals and black socks pulled up to his knees. He wears a stopwatch around his neck and headphones in his ears.

My father-in-law has just finished mowing the lawn — for the second time this week. Today was a diagonal day. Next time he’ll mow crosswise. The alternating pattern gives his yard the checkerboard look of the infield of Yankee Stadium.

The sidewalk, driveway and the entire length of the curb have been edged with a surgical precision. The sheer neatness of the place makes you want to snap to attention and salute.

Stan walks across the green blanket of lawn and suddenly stops. He looks around as if he’s hearing the voice of God. Standing still, he listens.

His favorite team, the Minnesota Twins, have just scored in the bottom of the eighth, his Walkman tells him. He resumes his business.

He turns on the sprinkler, which hisses and spits before sending its streams cascading across the lawn. Stan studies his stopwatch through bifocals and sets the timer for exactly 22 minutes, which he has determined to be the optimal watering time for each section of the grass.

While my wife and I poke fun at him for his garden attire and his stopwatch, the truth is we have lawn envy.

Our yard is in terrible shape. It has more bald spots than a 30-year class reunion. Mowing produces no satisfaction, only clouds of dust. And when it rains, there’s mud. The dog leaves paw prints on the carpet that make it seem like he walked on an ink pad before entering the house.

We need a new lawn. Being a man afflicted with I-can-do-it-myself disease, I decide, despite my wife’s advice, to take on the project myself.

How tough can laying sod be? Green side up is all I have to remember. I’ll whip off the project in a few hours.

I ask a friend if he would help me.

“Sure,” he says. “Don’t do it! Hire somebody! There, I just helped you.”

I didn’t really need him anyway. I know I can do the job because of the magic of the rental store. There I rent enough equipment to start a landscaping business.

First, I rent a sod cutter to cut up the old grass. Then I rent a machine called a Dingo — a sort of walk-behind Bobcat. The plan is to scoop up the old sod with the Dingo and dump it in a trailer.

I haul the two-ton Dingo to my house. I start it up and practice in the street by scooping up a pile of dirt.

It’s like playing with Tonka Trucks — but for adults. Scoop, turn, drive, dump. Hey, I’m digging the Dingo! This is fun! Now to take it up onto the lawn for some real work.

At the rental store, I asked the guy if the Dingo could go up curbs. “It can climb a wall,” he assured me. I don’t doubt him. The Dingo has wheel treads like an army tank.

The Dingo aggressively climbs up the curb, but it keeps climbing and does a wheelie, landing on its back. The wheels spin uselessly in the air. The machine begins leaking oil and gas like a wounded tanker. The engine sputters, chokes and then dies after an explosive bang that sounds like a pipe bomb going off.

A dense, black, oily cloud rises from the machine and slowly drifts across my yard. My wife and neighbors emerge from their houses expecting to see body parts in the trees. Their startled expressions soon turn to curiosity, as they comprehend my predicament.

I have a machine heavier than a car tipped on its back like a helpless beetle.

Another fine mess. I’m an idiot! What a disaster! Perhaps I’ve bitten off more than I can chew this time.

But in a rare stroke of engineering genius — perhaps one of two moments in my entire life — I put old bricks under the treads, hang on to the shovel, and tip the machine up just enough so it can catch some traction. Miraculously I get the Dingo up on the lawn.

On the lawn I soon discover I have the same type of control over the shovel as an infant has over its hands. I lower the shovel with a boom. I move the Dingo forward and instead of scraping off the top layer of old sod, it digs two feet into the wet earth.

The Dingo turns on a dime, but in the process twists and spools the grass into a muddy mess. After an hour of experimenting with the Dingo, the yard has turned into a giant mud pie.

The next morning, the mud has dried. The old sod is encased under the hardened muck. How am I ever going to get rid of all the old grass? I am buried in depression. What have I done?

Then I remember the one person I can call in a situation like this: The God of Sod. Stan the Man.

He shows up an hour later in work clothes that make him look like an escapee from a chain gang. But I’m too depressed and thankful to make fun of his outfit.

He surveys the damaged yard like a Red Cross relief worker arriving on the scene of a disaster. He is not bothered by the enormity of the task. With the patience of Job, he begins pulling pieces of sod out of the muck. He cleans the excess dirt off each piece with the same care with which he cleans bottles and cans before putting them in the recycling.

The next day my wife joins her father in the work party. Then my mother-in-law arrives to help, and finally my sister. Two and a half days later, I lay down the final roll of sod. On my knees, I look up to heaven in thanks.

For the next three weeks we nearly drain the town’s water tower keeping the lawn wet. Finally, the big day arrives. I get to mow the grass for the first time.

That evening, Linda’s parents stop by. Stan and I stand in the yard and talk while Linda and her mom go inside. When they leave, my wife excitedly asks what we talked about.

I tell her we spoke about garden hose connectors, weed whackers, how high to set the lawn mower, baseball and the stock market.

She shakes her head. “Boys,” she says, walking into the house.

Perhaps she was hoping to hear that we had hugged and wept and shared feelings. Who knows?

I drag the hose across the lawn and turn on the water. For a brief, vain moment I look around deeply satisfied. The grass is flawless, green as spinach. I watch to see that the sprinkler is properly positioned. Then, looking at my watch, I set the timer for exactly 22 minutes.

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