Amoeba’s Lorica: Zen and the Art of Golf Course Greens Mowing

…any book about class must take the form of explaining working-class life to middle-class people.

Lynsey Hanley, 2008; in her review of the book Deer Hunting With Jesus.


It is five o’clock in the morning of a mid-July day in eastern Massachusetts, USA, common era year 1970. The teenage boy steps off the bronze-painted five-speed Schwinn bicycle that he used to pedal the two-and-a-half miles from his home to the country club. He parked the bicycle at the back of the equipment shed, walked around to the open garage doors at the front, and entered, taking in the familiar odors of gasoline and motor oil and lube grease and fertilizer and cut grass, in varying degrees of fermentation, and bird droppings from the barn swallows roosting in the eaves overhead.

He weaves his way through the tractors and carts and spreaders and other miscellaneous gadgets until he finds his assigned machine. It is a Jacobsen Greens King riding mower, the first of its kind, introduced to the professional lawn and grounds care market in 1968 specifically for the task of mowing the short short grass of golf course and bowling greens.

The teenager remembers what mowing the greens was like before the grounds superintendent – his uncle, who had taken over from his mother’s father – got the club to invest in the Greens King.

He, and two of his workmates, would grab tractors and trailers, into which each worker manhandled a walk-behind power reel mower. They would drive to their assigned set of six greens. At each one, they would manhandle the mower out of the trailer, start the motor, and mow the green, parallel tracks plus once around the edge. Without gouging holes in the green or leaving any un-mowed spots or scalding the longer grass of the fringe around the green.

The mowers were heavy, and taking the mower out of gear to shift from one pass to the next was considered, well, unmanly. And it would leave him no chance of finishing six greens before the course opened at 7:30 and the members started yelling at him. So he had mastered the art of lifting the cutting blade a split-second before the mower snarled into the fringe, and spinning the mower on its roller so that it made a precise, and clean, 180-degree turn, parallel to the track just cut but not too much overlap, and for God’s sake not too little, leaving uncut grass between the tracks. And, with any luck, him still guiding the machine, instead of the machine running away with him – a non-trivial risk at every pass, especially if the fringe was wet or muddy.

And he learned not to complain, because if he did, his father and his uncle would laugh at him, and point out that they had had to push their greens mowers, and sweep the greens with a bamboo pole before starting to mow, because the smallest pebble would jam the mower blades, possibly pushing the handle deep into the worker’s chest and (far worse) possibly leaving a skid mark on the green.

But now they had the Greens King. And his uncle had made it clear that the job of riding the brand-new machine, and mowing the greens in the morning, was his. “Because I know that you will be careful.” Welcome words to a youngster who had previously viewed himself as a scrawny, weak, and useless burden to the operation. And who now had to complete eighteen greens before 7:30, when the golf course opened and the members started yelling at him.

He throws on his yellow hard hat, checks his steel-toed boots (both newly-adopted safety procedures), and leaps into the machine’s seat. Turns the key. The starter kicks the motor into action. He ensures that the three mower gangs are in the ‘up’ position, not dragging on the ground (hydraulics all OK), and then drives off.

He has a set path from green to green, the one that will mow the most greens in the shortest amount of time, and ensure that the golf holes farthest away from the clubhouse (and therefore the holes that golfers will take the most time to reach) are left for last. In case there are any really early risers. Like the time the notoriously cantankerous Jerry Lewis, performing at a nearby (Cohasset) summer stock theatre, got to play the course before it officially opened.

He reaches the first green, decides whether he feels coordinated today or needs to stop and pull the flag (“pin”) out of the cup in (more or less) the center of the green before he starts. If he’s feeling coordinated, he pulls the pin on the nearest pass, sticks it back in on the way by after he’s mowed over the cup. But, because he’s “careful”, and there’s time, he usually stops and pulls the pin first. Then, parallel passes (three at once, instead of only one with a hand mower), concentrating all the while lest a large rock or other foreign object, which can ding the cutting blade or rotors, show up and have to be removed before the mower can pass. He uses the hydraulics to lift the mower gangs a split second before they snarl into the fringe, and drop them back down on the next pass, missing the fringe but touching the green in time so that he doesn’t have to do two circuits around the edge to catch any un-mowed spots. That circuit completed, he lifts the gangs, shifts the drive from “mow” to “transit” mode, and rides off to the next green on the circuit. Rinse and repeat, eighteen times in two hours, at some places (more or less often depending on how fast the greens are growing) stopping at out-of-play spots around the greens to empty the grass-catching buckets.

He is alone, with the scent of dew and grass and exhaust and hot muffler metal, with the sounds of the motor’s droning and the hydraulic system’s whining (earplugs have not yet joined the boots and helmet). He is in a zone of concentration. How much is the grass growing, and will the boss say ‘mow’ or ‘skip’ tomorrow based on what he sees today? Are the treadless tires of the Greens King going to slip on that wet area? Can he navigate that slope or will it be too steep, and cause the mower to roll? Do the golfers always spray that much sand onto the green from that sand trap? Is that boggy patch in the 15th fairway ever going to dry out this year?

And after two to three hours, he returns to the equipment shed, hoses off the grass-covered Greens King, parks it in its spot, and steps off, his arms buzzing, his ears ringing. Within a few minutes, he gets his next task. Today, it’s mowing the rough, on an old Worthington tractor with a starter button instead of a keyed ignition system and a wheezy, aged, oil-burning motor, pulling a set of five rotary mowers. It will take him the rest of his shift. He will spend much of it watching as the rotors flush moths from the long grass and the barn swallows swoop perilously among the spinning mower blades to snatch up the moths. The birds are experts, and none is ever harmed.

1 PM. Quitting time. He parks the rough-mowing rotors, uncouples them from the tractor, returns the tractor to the equipment shed. It’s payday. He picks up his check, which he will put in his savings account for when he is the first in his family to go to college in another year, and imagines studying how turfgrass grows, and what pests attack it, in a laboratory setting, rather than spending all day, every summer’s day, mowing it. He may come back to the course later, to play golf. If he can do it without being spotted; he is not about to spend any of his college money on a club membership, and he can hit a golf ball only if he carefully contrives to make sure no one else sees him. And if he’s got the energy that evening to play golf, or the willingness to put up with the clouds of mosquitoes that typically descend on the course near dusk.

But those considerations are for later. The class implications bother him not at all. He has his longer-range plan, and does not yet see how his servant’s status could possibly get in the way of that plan. (And in this, he proved, in the end, to be very fortunate indeed.) Right now, the mission is bicycling home. And getting lunch.


… Mr. Bilbo comes up the Hill with a pony and some mighty big bags and a couple of chests. I don’t doubt they were mostly full of treasure he had picked up in foreign parts where there be mountains of gold, they say; but there wasn’t enough to fill tunnels. But my lad Sam will know more about that. He’s in and out of Bag End. Crazy about stories of the old days he is, and he listens to all Mr. Bilbo’s tales. Mr. Bilbo has learned him his letters – meaning no harm, mind you, and I hope no harm will come of it.

Elves and Dragons! I says to him. Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you. Don’t go getting mixed up in the business of your betters, or you’ll land in trouble too big for you, I says to him. And I might say it to others, …

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2 Responses to Amoeba’s Lorica: Zen and the Art of Golf Course Greens Mowing

  1. Tora says:

    I enjoy following your links
    Adds to your musings
    I’ve had my head handed to me numerous times. I have not learn my lesson yet
    Smiles….

  2. nathhoke says:

    Most excellent. I really enjoyed this.
    I don’t even know what “middle class” is now. Most “working class” folks will say that they are “middle class.”

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