Fall season in Georgia. Some days its so perfect that when you go to bed you find yourself begging, maybe even praying, that tomorrow will be just like today. Cool enough in the morning for a couple of light layers. Just right for a T-shirt by lunchtime. Gobs of blue sky in every direction.
This is the time of year when dry leaves make music in the wind as they scoot across the ground. Dancing as they tumble in no particular direction, like a yard full of school children headed out the door for recess.
Honest to God, I had a neighbor one time many years ago who was extremely uptight when it came to keeping his yard clean. One fall day he knocked on my back door.
“We have ourselves a little problem,” he said.
I’m sure he could tell by the look on my face that I was not tuned in to whatever it was that he had on his mind.
“Your leaves are blowing into my yard, and I would appreciate it if you would clean them up.” He was dead serious.
You see, I like leaves. I never saw much point in cleaning them up until the last one fell. He saw leaves as a nuisance and cleaned up every day as soon as the first leaf fell.
Our yards backed up to one another. We both had trees, and I always wondered how he knew which leaves were mine. Did he count them? Could I really be held responsible for the prevailing winds in our neighborhood?
I took his challenge anyway, and I raked my leaves in both yards on Saturday. I suspect he was watching me from behind the curtains in his kitchen window. In my own mind, I was doing a fine job, but evidently I wasn’t as detailed at the task as he expected. I did not get every leaf. A few got left behind. A few blew in from two doors down.
After a couple of hours of raking he came out and thanked me for trying but said that he’d take it from here. He never asked me to rake leaves ever again.
You might think that I would take offense at his condescending attitude. Fact is, I found it humorous. I started watching him out my kitchen window every Saturday. He’d rake for a while, then he would go around with a bushel basket and hand pick leaves out of the grass that got left behind. He’d reach inside his shrubs and pull out tangled up leaves that were stuck inside the stems. He was like a human vacuum.
One day, I saw him walk over to the neighbor’s house next to him. He knocked on the back door. Jack, the other neighbor, had an oak in his back yard that held on to its leaves much later than the maples in our yards.
I couldn’t hear the conversation, but I saw Jack come out the door, backing this guy down the steps, and pointing toward this guy’s back yard.
I interpreted the look on our neighbor’s face to mean, “I may have crossed a line here.” Thinking perhaps that Jack did not share his concern over the leaves in his yard.
So, I mentioned to Jack a few days later, that I’d seen their little visit on the back steps. He summed it up in classic Jack style. “That guy’s an idiot.”
Leaf raking was one of my chores as a kid. My dad believed strongly in the educational value of chores. “A boy needs to learn that a little work won’t kill him,” he said.
We had two huge pecan trees, two black walnut trees and two mulberry trees in a fairly confined backyard. I never raked leaves in the front yard. Dad would run the lawn mower over the leaves in front of the house. Thousands of tiny, slick water oak leaves.
But he always made a point for me to rake up leaves in the backyard.
“Why can’t we just run the mower over the leaves in the back like you do in the front?”
His answer seemed logical. “Cause the mulberry leaves are too thick and tough for the mower.”
He was right about one thing. Those mulberry trees produced leaves bigger than a grown man’s hand spread out. They were so tough they never crumbled in the fall. They just fell flat, like a thick blanket of leather. And if they got wet in a rain, they matted together, and it was hard work to push them into a pile.
My buddy Stephen came over to spend the night one Friday after school. We had big plans to play in the hay barn on Saturday building a fort. Dad caught us at the breakfast table.
“I know y’all got playing on your mind, but before you do anything else, those leaves in the backyard need to be raked up. You can help me burn them this evening.”
We didn’t fuss too much. Making fire intrigued us. And having help made it more like play than work anyway.
We grabbed a couple of leaf rakes out of the smokehouse and started making piles out of the mulberry leaves. Then we got the idea to make one big pile. Then we got the idea to take turns riding my bike into the pile and wiping out, getting swallowed by the leaf monster. We’d rake-em up and repeat.
Down by the swing set the leaves were not so thick. Mostly pecan and walnut. Mama had given us orders that if we found any good pecans, we should put them in a bucket. So, we were multitasking, which slowed down the leaf raking.
I don’t remember who threw the first walnut, but one of us threw our best fastball down toward the barn and it pinged off the tin roof like a canon. We stopped raking and gathered up all the walnuts we could carry. For the next hour we took turns heaving them toward the barn to see who could get one through the opening in the hay loft.
By evening we finished up. No hay forts were built. Dad let us help with the burning. Daylight was fading, and Mama had salmon patties and fries on the table when we went inside to eat.
“You boys wash up good. I ain’t never seen so much dust and leaves all over two young’uns.”
After the eating was done, and we were just sitting back in our chairs, Dad asked Steve if he wanted some dessert.
“Stee-vo.” He always called him that. “You want some peach cobbler and ice cream?”
Steve’s eyes lit up. “Yes sir.”
“Well, we ain’t got any. I just wondered if you wanted some.”
I heard Dad do that to folk countless times. If he could pull a leg, he’d always give it his best shot.
I crawled into bed that evening on a perfect fall day. The covers were warm. I could hear the wind outside. When morning came, a new blanket of leaves covered the ground.
A breeze got under it and they all ran like children let out for recess.