In America, we reap what we mow

Paul Whitefield is the editorial pages' copy desk chief.

My wife and I have two boys, 12 and 14. At their age, I mowed yards, $5 a yard. My gardener charges $200 a month.

Boys, meet yard work.

I needed a mower. On sale at Osh -- a Craftsman with a Briggs & Stratton engine.

The boys are eager. Start slow: Gas goes here; oil goes there.


“Uh, Dad” -- it’s the younger one -- “I think I put the gas where the oil goes.”

Rome wasn’t mowed in a day.

They each get $10 for mowing the yard; one does the front, the other the back.

Summer turns to fall, then winter, then spring. Grass is mowed. Money changes hands.


The mower breaks. It has a bad governor spring.

I take the tiny spring -- What a Mickey Mouse part, my dad would’ve said -- to a lawn mower shop.

“What’s the engine number?” the clerk asks.

I drive home. I find a number. I call. “That’s not the right number,” the clerk says.

I look again. I find another number. I call.

“We don’t have that spring in stock. We can order it. If there’s one in the state of California, we can get it in about a week.”

I go to another lawn mower shop.

“What’s the model number?” this clerk asks.


“I only have the engine number,” I say.

“What kind of shaft on this engine, vertical or horizontal?” he asks. “Is it a reel mower?”

“It’s a Craftsman mower with a Briggs & Stratton engine.”

“How old is this mower?” he asks.

“About a year.”

“Ah, that’s probably the problem; it’s too new,” he says.

A second clerk chimes in. “This is the trouble with America,” she says. “Everything’s made cheap. Companies don’t care.”

The other clerk returns from the back. “We don’t have it. I can order it.”


I try a third lawn mower shop.

I show the spring. I give the clerk the part number. She doesn’t want any numbers. She returns with a totally different spring.

“You can make this work. You have tools?”

Yes, I have tools. No, they won’t help. “But it doesn’t have any way to hook it on,” I stammer, “and it’s too long, and ... .”

“OK, I can order it.”

I go to Sears. I take my wife. The self-help minicomputer parts machine wants a model number.

“It’s this one,” I tell my wife, pointing to a mower on display. She writes down the model number.

We punch the number into the computer. It lists a few parts. Air cleaner. Sparkplug. Oil. The word “order” appears after most of them. No springs.

We walk back to the mower on display.

“The spring is right here; feel it?” I show her.

She reaches under the air cleaner. She fiddles. She gets lawn mower oil on her hand.

“Ugh,” she says, struggling, and unclips the spring.

“We’re leaving,” I say.

“If you’d given me a few more seconds, I could’ve gotten it off,” she hisses as we walk out.

My mower is broken. My kids are idle. My yard is growing. My wife’s a closet Winona Ryder.

The spring is on order.

That’s the trouble with America.