Today, youngsters return to school in early August, but when I was a kid our school year began the Tuesday after Labor Day, as God ordained. My childhood summers were so idyllic, I believed every aspect was planned by a benevolent deity, etched in the heavens since the dawn of time. Then September would arrive, heralding our return to school, and I was back to believing in a god of wrath, who slew the firstborn and filled the rivers with blood. If God ever launches an apocalypse, I’m certain it will commence on the Tuesday after Labor Day.
September finds me in a grim mood. Summer is winding down, and a long line of gray Indiana days are lumbering into view. In mid-autumn, Indian summer revives my spirits, but it’s the meteorological equivalent of the politician, promising more than it can possibly deliver. Then the winds come full tilt, barreling out of the north, and the leaves rain down.
My childhood home had a three-acre lawn with scores of trees looming over the house and yard. My father believed mechanized yard equipment was a mortal sin, so we used sad rakes with missing tines, like the teeth of a hobo. I would ask for a new rake from Baker’s Hardware and my father would snort. “A new rake? What do you mean, a new rake? When I was your age, we didn’t even have rakes. We used our fingers.”
My brothers and I would labor into the nights, well into winter, piling leaves on the garden, working them into the soil, like the enslaved Hebrews making bricks of straw and clay. Dad would emerge from the house every couple of hours and rake with a fury for a few minutes, then say, “That’s how you do it!” before returning inside to watch the Indiana Pacers. My father had firm ideas about character development, most of them involving pointless labor. When the leaf blower rendered rakes a thing of the past, my father predicted the fall of western civilization.
It is a universal maxim that the older one gets, the worse the younger generation becomes. Even Socrates bellyached about kids, complaining that they were disrespectful and lazy, though it might be the case Socrates was a cranky old coot. Not that moaning about the younger generation isn’t enjoyable. I spend a good part of each day whining about Generations X, Y, and Z, prophesying our nation’s imminent demise, conveniently overlooking the fact that it was my generation, the boomers, who moved the start of school from September to August.
Ah, those wistful days of my early Septembers. The grass had slowed its growth, the leaves had not yet fallen, the heat had abated, sandlot baseball was winding to an end, and football was commencing. Our football was brought up from the cellar and taken to Logan’s Mobil where it was filled with air, then carried home and rubbed with neat’s-foot oil. Neat’s-foot oil was the magic elixir of my childhood, applied to everything leather and the occasional achy joint.
The problem with kids today is that they’ve never used neat’s-foot oil. Don’t blame me, I tried with my sons, but it never stuck. Every September 1, I made them spend hours polishing their football, belts, and boots with neat’s-foot oil, using an old rag full of holes like a hobo’s shirt. They would complain and ask for a new rag. I would point out that when I was a kid we didn’t even have rags, that we used leaves, but they didn’t believe me. Maybe Socrates was right after all.
Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor and author of 22 books, including the Harmony and Hope series, featuring Sam Gardner.
This article appears in the September/October 2022 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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