Flowers are starting to bloom here in the Northwest and folks are ignoring the drizzle to prepare their yards for warmer weather. At this time of year I always think of Mr. Melcher, a celebrity in the Bay Area neighborhood where I grew up in the early Sixties.
Mr. Melcher was retired, and famous for having the best-looking yard in the neighborhood. His nickname was Mr. Mulcher because of the great care he took to insure that his yard was well-fed, well-organized, and a glimmering palette of color. Aside from feeding his lawn and adding mulch, he fertilized and aerated every year and mowed his grass twice a week. The reward for all his hard work was an award-winning landscape that looked like the cover of Better Homes and Gardens. Aside from a lawn that looked like green carpet, his flower beds were bursts of color and, unlike other yards in the neighborhood, dandelions and other pesky weeds weren’t to be found.
Mr. Melcher’s house was only two blocks from where we lived. I’d pass his property on my walk to and from school, and I’d wave at him as he tended his yard. Usually he was too busy to wave back. It could get mighty hot in the Santa Clara Valley, but heat didn’t deter Mr. Melcher from his trimming, weeding and watering. I don’t remember seeing a Mrs. Melcher so perhaps all of this gardening was the result of untapped sexual energy, not that this was something I thought about back when I was a kid. Back then, old Mr. Melcher was probably twenty years younger than I am now.
One summer when I was nine our family made the pilgrimage to Disneyland. We also journeyed to the San Diego Zoo and crossed into Tijuana for my first excursion out of the country. I bought onyx bookends of sleepy peasants catching some shuteye in the shade of onyx cacti—now politically incorrect. We were gone a week. The day after our return, Dad and I were barbequing t-bones in the backyard when George, our neighbor, poked his head over the fence and welcomed us home. He also said, “Say, have you had a chance to check out what Old Melcher did to his yard while you were gone?”
That stoked our curiosity. As soon as the T-bones were off the grill, Dad and I trooped over to Mr. Melcher’s house. The sun was setting but what we saw in the fading light made our jaws drop. The award-winning landscape was no more. The carpet-like green lawn—gone. The plants—gone. Mr. Melcher had ripped everything out and concreted over his entire front yard. In the middle of this sea of cement rose a concrete block. Enshrined on it was Mr. Melcher’s lawnmower, spray painted gold and glinting in the sunset like a pair of bronzed baby booties.
“What do you think?” I asked my dad.
He rubbed his jaw while staring at the push-mower monument, choosing his words carefully. “I think Mr. Melcher had a stroke, like the one Grandpa had last year.”
I considered Dad’s words. Personally, I hated mowing lawns, and at our house that chore usually fell on me. I was also responsible for watering, pulling weeds and raking leaves from our big sycamore tree. Sure, a grassy yard was fun to play on, but maintaining it was a lot of work. Stroke or not, I was impressed by Mr. Melcher’s solution. I studied the maintenance-free landscape before me and pondered whether or not Mr. Melcher’s stroke had, in fact, also been a stroke of genius.