Lessons Learned Behind the Hedge

It was a moment where the boundaries between my real world and imagination faded.  The waist-high grass along the creek bank combined with the eerie sounds of birds, insects, and wind in the trees to stir my imagination, transporting me suddenly into the world of my current television hero, Jungle Jim.  From that point on, every step I took was alive in my mind with danger and intrigue.

Although the real world had temporarily faded from my awareness, I was in fact a twelve year old with the best Saturday job in the world, a kid helper at Garlands’ Landscaping Nursery in Oklahoma City.  On that day I was the spray foreman’s assistant, unwinding up to 200 yards of high pressure hose from the truck and pulling it to where the foreman was spraying DDT to quell a mosquito outbreak.

You could only drag a hose around for so long before a job like that got tedious, and it was then that I let my imagination out to play.  I became Jungle Jim leading a safari into the dense undergrowth of deepest, darkest Africa, where danger lurked behind every tree and shrub.  I found a machete we used for cutting grass sod in the truck, which I stuck in my belt, just the way Jungle Jim did each Saturday morning.  Not only did I look good, but now Jungle Jim was armed!  With the hose over my shoulder and hat pulled low, I started using the machete to chop a path through the tall grass, thrown deeper and deeper into my imaginary safari by the burning Oklahoma sun and the primitive sounds of nature all around me.

I was at the top of my game, larger than life, clearly indestructible, when it happened.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something jump, long and black and slimy.  It was just a glimpse, so I wasn’t sure I had really seen it.  Perhaps it was a figment of the heightened intensity of my imagination.  I whispered to myself, “Get hold of yourself, boy…but be ready for anything.”  The sounds of the insects seemed to swell, and sweat stung my eyes.  I started forward again, hardly daring to breathe, muscles tensed and senses alert for trouble.  Three more cautious steps, and suddenly the thing jumped again, this time dangerously close!  There was no time to think.  I was, after all, Jungle Jim, and I knew what had to be done.  Down the machete came, once, twice, three times!  In vain the beast jumped again, hissing horribly and spewing forth its deadly venom.  But it lost its final battle, and its death throes began to diminish.  The once frightening creature finally lay still, fallen in the heat of battle, vanquished by the courage and quick thinking of…Jungle Jim.

Still struck with the shock of such super human reaction, I yelled for help and the foreman came running.  He took a short look at me…and a longer look at the beast.  As long as I live, I’ll never forget his words that day.  “What in the hay-uhl have you done, boy?  You just cut off the last fifty feet of our hose.”

Hmmm.  I figured out later that when the foreman couldn’t reach the top of some of the trees, he stopped spraying long enough to climb half way up the trees, and then started spraying again.  By then the pressure had built up, and each time he hit the nozzle, the hose jumped.  That one cost me a “ceegar” every day for the rest of the summer.

I loved working at Garlands.  Lee Garland had a gift of making all us young boys feel special.  We would have done anything for him.  I know now that he did whatever was necessary to build us up until we were old and strong enough to make a real contribution, but at the same time, he made us feel terrific about what we were accomplishing.

When I was about fourteen, Lee told me to spend the morning loading up a wheelbarrow with heavy construction debris, taking it to the dumpster.  I wasn’t very big yet and that much weight in a wheelbarrow was a struggle, but Lee said it was time I learned to step up and do a man’s work.  But it is the rest of the story that serves as an example of how he helped us build up our characters and bodies.  You see, Lee hired a grown man to follow me around that day.  Each time the bulky load got the better of me and the wheelbarrow fell, that guy was paid to help set it back up and get it reloaded…and then he once again stepped out of the way.  That wheelbarrow was my responsibility and Lee made it clear that it wasn’t going to move without my making it happen.

Lee was always looking ahead, and when I was fifteen, he decided that it was time for me to focus in on a specialty.  For that whole summer, he made me the assistant to the hedge trimming crew.  My main job was picking up the trimmings made by the members of the crew.  There weren’t enough trimmings for the first part of the day to worry much about that job, so Lee made a big thing out of appointing me the “back of the hedge” trimmer.  He would sit there for hours with me, showing me in pain-staking detail how to hold one of the handles of the clippers stationary and move only the other up and down to make a more precise edge.  He explained how to use the lighter green new growth of the hedge as a guide for depth and straight line, and how to step back every several minutes for a broader perspective on how this place matched where I had trimmed earlier.  He also had the other men come and check out my work on a regular basis, always bragging on what I had done well and giving suggestions about how to make my work look more professional.  The next summer when I turned sixteen, Lee made me the foreman of that crew.  It was only then that I realized that nobody trims the back of hedges.  Lee invested an entire summer with me on the back hedge to teach me the skills I would need the next year when I took over.  But I remember being so proud of getting better and better.

I have built many choirs and orchestras over the years, but all I know about recruiting I learned at Garlands.  One summer the nursery was hired to plant all the grass for a luxurious new championship golf course.  That’s a lot of grass.  In those days, after the soil was leveled, a crew of men with hoes made precision cuts at six inch intervals, followed by another crew with grass sod.  The sod, which came in six foot rolls a foot wide, had to by cut into two inch squares, dumped into wheelbarrows, and dropped individually into those cuts, a tedious and back breaking job.  Another finishing crew did the actual planting, but the real problem was the sod dropping.  No one wanted to bend over that much.  I told Lee I had a better idea and that I would be back shortly.  I walked through the ten square blocks of new developments surrounding the country club and came back with twenty kids from third through sixth grade who wanted “the adventure of a life time!”  All those grown men couldn’t keep up with those kids for whom I made dropping sod into holes a game.  They couldn’t wait to come back day after day, and we finished that monster job a week early.

At sixteen I was a regular foreman, but most of the men were much older, so my assistants were usually chosen with care...until Lee gave me Carlos.  Maybe this was another lesson, but oh my…Carlos was a piece of work.  He was twenty-nine and had just been released from the penitentiary for attempted manslaughter.  He had muscles on top of muscles and a deep knife scar across his chest from a bar room brawl.  I knew I couldn’t make Carlos do anything, and that’s how I became a motivator.  I told him, “Carlos, I’ve got to unload this semi filled with eighty pound sacks of rock, but I don’t really care what you do.  Even if you did help, I don’t think you could keep up with me.”  Then without another word, I turned and went to work.  Carlos’ vocabulary seemed limited to mostly four letter words, several of which he launched in my direction…as he grabbed a sack under each arm.  It wasn’t long before we moved from a personal competition into pitting ourselves against the other crews.  Nobody kept up with us, and nobody ever, ever made fun of our crew!

There was more to learn the next summer, and I found out the hard way how to own up for one’s mistakes.  I was now also the foreman of the spray crew, and most of the work that summer involved spraying arsenic of lead on evergreens which were being decimated by bagworms.  Each morning I would pour three sacks of arsenic into the 200 gallon tank and fill it with water.  I followed the same procedure each day…three sacks of mix and then the water.  So I was mystified when I arrived at work early one morning and Lee was waiting for me in his car.  He motioned me in and we sat in silence until we entered a wealthy neighborhood that I recognized as one I had worked in recently.  Sure enough, we stopped at a place I had sprayed just days before, and what I saw made me cringe.  The formerly flawless twelve foot tall hedge that surrounded their entire property was wilting and yellowed.  Lee asked me if I read the spray mix sacks every day.  That made me nervous.  It turned out that mix which had always come in two pound sacks had been changed to four pound sacks in the last shipment, and I had inadvertently doubled the mixture. Those mature hedges were irreplaceable at any price.  Lee explained that he had already talked with the owner, but that I needed to learn to face problems head on.  We went to the door and Lee introduced me and left it up to me to explain what had happened and apologize.  But that wasn’t all.  Lee brought me to that house every day for two weeks with tools, hoses, special fertilizers and soil boosters, and I cultivated, pruned, watered and babied those hedges until they came back to life.  Lee didn’t have to go to that extent for that customer, but it was a lesson he wanted to teach me.

Lee was a wonderful salesman.  He was an expert in his field, but he added to that expertise a captivating enthusiasm and a pervasive love of landscaping which fed the imaginations of customers.  I watched time after time as customers couldn’t wait to get home and plant what Lee had just sold them.  He had a way of stirring up their passion.  For two weeks each summer when the garden center foreman was on vacation, he put me in charge of the shop.  I learned what excited customers and how to pace the presentations.  I learned how to get customers to see possibilities.  Selling became more of a service of showing people how to beautify their homes.  Lee would come out to the shop once a day while I was in charge and challenge me to a selling duel.  I was to choose the first or the second customer that walked in the door, it didn’t matter to him, and he would take the other.  When those customers left, we would compare sales slips.  He always made the deal that if I ever beat him, he would give me his check for the week, and he was the owner!  I was a damned good salesman, but I never beat the champion.  He was masterful!

Lee not only taught me to work hard, care about detail, and sell anything, he also took the time to teach me to hunt and fish, to play tennis, and mostly to live every day to the fullest.  When our family returned from living in Europe during my father’s sabbatical leave, Lee threw a party for us.  I’ll never forget his words when I walked in, “there’s my Mike.”  It meant so much to me that  I was special to him.  When my two boys, Todd and Brad, were in fifth and second grades, I flew them out with me to Henry’s Lake near Yellowstone Park to meet Lee, my boyhood mentor.  During that magical week together, Lee taught my boys to fish and shoot as he had taught me at their age.  On the last day, the four of us were in the middle of the huge lake in a small boat catching an incredible amount of fish.  The weather was threatening, but we were pulling in so many fish that we ignored it.  Finally Lee looked up and ordered us to pull our lines in fast.  A menacing black wall of storm clouds was racing toward us.  It was coming directly into us as we turned the boat to head home.  Lee came from a long line of game wardens and outdoorsmen, and he knew what had to be done.  He had me take off my jacket and put it around the boys who were between my legs in the back of the boat with him.  The front of the boat came way out of the water and we moved slowly forward as the violent storm broke.  I doubt that the boys and I would have survived without Lee, so I owe him for that too.  All along the way, he kept us calm by explaining that the other fishermen were watching us right now through binoculars, and if they sensed we were in trouble, they would bring one of the big boats out in a flash.  It took us an hour, but we made it in safely.

I never saw Lee again.  A few years later, he was stricken with a virulent cancer for which there was no cure.  As his last days approached, Lee went back to Henry’s Lake for a final fishing trip and died in the lake.  But even death could not diminish all that Lee meant to my life.  Even to this day when I need courage, strength, or resiliency, I have only to think of him.  He never taught in a school, but he was the most significant teacher of my life, and how he taught is a superlative paradigm for the rest of us who dedicate our lives to being teachers.  May we all make our students feel so special.

This entry was posted in Thoughts. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Lessons Learned Behind the Hedge

  1. April Stansberry says:

    This story moved me to tears. This is the man I called "Granddad" though I wasn't actually related to him. Both of my parents worked for him, it's where they met. I grew up at the nursery, fishing, running around in the garden center, climbing the lava rocks. I still think of it everytime I smell fertilizer or pass by the place where the nursery was. Thank you for sharing this story, I will never forget him either.

  2. Tim Wert says:

    Wow! I just discovered this clean and articulate web site by Michael Kemp, and when I first saw this blog, thought, "Well, I'll start reading and quit when I get tired like I usually do on long blog entries." I got finished and wondered where I could find more. A marvelous story with many lessons learned worth learning again and passing along. Thanks, good sir.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>