Note: I intended this to be more of a memoir, of sorts, and therefore did not approach it as a “journalistic” effort. (As if anything on this Blog, where posts like this and even this are the norm, could be mistaken for journalism!) I’ve added a few links to support my observations, but I realize they may offer an incomplete, perhaps lopsided, picture – I accept the responsibility for that. On a similar note, it is not my intention to disparage any brand – I’m rooting for all companies mentioned by name, and I wish them many more decades of happy operation.
This is just the attempt of an aging man to make some sense of a changing world. Or something along those lines.
It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon in early June; I’m slowly making my way across a lush lawn on a machine that’s as boldly green as the grass below it, but in a shade which is notoriously unmatched in tone. The blades are off, the mowing deck is up. This is a leisurely drive, and I am not alone; on my leg sits my nephew, who in a matter of days will turn 2. In a matter of moments, he will fall asleep, lulled by the rumble of the engine and the dull bang of the machine’s myriad metal parts as we roll over the occasional mole hill or half-hidden branch.
The temperature is in the mid-80’s, and the still, warm air which parts to allow our passage is as near to perfection as air can be, in my opinion. It’s that magical time in the late Southern Indiana spring, right before the horse flies, midges, mosquitoes, and oppressive humidity have been fully roused from their winter’s naps.
Evening is approaching, as evidenced by the sun’s low-angled slant through the treetops, casting long shadows which lie across the yard like lanky, stolid soldiers. A breeze blows from the direction of the creek bed at the corner of the property.
It finally smells like summer.
From my vantage point in the driver’s seat, as we roam toward no particular destination, I observe, not for the first time, the large crack which runs the length of the mower’s fiberglass hood and which has been patched with a duct tape that’s not EXACTLY the legendary John Deere green, but is close.
The mower creaks as we move through a particularly rough part of the yard, the deck wheels and inner workings giving half-hearted protest to the rough terrain. These are all signs of the wear the mower has sustained over the past 15 or so years it has been in service, a period which has included countless replacements, repairs, and half-serious prayers that it will last just one more summer.
I love this part of the day, and I love this part of the world. As my nephew starts the process of surrendering to sleep, I am absorbed in this experience, and am taken back decades, to when I used to ride similar machines on a similar plot of land not more than 5 miles from here.
I grew up on a family compound, of sorts. When I was a baby, my parents purchased some land from my grandparents and proceeded to build a house a hundred feet or so from my grandparents’ home. I lived there until I was married, and to say the least, it was a great place to grow up.
While the properties were distinct in official ownership, the entire few acres were considered family land. That extended to lawn care, meaning that, among other things, when it was time to mow, both properties were cut at the same time. As I got older, I was allowed to take part in the weekly mowings, until eventually, I was allowed to do it on my own.
(I hesitate to recall how young I was; I’m sure it was an age that today would be frowned upon. I loved it, though. And I survived just fine.)
Not long before he passed away, my grandfather, who was the primary responsible party when it came to the sourcing of lawn equipment, bought a John Deere lawn mower. It was a purchase that sent a mild ripple of wonder through our immediate family (or at least it had that effect on me). Up until that point, my grandfather had been an all-in Sears-Craftsman guy, when it came to both his tools and his lawn equipment. In the twenty or so years I lived next door to him, I recall a shop full of Craftsman tools, and at least two Sears-Craftsman tractors.
Sears, my grandfather knew and would often proclaim, stood behind their products, and would replace or repair the Craftsman-branded tools if they ever broke, for whatever reason, for the lifetime of the product.
While I’m sure there was some nuance and red-tape accompanying any similar guarantee when it came to complex machinery like tractors, the brand stood to represent, at least in my grandfather’s mind, a pledge of quality, and this iconic promise, particularly to someone who grew up in hard times with no money or other resources to speak of, was one to be taken seriously.
I don’t know what specifically caused him to visit the local John Deere dealer to buy what would become the last lawnmower he would ever purchase. I don’t know if he went once and purchased on the spot, or if he took his time shopping, comparing and considering. No doubt something on what would become his last Craftsman mower had worn out faster or more often than he believed it should and he was not happy with the response from Sears.
Perhaps he gave them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he patiently waited for Sears to make things right.
Perhaps the “break in trust” was all a misunderstanding, the “quality” issues he experienced not actually being quality issues at all, but owing to some breakdown in communication.
Perhaps, as he cautiously stepped into his 9th decade of life, as his own body began to break down, as weak bones and defective organs and waning vital signs became the new norm, he knew his time to wait for the resolution of such things was coming to a close.
Regardless, for a reason or reasons I never knew or have since forgotten, trust was broken for my grandfather, and it was time to try something new. Whatever the reasoning, the switch represented a tidal shift of sorts, as it signaled the end of a life-long commitment to a brand.
When I imagine this time, I cannot help but think, perhaps unfairly and illogically, that this event hinted at something broader about the quickly-changing times, as the 21st century loomed large and unknown, and as both my grandfather and companies like Sears were entering a world which they didn’t understand and to which they would not easily adapt.
In my grandfather’s case, this shift was more or less the natural order of things; at some point, we will all have to let the world and its incremental advances leap past us, for we will no longer have the ability – or perhaps even the interest – to keep pace.
However, for Sears, a company which had been a retail mainstay for over a century, a symbol of quality AND convenience, and which no doubt desired to still be relevant and growing for a century again and more, allowing the world to pass it by – or maybe more to the point, not understanding that the world WAS passing it by – appears in hindsight to have been a costly, even tragic, mistake.
Time will tell, as it always does.
The decline seems a bit ironic, though, for a company which had taken part in, and arguably pioneered on a mass scale, a key consumer revolution of the previous century.
And perhaps it is unfair to bring John Deere, which is apparently doing ok these days, into this part of the discussion at all, it being a company with a markedly narrowed consumer base when compared to Sears. After all, John Deere specializes in selling tractors and farm machinery, and John Deere is not what’s putting Sears out of business. Both need to be thankful that, as of now, the Titans on Online Commerce have not found a way to break into that specific market.
As of now.
But, maybe pointing the finger at either company is unfair. Perhaps it’s more reasonable to say that my grandfather represented a dying breed of American, a relic of a time when quality was paramount and expected. Maybe his last souring experience with Sears was a signal of something much larger happening in American culture. Perhaps Sears could not be blamed for its looming collapse since it is the consumer that has changed. We value speed over quality, as evidenced by our obsession with the ability to cost-compare, order and track a product on a scale that cuts time into nearly infinite slices.
(Still, I can’t help but think the irony is thick here for a company like Sears that made popular the “shop from home” model over 100 years earlier in the form of the mail-order catalog. Here they sit in the heyday of “shop from home”, and instead of thriving, they are forced to shuttle their most dependable brand, the brand that my grandfather once held forth as an example of quality-or-we’ll-make-it-right, to new owners for a shot at survival. How painful this must all be.)
Regardless, today, we want to be able to literally hit a button and have our purchases be dropped on our porches within hours, sooner if possible. And we want to know the moment it happens. All of it.
At least, I know I do.
“Drones, you say? How fast can they be here?”
Drones. I cannot even begin to speculate what my grandfather would make of drones.
As we continue our drive along the edge of the property, I sense that my nephew is asleep. I shift to look at his face. His eyes are closed, his face lulling toward his chest, confirming what his slumped body has suggested. I turn the John Deere around and head back towards the house. I want to pass him off to his parents so that he can take a proper nap, indoors.
Before the summer ends, I will take many leisurely trips like this, both with my nephew and other kids from the family, including my own. As it was in my youth, riding around on the tractor, particularly when you’re not having to actually mow (read: work), is a key definition of fun.
It’s all somewhat bittersweet, though. I cannot help but mourn a little the fact that these kids will grow up and not remember a time when we couldn’t order virtually any product from our devices. Of a time when even personal tasks like shopping were grounded in social interaction. Of a time when a warranty was not just an upsell pitched at checkout but an integral part of the product itself, proudly proclaimed and rigorously honored.
It is likely that none of them has ever stepped foot inside a Sears. By the time I was their age, I had accompanied my grandparents countless times to the mall, usually on Friday night. I doubt there was a week we didn’t at least stop by Sears to see what was on sale. (To this day, the clean smell of new metal and rubber and plastic which permeates the tool and lawn equipment sections of stores like Sears is one of my favorite in the world; not ironically, the smell of fresh-cut grass tops the list, too.)
What’s of much more importance, these sweet kids will never know folks like my grandfather. Not really.
It is times like these, when the family is gathered, as we enjoy one of the last earthly possessions of his that remains, that I feel his absence most keenly. I want my own kids to know him, to know his story, to understand the man he was. I want them to know someone who is such a part of MY story, to understand that the man I am, the tapestry that makes up my life, contains many strong and colorful threads passed down directly from him, and others like him.
In a broader sense, I want them to know people who represent something I barely experienced first-hand. I want them to be reminded that there was once a time when communication involved much more than a screen, when high-tech included indestructible tools and the construction of expansive highway systems and skyscrapers and bridges, and when quality was not just a “nice to have” but affected people’s very livelihoods.
I guess, for now, I’ll enjoy knowing that some things never change, like a leisurely mower ride on a perfect spring day.
And I’ll say a prayer that this machine lasts another summer.