When I was growing up in Monett, MO in the late fifties, I had a job selling Grit newspapers. I had inherited the route from my cousin, Kyle. He had developed a customer base that covered the entire town, so on Friday after school, I’d get on my bike and start delivering the papers that had been dropped off at my house the previous afternoon by the postman (in those days, there weren’t any female postal carriers in Monett, as far as I know). I had 65 papers to distribute before noon on Saturday, because I had to get to the post office by then and purchase a postal money order to send to the Grit headquarters in Pennsylvania. Usually, in addition to the money order, I’d buy the latest stamps to add to my collection. In 1960, the price of a stamp was four cents and I got a nickel for every newspaper I sold. If I had had a good week collecting from my customers, I might also buy a “plate block” of stamps, a special 4-stamp set that had the number of the plate that was used to print the stamps in the margin. Plate blocks were, and are, a prized specimen for collectors. I recently pulled out the boxes of stamps and my old stamp albums and found that all those plate blocks I bought long ago are missing. Like my coin collection, I probably broke them up and used them on letters when I no longer thought I’d need them.
Because I was in the post office every week, I got to know the clerks and they would occasionally save a nice set of stamps for me, even though there were several other stamp collectors in my town at that time. Some of them were my friends. One of them, Stanley Clark, lived just a few doors down the street. His father owned a second-hand store and every now and then, he would acquire a bunch stamps at an auction or from someone who was selling household items. Stanley and I would pour through those, hoping to find an “inverted Jenny” or a “Penny Black,” both the Holy Grails of stamp collecting. Of course, we never did, but we always knew that one day one would turn up.
The post office and the public library were the two most sacred spaces for me in Monett. Like I said, I visited the one every Saturday, and most Saturdays, I’d stop by the other one on the way home. I’d fill my bicycle basket with books and records, and the stamps I’d purchase. Those experiences gave me a love for reading and an excellent knowledge of geography and history. I learned where Bhutan and Eritrea and Liechtenstein are from my stamp collection. Sadly, many of the countries I liked best then, because of their stamps, no longer exist, or they have changed their names because, happily, they gained their independence from their European colonizers. Ever hear of North Ingermanland or Ponta Delgada? If you are an avid stamp collector, you probably have.
All this is to say that the United States Postal Service was an important part of my life growing up and continues to be so, especially now. Postal workers have been some of the true heroes during this pandemic. We can allow a campaign crony of Donald Trump to destroy it. The post office is essential to democracy. Woody Guthrie knew who to fight against.
I’ve been a Sherlock Holmes fan for a long time. One of the premiums for becoming a Book of the Month Club member, back in 1962, was a set of the stories of Sherlock Holmes. I think my brother has those first books I bought, but here is a newer set of those same books I bought several years ago.
I’ve also got a number of other volumes of Holmes stories, including a few patisches and faux Sherlock Holmes detectives. None, of course, come close to the originals, but I appreciate the reverence in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is held to even attempt something like that.
Suzanne and I are also big fans of the Jeremy Brett portrayal of Holmes. Who would have guessed that Freddy Eynsford-Hill from “My Fair Lady” would turn out to be the penultimate interpreter of Holmes? Back before streaming became the easiest way to watch TV, we even bought the DVD set so we could indulge our love of Holmes any time we wanted. Right now, we are watching the Sherlock series on BritBox. Or is it Amazon Prime? I can never remember; we just hunt for him as we need to do.
There have been lots of attempts to portray Holmes on film — Basil Rathbone did an excellent job, though the stories were pretty loose; Benedict Cumberbatch is an out-of-control Holmes and the episodes are just weird; Robert Downey, Jr., is Robert Downey, Jr., playing Holmes playing Robert Downey, Jr.; Michael Cain and Ben Kingsley were a wonderful, comedic pair; Christopher Plummer, Alan Arkin, Frank Langella, Roger Moore (!), Gene Wilder, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Buster Keeton (!!!), and Ian McKellen have all played Holmes with varying degrees of success.
But my favorite non-Brett Holmes is the one played by George C. Scott in the movie “They Might Be Giants.” Scott plays a judge who retreats into his fantasy of being Holmes after his wife dies. His brother tries to get him admitted to a mental institution but he meets a psychiatrist, played by Joanna Woodward, whose name, surprisingly/conveniently, is Dr. Mildred Watson. Comedy and mystery ensue and the movies is just downright fun. To paraphrase a 1930s review of a Broadway actress, George C. Scott could read the phone book and make it riveting (if you could find a phone book these days).
Several months ago, BC (before Covid), I was having lunch with a friend of mine. I had just come back from a trip to Lowe’s to pick up something or other and had seen a display of a self-propelled, robotic mower, something like those Roombas that automatically vacuum your floors, only this thing will cut your grass and then go plug itself into a charging station. We were laughing about what might happen if it got out of the yard somehow and how you might have to put up fliers on telephone poles around town seeking to get it back. Well, that percolated in my brain for a while and I decided to write a story about it and here it is, with apologies to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who I’m sure is somewhere out there in the ether, still getting virtual royalties.
The Adventure of the Missing Mower
I’ve always been something of an “early adopter.” I was the first kid in high school to have a transistor radio. I spent the entire summer I got it with the tiny, tinny earpiece in my ear, listening to the Beach Boys and Leslie Gore. When school started in the fall, I spent several days in the principal’s office because I hid the transistor in my book bag and tried to listen to it when I should have been doing quadratic equations or reading “Silas Marner.” My teachers were not amused.
When I got my driver’s license, I convinced my dad to put an eight-track tape player in my mom’s car because that was the one I got to drive on Saturday nights. I was very popular with the guys and the girls, even though the car was the epitome of a family car — a 1963 Ford Fairlane station wagon. Even though the eight-track was notorious for eating tapes, it was incredibly convenient for moving them from my bedroom, to the den, to the car and back to my bedroom as needed. As soon as cassette tapes made an appearance, I put a tape player in the 1966 Mustang my grandmother gave me as a graduation present. I always managed to have the latest amp, tuner, turntable, tape deck, and speakers. My parents were very generous and I was very appreciative.
Beside music, I got interested in computers early on when I started engineering classes at UTA. I built a rudimentary computer from a Heathkit kit (redundant, I know) and later moved on to a Sinclair 1000, right after they came on the market in the U.S. After about a month, I started using it as a doorstop because it was maddening to try to do anything with. The keyboard was just this thin membrane that you had to press very hard to make contact with the switches underneath. For a while, I used an external keyboard that I hacked into the system, but that arrangement lasted only so long. Since the Sinclair didn’t come with a monitor, I had to hook it up to my TV which took longer than the time I spent trying to write a program to play tic-tac-toe on the thing. Other computers inevitably followed and anything requiring tinkering got my attention.
My interest in gadgets inevitably earned me a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and the nameplate, Dr. Watson, on the door of my lab at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. All of that is prelude to what brings me to my current adventure, which began unfolding over the course of the winter and a couple of weeks this spring.
In addition to being “the first kid on my block” to do most things, I’m also pretty lazy. Always have been. The phrase that I have probably heard most often in my life is “Johnny, get up! You’ll be late for….” school, work, church, your wedding, etc. If I can put off doing something, I’ll put it off. If I can avoid it all together, I’ll avoid it.
Yard work is the thing I am the most likely to put off or avoid entirely. I’ve never liked to mow or weed, so my yard never wins the neighborhood “Best of…” award. I since I live in a fairly up-scale suburb of Kansas City, on the Kansas side of the line, the expectation is that not only will your lawn be immaculate, but it will be mowed in a particular pattern, different every time, but recognizable for the effort to passersby. We have a few people in the HOA who are casually referred to as the “lawn police” and every now and then, I’ve found a note in my mailbox “suggesting” that I do a better job with the yard in order to maintain the high standards of the neighborhood.
I suppose you could add passive-aggressive to the list of my character traits, because for a couple of year, I took pains to do the yard work in an almost-acceptable manner. I’d mow in a figure eight pattern, or horizontally for a few strips and vertically for the next few. Sometimes, I’d deliberately miss a patch of grass or, most egregiously of all, “forget” to blow the clippings off my driveway! That, it seems, in my neighborhood is the biggest affront of all. There must be no evidence that the lawn has been mowed save for the immaculate nature of the stripes left behind.
As I said, over the winter, I happened to stumble on a device in an ad in Science magazine for a GPS-enabled lawn mower, much like those vacuums that automatically sweep your floors and then go plug themselves into their charging station. I felt like Archimedes saying “Eureka!” when he ran naked through the streets of Syracuse (the one in Sicily, not the one in upstate New York). This was the answer for both my laziness and my fights with the fascists in the HOA: a lawn mower that I didn’t have to push, ride, or pay someone else to push or ride; a lawn mower that would continuously keep my grass at the prescribed height, in the pattern that would please the folks who wandered through the neighborhood taking note of such useless things; and, a lawnmower that would satisfy my compulsion to be the innovator, the first to do something.
So, as quickly as I could find it on Amazon Prime, I ordered the just-released Horizontal Lawn Maintenance System 3000, Lithium-ion battery powered, GPS-enabled, shiny red, guaranteed to “keeping your lawn looking the envy of the neighborhood.” The next day, a box arrived, the size of those tiny houses being build for millennials who haven’t discovered that in five years they will have six storage units scattered around town holding all the stuff they accumulate that won’t fit in their 200 square foot home. The mower had been on the market for twelve hours and Amazon delivered it in eighteen. Ah, the modern world. It used to take two weeks for an order from Montgomery Ward to show up.
Being the nerd I am, I opted not to have MicroMaintenance, the company that created the mower, do the installation. I realized that I was voiding the warranty, but I was willing to chance it, seeing as how the installation couldn’t be scheduled until late April and we have had a really warm winter. I was sure that I could get the necessary bits and pieces set up before the first sprigs of grass would appear.
On a sunny, warm early-March day, I rented a machine that cuts a tiny trench into which the guide wire for the sensors would go and around the boundary of my lot I went, laying the wire. About halfway through, I had another “Eureka” moment and decided that I would install an electronic dog fence at the same time. My kids had been after me for months to get a dog, to which cajoling my wife and I finally succumbed, but predictably, the kids didn’t walk Toby as they had promised, so it devolved to Mary and me to perform that tasks multiple times a day. We briefly talked about installing a traditional fence, but that was another hassle with the HOA and city I didn’t want to deal with. The electric fence was the answer. Turns out that was a waste of time and money, which will become apparent shortly.
With the guide wires installed and the charging unit powered, I took HoLMS, as I began calling it, out for the setup and testing, via an app on my iPhone. The unit came fully charged, so I powered it on and it began moving around the yard. When it came to one of the guide wires, it would change directions and start mowing a different path. Now, I don’t have a very complicated yard; as I said, since I don’t like working outside, we don’t have a bunch of flower beds or obstacles to mow around. A few trees and that’s about it.
Besides the guide wires, HoLMS can navigate by GPS, so I walked the boundary of the yard, punching in landmarks and adding these to its memory. The yard looked pretty dismal since I hadn’t done much cleanup in the fall, yet HoLMS powered through the clumps of dead grass and piles of leaves even thought the instructions suggested that you do an initial mowing with a traditional mower and bag any leave that might be on the yard. Yeah, right.
The day after I set up HoLMS, it snowed five inches and kept snowing for several days. It turned out to be one of the snowiest Marches on record, so HoLMS didn’t get a chance to do its stuff until the beginning of April. That break was just what I needed to begin tinker with the mower. Another brand has recently come out with a voice-activated feature that operates through Siri. That seemed like a useful feature, so I installed a few components that I found on line and created my own iPhone app to let HoLMS know what I wanted it to do.
As soon as there was the slightest hint of green in the yard, I took HoLMS out and let it begin its task. Over the course of about six hours, it manicured the lawn, stopping only once to recharge. As a bit of a joke, I took out my phone, opened my app and said, “Thank you, HoLMS, for doing such a great job.”
To my great surprise, HoLMS answered, “You are quite welcome, Dr. Watson.”
I looked around to see if someone else had replied, playing a trick on me. My usually nosy neighbor, Mrs. Hudson, was nowhere to be seen, so I said, “HoLMS, did you just speak to me?”
“Why, yes. Isn’t that why you installed Irene?”
“Irene” was the name I had given my voice-assisted app.
“Frankly, I had expected it to be mostly a one-way conversation, but since we are chatting like this, is everything working properly?” Again, I was a bit self-conscious about having a conversation with a lawn mower, but I thought that this would be a good way to verify what I perceived to be a successful job.
“Everything is operating as it should, Dr. Watson. Do you have any suggestions on how I can improve my performance?” HoLMS seemed to be genuinely interested in my opinion. Wait. Why would a lawn mower be concerned about what I thought?
“No, you seem to be doing just fine. The yard looks very nice. Well, HoLMS, go back to your charging station and resume your schedule. Have a nice day.”
Wow, not only was I having a conversation with a piece of machinery, I was talking in cliches. Hmm…
Over the course of the spring, I would look out the window to see what HoLMS was up to and there it was as always, clipping, clipping, clipping away, never seeming to follow the same path, but always giving the yard a perfectly-groomed look. Several times, neighbors would stop by while I was out in the yard and comment on how nice everything looked, the “for a change” only implied.
“Your lawn mower certainly does a wonderful job,” they would say and just for a second, it seemed like HoLMS would stop what it was doing and turn toward the sound of our voices. Was it feeling proud of itself? I must admit that I was sort of feeling proud of myself for once again being on the “cutting edge” of lawn maintenance, so to speak.
Then one day, I looked out the window and something seemed wrong. Normally, I’d see HoLMS chugging away, clipping, clipping, clipping, and Toby running circles around it, or trying to guess where it would go next. It seems that they had developed something of a friendship. When HoLMS was back at its charging station, Toby would sometimes go lie down beside it and take a nap, too. Occasionally, it seemed like they would be playing a game, with Toby chasing HoLMS or HoLMS chasing Toby. It was a bit weird, but who knows what goes on with animals? Every now and then, when Toby was in for the night, I sensed that he wanted to be outside with his friend.
“You can go outside and play with HoLMS tomorrow, OK?” I’d say, to which, Toby would give me a look of anticipation and happiness. Did Toby like HoLMS more than he did me? Was I becoming jealous? No, that’s silly. Jealous of a machine? Crazy.
Well, back to that spring day. When I looked outside, I didn’t immediately see Toby or HoLMS. I went to the back of the house to see if they were in the back yard. Nope, not there. I stepped outside and went to the side of the house where the charging station was, and they weren’t there either. Another transit of the yard determined that they were nowhere to be found.
HoLMS has an anti-theft system that sends a message to my phone if it is lifted up without being powered down. I had not gotten any notice, so it didn’t seem likely it had been stollen. And where was Toby? He had never gone through the electric fence before. I walked down the street a few houses and ran into Norman Bradstreet, inspecting his rose bushes.
“I don’t suppose you’ve seen Toby, have you?” I asked.
“As a matter of fact, he and your lawnmower were heading down toward the park. I though that was a bit strange, but…” His voice trailed off as if he didn’t want to say the rest of what was on his mind. Norm and I had had our differences of opinion in the past, mainly over the condition of my lawn, of course, but on the whole, we were on friendly terms.
“Thanks, Norm. Just never know what those two are up to.” I tried to make it sound light-hearted and normal, but as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I realized how ridiculous it sounded, like they were a couple of ten year olds always getting into mischief.
The Leawood City Park was a couple of blocks from my house, so I figured I’d catch up to them pretty quickly. As soon as I walked over the I-435 overpass, I saw them in the big open field that is always swarming with kids on the weekends, playing soccer or chasing baseballs. Toby was running back and forth down the length of the field and HoLMS was cutting a figure eight in the first soccer field. With each pass, the eight had gotten larger until it most likely could now be seen from the International Space Station.
I scurried down the embankment toward the escapees and it was then that I remembered that I had my phone in my pocket. Calling up my communications app, I dialed HoLMS.
“What in the world are you doing?” I asked, wondering what sort of reply I’d get.
“Oh, hello, Dr. Watson. Nice to see you. Toby seemed to want to stretch his legs and I’ve just been experimenting with a new cutting pattern while I keep my eye on him. I hope that is alright. We were going to be heading home soon.” HoLMS said this in a voice that made it sound like the most natural thing in the world for the two of them to have done.
“Well, first of all, you should have asked my permission to leave the yard and secondly, If the animal control people had been around, Toby would be in the Leawood Animal Shelter right now, waiting for me to come bail him out. Did you think about that?” Wait, I’m scolding my lawn mower and suggesting that it think about the consequences of its action? This was getting a bit strange.
“I’m really sorry, Dr. Watson. I guess I didn’t consider the possibility that Toby would be in danger. It won’t happen again. Shall we go home?”
“Home.” That was the second time HoLMS had used that word. Did he think of the place he spent most of his time mowing and recharging as “home?” And why was I now referring to HoLMS as “he” instead of “it?” Had our relationship changed? I was beginning to think I might need to bring this up when I had my bi-weekly therapy session with Dr. Sidney Paget.
I can hear him now: “So, tell me… You talk to your lawn mower and think it is a ‘he.’ Do you think that is a result of your unresolved issues with your father?”
No, probably not a good time to bring it up.
I whistled for Toby, who had not seen me to that point, and when he raced up to me, he nearly knocked me over in what seemed to be pure joy at having the opportunity to “stretch his legs,” as HoLMS had said.
We headed home and by the time we got there, HoLMS seemed to be in need of a charge. He chugged over to his charging station and I thought I heard him let out a sigh as he plugged himself in. Toby and I went into the house and Toby collapsed on his bed next to the patio doors that open out to the back yard, from which location he can keep an eye on HoLMS… when his eyes are open, which they weren’t for very long then.
For the next few weeks, everything seemed to be back to normal. Occasionally, I’d get a text message from HoLMS once again apologizing for leaving the yard. I assured him that I was not mad at him, but made sure that he knew that leaving the yard like that was not OK. He seemed to accept that restriction and went on diligently with his lawn cutting duties.
About once a week, I’d get a reminder from the manufacturer to attend to some type of maintenance to keep HoLMS in top condition. One day, Mary’s father, Arthur Morstan, Captain, USMC retired, dropped by to chat, which he did, when he had run out of projects to do at his house.
“What’s up, John?” he asked as he walked into the garage where I had HoLMS up on a pair of saw horses topped with a piece of plywood.
“Oh, just oiling my lawn mower’s gears,” I said, not referring to him as HoLMS. Arthur might not have understood.
“What are you using? I always just spray some WD40 on whatever needs oiling. WD40 and duct tape. You can do anything with WD40 and duct tape.” Arthur approached everything from the simplest angle; a trait that he imparted to his daughter who was able to complete the most complex task in seemingly no time and with the smallest effort. I’m just the opposite. My rule of thumb is: estimate the time it will take to do a task, double that time and then move to the next highest unit of measure. So, if I think something will take ten minutes, it usually ends up taking two hours. Sometimes more. Usually more.
“The manual I got online says to lubricate the gears with a seven percent solution of train oil, which they included in the box Ho…., uh, the mower came in.” I almost slipped and said his name, but managed to catch myself.
“Sounds like you’ve got it in hand. I’ll just go in and see how Mary’s doing. See you later.”
Arthur and I had a cordial, if not exceedingly friendly, relationship. He had always thought I wasn’t quite good enough for his daughter, Mary Morstan. The fact that I had not served in the military, as he had, was one of the sticking points. The fact that he considered me an “egghead” was another, even though Mary was even more of an “egghead” than me. An MD and two PhDs in microbiology were just what Arthur expected of his daughter, but my office on the UMKC campus somehow made me part of the liberal elite that he disdained.
I finished oiling the gears and cleaning the small amount grass stuck to the underside of HoLMS’ deck and let him chug back to his charging station for a short top-up. Everything was quiet around the neighborhood until one rainy day a few weeks later in June when I heard Toby whimpering from his bed. When I checked on him, I could tell that something was wrong in the back yard, so I retrieved an umbrella and went outside to investigate. There were no intruders and everything was in order, except that HoLMS wasn’t there. He wasn’t in the front yard, either, so it was apparent that he had taken off again, this time without Toby.
I set off to try to find him, which the wet conditions made easier. I could see his tracks across Mrs. Hudson’s front yard and down the sidewalk toward Lee Boulevard. At the corner of Lee and 104th, the tracks stopped, as had the rain. Which way had he gone? I thought I heard a slight whirring sound coming from the direction of Outlook Street, so I headed that way, but there was no sign of HoLMS and the whirring was coming from a weed whacker being wielded by Charlie Milverton, one of the neighborhood overlords.
“Haven’t seen a roving lawnmower, have you, Charlie?” I asked, trying to sound casual about it.
“Oh, I’ve got one of those mowers that cuts the grass automatically. I thought maybe you’d have seen it on your patrols around the neighborhood.” I immediately regretted using the word “patrol” seeing as how Charlie regarded it his duty as one of the HOA board members to make sure everything was up to his, and his alone, standards.
“No, why would I have seen it?” he asked.
“Well, apparently, it’s gotten out of my yard somehow and taken off on its own. The sensors and GPS must be malfunctioning.”
“That’s pretty strange. No, haven’t seen it, but I’ll let you know if I do. Maybe it’s run off with your chainsaw.” Charlie sort of half laughed and half grunted. That was the closest we’d ever come to a pleasant conversation.
After a few more blocks, I hadn’t found HoLMS and decided to head back home, thinking that perhaps he was returning to his charger. When I got home, Toby was still sitting by the patio door, looking out forlornly.
“I’m sure HoLMS will be coming back soon, Toby,” I said trying to comfort him as best I could. For the rest of the afternoon and evening, he was glued to his spot and didn’t even want to eat his dinner, which he usually wolfs down. When I let him out in the back yard, he ran to the charging station and then made several circuits around the yard looking for his buddy.
When Mary got home from her office, she asked, “What’s going on with Toby?”
“You won’t believe this, but HoLMS got out again and I haven’t been able to find him. I’ve called all the neighbors I can think of and no one has seen him. Toby’s distraught.”
Mary gave me that look she has that says “This is the result of one of your kooky ideas, isn’t it?” but she didn’t say anything. She went out in the back yard and Toby came over to her.
“It’ll be OK, sweetie. Your dad will find your friend.” Toby looked skeptical and I was pretty sure Mary actually was.
The next morning, HoLMS still hadn’t returned and I decided to print up some fliers like the ones you see around town, people looking for lost cats and kids. It felt a bit silly, but I thought perhaps HoLMS was just stuck under a bush somewhere and someone would let me know where he was. I offered a small reward for information leading to his retrieval, but no one called the number I posted.
Every day for the next week, I sent HoLMS a text through “Irene” but he didn’t respond. I figured that his battery must be completely exhausted and so he wasn’t able to communication.
On the Saturday morning after HoLMS had been gone for several days, the doorbell rang and there were three kids standing there, one of whom had one of the fliers in his hand. I recognized them as the ones Mrs. Hudson referred to as the “Pawnee Street Irregulars.”
“You paying a reward for this thing?” he asked.
“Yes, do you know where it is? Have you seen it?”
“Yeah, we were riding our bikes over by the school and I saw it cutting the grass on the field out back. How much do we get?”
“I’ll give you five bucks right now and if you go over with me and it’s still there, I’ll give you another ten.”
“We’ll take the five. We’ve got stuff to do. Good luck, mister.” I wondered what they had to do that was worth giving up ten dollars, but kids these days are pretty busy, I know. Probably on their way to terrorize Mrs. Hudson’s cat.
The kid handed me the flier and I handed him his five dollars. I left it up to them to decide how to divide it up. As they rode away, I wondered if they’d actually seen HoLMS, but I figured it was worth the money because I had a lead at last as to his whereabouts.
The elementary school is only about five minutes from my house, so I decided just to walk over to see if the kids were right. As I got close, I thought I could hear the familiar whir of blades cutting grass and the sound of children laughing. When I got there, sure enough, HoLMS was in the field that serves as an area for recess when school is in session and an all-purpose play field for the neighborhood kids during the summer. And, sure enough, there were about a half dozen kids running after him as he scurried back and forth across the field. They all seemed to be having a great time, HoLMS included.
As I approached, HoLMS must have sensed me coming and he made a beeline for an opening in the fence that spanned the back part of the field. He can move pretty fast and before I could catch up to him, he had disappeared into the adjacent neighborhood. He apparently had turned off his cutting blades, because there was no new-mown path indicating which way he had gone and he was on “silent running” like that old Bruce Dern movie.
Now what to do? He obviously didn’t want to be discovered, for some reason, so I decided that perhaps the thing to do was just to wait and see if he ever came “home” again. I knew Toby would be heartbroken if he didn’t and what was I going to do about the lawn? Charlie Milverton would be on my case if I didn’t get it cut pretty soon. It had been nearly two weeks and it was beginning to return to its former natural state.
When I got home, Mary was fixing lunch and Toby was sitting dejectedly by the patio doors, quietly whimpering.
“He’s been like that for the last two weeks,” Mary said. “You are going to have to find that thing or we are going to have to get the vet to give him some tranquilizers.”
“I know,” I said. “Maybe I could get him one of those remote-controlled cars and let him chase it around the back yard.”
“I think he’d know the difference. He’s unnaturally attached to that lawn mower.”
So, that afternoon, I printed up new fliers with a $100 reward this time, hoping that would stimulate some interest, or search parties, or something, anything. If it worked, it would be cheaper than vet bills and doggie Valium. Maybe even human Valium for Mary and me.
For two months, no one called or knocked on the door with information about the whereabouts of our fugitive lawn mower. I had, however, gotten several calls from the HOA vigilantes threatening to, at the least, turn me in to the City for violating the excess weeds ordinance and at most, start a controlled burn on my front lawn since this, by now, was late September and the grass was an even shade of beige since we had never spent the money to put in a sprinkler system and I wasn’t inclined to stand in the yard with a hose, watering it.
I briefly thought about trying to exercise the replacement clause in the warranty, but I wasn’t sure the company would think “left the yard and hasn’t been seen since” would be a reason for giving me a new mower. Likewise, I didn’t want to endure the laughter that our insurance agent, Jonathan Small, would direct my way when I tried to explain why I was submitting a claim.
I considered calling the police to report a theft, but I knew that wasn’t the reason HoLMS was gone, though there had been several segments on one of the local TV news shows about the mysterious disappearance of all sorts of lawn equipment over the summer: leaf blowers, weed whackers, riding lawnmowers and… rechargeable, self-guided mowers! All of the missing equipment seemed to be from Overland Park, Prairie Village, and Leawood. Was there some crime ring operating locally that was stealing lawn maintenance equipment? Had HoLMS been abducted and not just taken off on his own? Why hadn’t I gotten a ransom note?
Finally, just when I had given up hope of ever finding him, a camera crew from the TV station that had been following the story pulled up in front of our house and a reporter knocked on the door.
“Are you Dr. John Watson, the owner of the vandal lawn mower?” the reporter, who looked a bit like a young Regis Philbin, asked.
“Vandal lawnmower? What’s this all about?”
“Well, your lawn mower, and six others, have been rounded up by the Overland Park police and the serial numbers were used to track down you and the other owners. The police should be here any minute. We heard it over the scanner. It seems your lawn mower and the others were discovered on the Bent Willows golf course, cutting the number six fairway this morning.”
The reporter, who recounted this, could barely keep from laughing as he stuck a microphone in my face and asked for a comment.
Before I could say anything, a Leawood Police car and two OP police cars pulled up.
“Well, I’m as perplexed about that as you are. That’s a good three miles from here. My lawn mower has been gone for almost three months now. I can’t imagine how it got there.” I said this to the reporter hurriedly before a policeman from the Leawood PD walked up the driveway and tried to shoo the reporter and camera crew away.
“Dr. Watson, I’m Detective Inspector MacDonald from the Leawood Police Department. Do you own a Horizontal Lawn Maintenance System 3000, known as a HoLMS 3000?”
“Yes, I do, but it’s been missing for quite some time. I understand you’ve located it? My dog has been very distraught about it.”
I said this without thinking and immediately heard snickers from the other police officers, who had gathered around Inspector MacDonald, and from the TV crew, who were straining to hear what was being said and recording every bit of it for the evening news.
“I’m sorry about your dog, but you’ll have to accompany the officers from the Overland Park Department back to their station to identify your equipment and give a statement about what you know about the incident.”
“I’ll be happy to do that,” I said. “Am I being charged with a crime?”
“Well, as far as we can tell, there hasn’t been any damage to the golf course. In fact, the grounds keeper said it was the best job of mowing he’d seen since he’s been there, but I’m sure the OPD will sort that all out. Have a good day.”
And with that, he turned and just past the TV reporter, who had rushed up to to me again, he burst out laughing. In fact, all the policemen were laughing and the cameraman was slowly panning around to catch the scene.
Before the reporter could say anything, I ran over to my car and hopped in, backed down the driveway and drove to the Overland Park station. I had no idea what would show up on the news that evening, but I didn’t want to be interviewed until I could find out exactly what had happened and where HoLMS had been all these weeks.
When I got to the station, I was shown into a large room that looked much like a basketball court. There were several tables set up on which were arrayed a variety of automatic lawn mowers. Was this a lineup, I thought to myself? No, at each of the tables was a person who appeared to be the owner of a mower. There were two Black and Deckers, three Toros, and a Husquevarna. And my HoLMS. As I approached, I could see the control lights on the charging panel light up and begin blinking in some sort of pattern, maybe Morse Code. Now, I don’t know Morse Code, so it was Greek to me, as they say. But my phone also vibrated and when I looked, I could see that I had gotten a text from HoLMS.
“Hello, Dr. Watson. How are you? I’m so glad you are here. Can we go home? I’ve missed Toby.”
“I’ve got a text from my wife,” I said to the police officer who seemed to be in charge of the situation. “Do you mind?”
“Sure, no problem. Take your time.” He turned to the others and resumed filling out paperwork.
I started texting HoLMS: “Give me a minute and we’ll be on our way.”
The police officer turned back to me and said, “Everything OK at home?”
“Yes, just fine. She just asked me to stop at the store on the way home and pick up some milk.”
“I get that text every day. We’ve got three kids,” the officer said, chuckling. “Now, if you could just sign this statement, you can leave. I think it’s pretty clear that no laws have been broken, at least none that we can think of, and the superintendent of the golf course doesn’t want to press any charges. Do you have any explanation for how this all happened?”
Explanation? Was there some way I could tell him that my lawn mower somehow developed a will of its own and decided to go on the lam, without sounding like a complete loon? No, I didn’t think so, so I just said, “Beats me.” That apparently was enough for him; he seemed anxious get the whole business wrapped up and on to other things. Perhaps it was time for his Krispy Kreme break.
I picked up HoLMS and walked to the car. At first, I thought about putting him in the back seat, but instead, I opened the trunk and not-so-gently, dropped him in. As soon as I closed the trunk lid, my phone vibrated and it was another text from HoLMS.
“I’m sorry, Dr. Watson. This will never happen again.”
“You are darn right, it won’t,” I typed. “When we get home, I’m disabling your GPS and Irene and I are going to have words.”
Over the next few weeks, I managed to find out where HoLMS had been and what he had been doing. It’s quite a story, but I’ll save that for another time; Toby wants to go out and play with his friend.
Every morning, around 6:30, I go for a walk around the neighborhood with my dog Yogi (named for the baseball player, Yogi Berra, not the cartoon character, Yogi Bear, although that would have been a good choice, too. Our next door neighbors are from Indian and Audi’s parents were here a while back to help take care of their newborn grandson, Neil. One day, Audi’s mother saw Yogi and she asked what his name was. When I told her “Yogi” she said, “Ah, that means wise man. Namaste.” and bowed to him. He, of course, looked up at me as if to say, “See, she gets it.”).
Our apartment complex is adjacent to a shopping area and our morning walks usually take us past the retail stores, restaurants and offices that comprise what is known as “Park Place.” Right now, of course, most everything is closed or operating on limited hours. Before COVID-19 hit, we often saw early-morning exercise classes being held in two of the establishments that cater to people who insist on getting up at the crack of dawn to be yelled at while doing stretching routines. Those things seem to be going on less frequently now, with fewer participants. When we first moved in, there was a coffee shop that always had folks sitting and drinking and reading papers. It has since closed, as have at least two of the restaurants. Our early morning walks are very solitary these days.
Yogi has a highly-developed sense of smell, like most dogs, and he keeps his nose to the ground a lot of the time. He will also eat almost anything he finds, including bugs, bits of food left by who knows who, unidentifiable remnants of who knows what, and even used napkins. We had a nasty encounter with one of those one time. I won’t go into details, but when it came back up, I thought it was some sort of alien creature. Anyway, I try to keep my eye on him to discourage this sort of foraging. As a result, I have had the fortune (no pun intended) to find a total of $23.87 in coins and currency on our walks. Usually, it has just been nickels and dimes, but one day I picked up a $20 bill someone had dropped and yesterday, I retrieved a $1 bill in a grassy area next to the shops. My good luck has been somebody else’s loss and for that I feel sorry, but it seems unlikely that they will be coming back looking for their money, so it’s now mine.
One day, a few years back, I was in Winstead’s, a local hamburger joint. When I started to leave, I found two $20 bills on the floor in the entryway. Now, that’s a lot of money to lose and so I left my card with the cashier and said that if someone came back looking for their money, they could give me a call. I didn’t specify how much I had found. I figured that would be a way of checking whether the caller was legitimate. A few hours later, I got a call from a woman who said that she and her three kids had been at Winstead’s and that she thought that she had dropped two $20 bills somewhere in the restaurant or parking lot. They were on their way to see the kids’ grandfather who was in the hospital and had just stopped to have something to eat before visiting him. Well, the fact that she knew it was two $20s made her story seem true, so I gave her my address and she showed up later in a rather beat-up old car with the three kids in tow. I could tell that she needed the money more than I did, even if somehow she wasn’t really the one to dropped the bills.
I’ve been thinking that lost money might be a good hook for a short story or series of sketches about the people who leave behind nickels and dimes and dollar bills. Maybe I’ll give that a go one of these days. In the mean time, Yogi will keep his nose to ground and lead me to the riches that I know are out there.
A couple of days ago I wrote about my adventure in trying to upgrade my iPod 3rd gen to be able to play the latest update of TuneIn Radio so we could listen to WFMT through a radio that has a dock for the iPod. Failing to do so, I ordered an Echo Dot from Amazon (on sale for $29 at the time; it has since gone back to the original price of $49; got it just at the right time). It arrived Monday and I set it up yesterday, so I’m figuring out what Alexa will do.
The first request I made, of course, was “Alexa, play WFMT.” She responded right away and said “Playing WFMT through TuneIn Radio.” Perfect. I then experimented with asking her to raise and lower the volume. No problem.
This morning, however, when I got up and started the coffee, after turning on WFMT, I asked, “Alexa, what kind of a day is it going to be?” She answered: “Tomorrow is going to be an apple pie type of day.” Well, I should have asked what today is going to be, I guess.
Next, I asked who George McGovern’s running mate was in 1972. Alexa seems to know more about history than today’s weather and her reply was “George McGovern’s running mate in 1972 was Sargent Shriver.” Absolutely correct.
For a joke, I asked Siri to tell Alexa to turn down the music, and Siri said, “Reduce volume of media.” Bingo! So Siri and Alexa can talk to each other. But what about the Google assistant?
“Alexa, what’s the Google assistant’s name?”
“The Google assistant does not have a name,” Alexa responded.
Well, I think that’s just sad. We are supposed to have a programmable thermostat installed tomorrow and if it’s a Nest, it will be Google-powered and voice activated, I think. If so, I’m going to start calling the assistant Max. A name is important, especially in the virtual world these days. Of course, I can always ask Siri or Alexa to turn up the heat or turn down the air conditioning. They’ll work it out with Max.