It’s been about 35 years since George gave me that shovel. It was a great shovel.
My neighbor at the the time was well into his 80’s. His health had started to fail him but I could tell he had always been an independent and hard-working kind of guy. He would fix things around his house and in his yard and I had always admired how he did things. He would putter around in the yard in the summer and always used his small push mower to cut his grass. All of us had them in our little southside neighborhood back then — mowers that would spin and cut the grass only when you pushed them. I don’t know that most kids today would even recognize what it was, let alone how to use it.
I woke up early, as I suppose most kids do who have an 8pm bedtime. By 6am I was wide awake.
We lived on a corner lot back in those days so when it snowed, we had about twice as much work as many of our neighbors. Nobody had snowblowers back then. You just had to dig out. That was just the way it was.
One of my chores was to shovel the snow. I would get dressed and start the task. I’d start by the stairs, shovel the sidewalk along the side of the house, and finish by continuing across the front. If it was early enough, and I still had time before school, I would continue to shovel the next house. That was George’s house. I’d shovel the front, then I’d just continue along the side of his house and even the short little back walk in his back yard that led to his garage.
George didn’t know.
I kept this up for months. I figured that he would appreciate it but I didn’t really want him knowing who had taken an interest in helping him out. Leave a little mystery in it, I thought, even at my young age. After all, it was only a year or two earlier that I’d discovered that Santa Claus wasn’t real. Young optimism and maybe a sprinkling of the magic of the holidays wasn’t lost on me.
One day I decided to use one of George’s shovels to finish the job. My parents had always bought the flat bladed shovels that were about as wide as they were tall. George had the scoop type shovels, long and thin with a nice curve to push the snow instead of simply digging and tossing as my shovel had been designed to do. They were beautiful shovels. Solid steel, well coated with a layer of brown rust. They were heavy and George had put a nice hand grip on the end of each one. The handle was as tall as I was and when I used it I could feel the bottom scraping the pavement clean. Those were great shovels.
Now I didn’t think George would mind too much if I used his shovels on his sidewalks, and more importantly, I figured he would never find out who his benefactor was. Before George was even awake, I thought, I would be finished with the shoveling and back in my house drinking some hot chocolate.
Well that’s not exactly how it worked. Our neighborhood was a series of polish flats, as we called them back then. There were some bungalos and a few small duplexes thrown in, but they were all close. The lots were maybe 40 feet across. When I shoveled the sidewalk along the side of George’s house, he may have been sleeping 8 feet up and just on the other side of the wall for all I knew.
One day, part of the way through the winter, George surprised me by coming out.
I was busted. The gig was up. For some reason, I thought to myself, I hope he’s not mad. I know it sounds silly, but I was 10 years old and on his property and it wasn’t even yet 7am.
George came up to me and pressed a quarter or two into my mittened hand. “So you’re the one who’s doing this. Thanks. Good job”.
Whew. He wasn’t mad. There I was, with his shovel in my hand, albeit shoveling his walkway, and he was thanking me. This didn’t work out half bad I thought to myself.
George showed me the way he liked his snow shoveled. He liked the edges to be tapered back. He showed me with his shovel how he would end at the end of the concrete and lift, continuing to push the shovel toward the outside as he threw it. George’s sidewalk looked like a perfect luge when he was done.
It was a work of art I thought to myself.
And then George did something I didn’t expect, couldn’t even hope for. George told me to keep the shovel. This wasn’t your ordinary shovel I remember thinking. This was a great shovel.
George didn’t realize it then, but he made an impression on that young boy that would last a lifetime. Every time I go into the garage and see that shovel, I remember my neighbor George. Every time I have used that shovel I think about George’s how-to lesson on shoveling.
While many years have passed and most of my snow removal duties around the house these days consist of using a snow blower, every once in a while, when the snow is high, I find myself pulling out the old shovel to sculpt the perfect tapered edges.