A ride-on mower made me the man I've always wanted to be

by Greg Dixon / 26 July, 2017
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The writer recreates George Jones’s infamous whiskey run. Photo/Greg Dixon

If you are what you drive, then I’m a dead country and western singer. Well, if I’m being strictly accurate, my new John Deere ride-on mower – a massive 16.8 horsepower, 0-9km/h in 10 seconds, more than 1m of cutting width – has turned me into the kind of man I’ve always dreamt I’d be: a man with a ride-on mower.

I’ve had an obsession with these brilliant machines since I bought my first home, a stucco place on half a hectare north-west of Auckland, in the mid-1990s.

Back then, as a struggling journalist, I wanted but couldn’t afford a ride-on, so I had to cut the massive lawn with a push mower. It took me hours; it put me off mowing for years.

Now, nearly a quarter of a century later, still a struggling journalist, I have bought a stucco place on nearly 5ha in the mighty Wairarapa, with over 1ha of that in lawn.

Now let me tell you: it was going to be a freezing cold day in Auckland before I attempted cutting that with a push mower. So the second thing I did after moving to the country – the first was have a pacemaker put in – was spend a considerable amount of money on what I now rate as man’s greatest invention. In fact, the ride-on cost us so much it might as well be a second car. Which brings me to George Jones, the country singer.

Jones, now departed, was famously a boozer, a badass and the singer of such uplifting laments as He Stopped Loving Her Today, She Thinks I Still Care and They’ll Only Find Her Body when I’m Dead and Gone (I might have made that last one up).

The Band’s Robbie Robertson called him the Ray Charles of country. But in some circles, wild man Jones is just as celebrated for making trouble on a ride-on mower.

There’s more than one story. But his most famous escapade, which he wrote about in his autobiography – called, with restrained braggadocio, I Lived to Tell It All – took place in 1966: his second wife (of four), Shirley, decided to hide the keys to all their vehicles.

Jones had been drunk for days, and Shirley figured, with the nearest liquor store 12km away in Beaumont, Texas, that her booze-hound hubby sure as shit wouldn’t walk that far. So she hid the keys and left the house.

He may have stopped loving her that day – we’ll never know. But he remembered looking longingly out a window as a light shone over their property.

“[And] there, gleaming in the glow, was that 10-horsepower rotary engine under a seat, a key glistening in the ignition.”

Yes, it was his ride-on mower. And it took him, at a top speed of 8km/h, into Beaumont for more whiskey.

It reads like a honky-tonk Easy Rider. And it’s just about as celebrated. His fellow country singers loved the story so much that two, including Hank Williams Jr, later asked Jones to recreate his mighty feat in music videos.

My reviews, on the other hand, have been rather more mixed. After I posted a picture of myself on the John Deere on Instagram and Facebook, one friend, The DJ, sniffed that it looked like “a rural mobility scooter”, though he did ask whether it had “a slot for your beer”. (It does!)

Another friend, Ray’s Mother, a denizen of Kingsland, wondered, “Shouldn’t you be wearing a crash helmet?” (No! The sheep would laugh at me!)

Well, I’m not letting any of that bother me. Tony, the bloke who sold me my ride-on, says he always knows he’s made a sale when the bloke sitting aboard gets a big smile on his face. Just like me and George Jones.

This article was first published in the July 8, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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