Fan Man

The repeated thud of heavy footsteps, exploded suddenly outside the office door.  Looking up I saw the tall lean figure of a thirteen-year-old boy, moving in that awkward, disconnected way that children move, when pre-adolescence overtakes their limbs.  He careened round the back of the house, running full tilt toward the path beneath my office window.  Pebbles flew from his feet, ricocheting off the wood siding and striking the glass pane with a ‘ping’. Legs churning, he tore past looking straight ahead, oblivious to my gaze, eyes wide as chocolate-brown saucers, and long arms flying at his sides like the wings of a glider teetering to a landing. With an expression of utter determination, he bolted for the nursery time clock.  His workday in the garden had ended.  Peeking out the screen door, I was hard pressed to imagine the large depressions, left on the path, belonging to the feet of a boy.

At his request, his parents had inquired about a summer job in my nursery and garden.  He arrived with enthusiasm, curiosity, and the confidence of a young person, raised in a world of technology, aware of so much more than I was at his age.  “I want to do physical labor dad”, he said, when his father suggested I put his computer skills to use.  “I need to be well rounded ya know!”   Showing him the areas of the garden where he would be working, he asked to start that very day.  For two weeks he was engaged in various jobs that appeared to keep his body as active as his mind.

The first job was dusty and entailed raking slash into large piles beneath the Eucalyptus trees.  Within minutes his face was flushed and his T-shirt damp with perspiration.  “This is harder than I thought it would be,” he said.  “What will you do with the piles?”

“Probably wait for the first burn day, then burn them”, I answered.

“Then what will you do?”


“What will you plant?”

“Large drifts of grasses, beneath the trees”.

A few days later he dug postholes for signs, and sawed a few inches off four by four redwood posts.  Holding old forest service signs up against the wood posts, we determined together, where to secure them. 

“That will work”, I said.  “You see, one arrow points to “Limpy Prairie” where the new grasses will be planted and the other points to the bench in “Pine Shelter” where you will be arranging a walkway of pine rounds.” 

The boy laughed aloud.

“You really get into this don’t you? That’s cool.  This is fun”.  Enthusiastically he anchored the signs, lowered the posts into the ground, leveled them, and packed soil around their bases.   His work took him to the noon hour.  His afternoons were spent at his computer, writing and compiling a list of what he had accomplished each day, before moving on to playing computer games.

He first came to the nursery and garden as an infant, the son of a childhood friend of mine.  When visiting at the age of four he was visibly intrigued and starry-eyed at his surroundings.  When out-of-doors the youngster could be found in constant motion, climbing sand piles, collecting pinecones, pulling the wagon or pushing the wheelbarrow, with great effort, since he barely reached its handles.  Even then, long slender limbs suggested the possibility of a tall young man, given another decade.  Playing with my daughter in the house he could be seen busily drawing pictures of flowers, wagons and wheels, but when hearing my husband leave or enter through the front door, he would always stop and turn. “What are you doing?” he would ask with lower jaw jutting forward and lips parted in anticipation.  Due to fluctuating temperatures in the nursery greenhouse, the fans were often turned on or off throughout the day.  Invariably my husband’s response was, “I am turning on the fans”.  The youngster began affectionately calling him “fan man”, and asked to go along to the greenhouses.  Then one day he announced, “I want to be a fan man when I grow up”.  In later years, he continued to be as enamored by the garden and nursery, as he was during childhood. 

During the remainder of his stay that summer, he pruned, planted, cleaned out the potting shed, and finished the footpath.  After felling an immature redwood tree, that had died a few months before, he moved from garden work to the nursery helping to dig a trench, then pruning liners. The evening before his departure we had a small family celebration at a local restaurant.  After dinner, when we arrived back at the nursery, the air had cooled but the fans could still be heard humming in the distance.  Turning to my husband I asked, “Can our young friend turn off the fans tonight?”

“Of course.  He’s a fan man now!” 

I caught a glimpse of their silhouettes in the evening shadows. The man’s lengthy stride, and the boy loping beside him like a young colt, as they walked toward the greenhouses together.