When Autumn Leaves Start to Fall

When Mister Boomer was growing up in the 1950s and early ’60s, his parents’ front yard had the two biggest trees in the neighborhood sitting in the front of the house between the sidewalk and the street. The developer, who had built the houses in the early 1940s, most likely in anticipation of returning GIs, was smart enough to leave some mature trees on the block that were there long before the bulldozers arrived.

The trees provided ample and welcome shade all summer long, but as autumn came calling, they became the bane of the neighborhood. Bushels and bushels of leaves dropped from the trees, and with the help of a little wind laid a blanket of yellow, orange and brown halfway down the block. At any given time, the leaves would be past ankle deep anywhere on the property.

As was the case with most boomer households, the task of raking the leaves fell to the young boys. Boomer boys, however, were never content to just do a chore of any kind without trying to find some fun in the process. In the case of the leaves, piles became the goal: the bigger the piles, the better for jumping into. Mister Boomer and his brother worked at the epicenter of the leaf gathering, seeing as we lived beneath the biggest suppliers of the falling stuff. Consequently, the piles were often formed at the Boomer household, or in the street directly in front of the house.

Several of the neighborhood kids would work together to collect leaves in wooden bushel baskets that families had gotten from the produce market when they purchased apples, potatoes, green beans or cucumbers for canning. Like working a production line, they’d fill-and-dump, fill-and-dump bushels of leaves until the piles rose to the height of most of the boys. Then it was time to play.

Jumping into the piles was OK, but hardly provided the boys the thrill they were after. Readjusting the piles, they would construct a wall that stretched across the street; the boys had a bigger impact in mind. Getting their bicycles, they gathered at the top of the block, which happened to be a small hill, and zoomed down and through the wall. Leaves flew in the air every which way, much to the delight of the boys. Dozens would be stuck to their clothing, turning them into instant fall-leaf monsters.

By the time a few more satisfying runs were accomplished, a mother or two would step out on a porch and “suggest” that the boys rake the leaves as they were told. Grabbing rakes that had been haphazardly discarded, they then pushed the piles into mounds near the street curb. A quick match to a single leaf by one of the older boys would start a pile burning.

It was customary to burn piles of leaves then, with the blessing of the city. It was the common way to rid one’s yard of leaves. To this day, Mister Boomer can smell the burning leaves of his youth … and it smells like autumn.

A few years later, the city reversed the policy and banned burning in the street. Not long after that, a neighbor, who had long expressed contempt for the trees that had deposited such a huge biological layer on his property, took samples to the city. The trees were diagnosed as having been diseased. One fall day, Mister Boomer came home from school to find two massive stumps where the trees once stood. Mister Boomer’s mom told him the workers had counted the rings, and the trees were over 80 years old. It felt like an old friend had moved away, never to return.

What memories do falling leaves bring to you, boomers?