Lawn Party

FRANK HERBERT in a native Sew Yorker, a yraduate of the University of Notre Dame, who has made his home in Massachusetts since returning from wartime service as an officer in the Sarny. This is his first appearance in the Atlantic.


IT ALL started as more or less of a joke, back in the summer of 1950. That was the summer when our suburban community — a part of Wellesley, Massachusetts — had just begun to build, and when all the new neighbors were neighbors only in the loosest sense of the word. We had all recently moved in from widely separated parts of the country, and wo were closely following what seems to be a guiding rule of family behavior in the big new communities of today: Be polite to your neighbor — but keep to yourself.

If we were united at all, it was in the impersonal matters. For example, there was the great effort of Building a Front Lawn. All of us were trying desperately to do this, in spite of such obstacles as bicycles, birds, dogs, small boys, and a considerable lack of the good green thumb. We experimented recklessly with all kinds of seed, soil-builders, and fertilizers; it remained, however, for the Austins to come up with the strangest experiment of all. They planted their front lawn, not to grass, but to buckwheat!

Curiosity overcame reticence; questions were asked and the answer was brief and simple. “Just a starter,” Bob Austin said. “It might condition the soil for a really good lawn later on. Anyway, we’ll see how it turns out.”

Came August, and if progress in the neighborly spirit was slow — for the invisible fences which surrounded each family remained standing: we were still the courteous strangers — at least progress with the buckwheat lawn was not. It was flourishing. It looked odd, but it was the showpiece of the community. One day a neighbor suggested to Bob Austin that it was a pity to let it all go to waste— that when harvest time came around he might very well invite the whole neighborhood over for a buckwheat cake breakfast.

And this was what started it all, for in the suggestion which had been offered so lightly, Austin saw interesting possibilities. For one thing, the idea of feeding an entire neighborhood

—an idea which would leave the average householder limp and helpless

—did not faze him; he was by training a hotel man, accustomed to dealing with large groups of hungry people. More positively, however, he felt that such a breakfast might be just what the neighborhood needed. He is a friendly man, and has always believed that people who live in the same community should at least know each other; our slow progress in this direction had troubled him. How better to introduce everyone, he thought, than at a community breakfast?

Accordingly, early the next spring each of the approximately fifty families in our part of Wellesley received an invitation to a Sunday morning pancake breakfast at the Austins’. “Bring your plates and your appetites,” it read. “We do the rest.”

Had everything been arranged smoothly, with no hitches? Not quite; it was not until after the breakfast that many of us learned what had gone on behind the scenes.

First of all, there had been the matter of the stove. How to cook hundreds of pancakes outdoors and in a hurry: that was the problem. An outdoor electric grill seemed fine in theory, but actually proved impractical because of the cost. Austin finally got around the difficulty by turning up an Army surplus griddle of heroic proportions, which he set up on building blocks over a charcoal fire.

Secondly, there had been the food itself. Maple syrup? This was easy: some of Austin’s closest friends were Vermonters in the maple syrup business who readily agreed to supply all the syrup the pancakes could absorb. Butter? This was harder: there had to be lots of it, and butter costs were high. Shopping around in the market for a good price, Austin ran into one of his neighbors. As luck would have it, he was a wholesaler who dealt in dairy products; moreover, he was coming to the breakfast. Result: a donation of butter, enough and more for everyone.

Finally, there were the pancakes themselves — or rather, the buckwheat for the pancakes. For the famous buckwheat lawn, from which everything had started, turned out to be of no help at all. Buckwheat has to be milled into flour, and our community contained no resident millers; it did, however, have a vicepresident of a supermarket chain, which proved to be even better. He talked with the Pillsbury people and told them of the problem; the next day there was a promise of all the flour we needed, gratis.

The big day came at last — and with it came a heavy fog. Still, in spite of the weather, at the appointed hour one hundred and fifty men, women, and children were gathered together in the Austins’ yard, plates in hand and ready for breakfast. Two chefs kept the line moving rapidly: one poured the batter, the other flipped the cakes. In the interest of efficient serving, a rule was quickly established that no person could have more than two pancakes at a time — but there was no limit to the number of times.

The breakfast was a huge success. Even the sun finally came out, and by the time it did, everyone had eaten his fill and, most important of all, everyone had met everyone else. The fences were coming down at last.

That was in 1951. Now the pancake breakfast has become an annual fixture in our community; it gets bigger and better with every year. New families in the neighborhood have been known to inquire about it before they move in. And as a result of it, there are no strangers in our neighborhood today.

As for Bob Austin, he has a fine new lawn; the buckwheat lawn has long since gone. But everyone agrees that as a “starter” it was a magnificent success.