The myth of the five dollar lawn, the Countess, and Vaughn J. Featherstone’s Aldin Porter story.
When I was in Young Men’s, they read us the story of the five dollar lawn. Every time I’d mow the lawn, the story would haunt me. I hated the story with a passion. As an economist, I had so many issues with it, it’s hard to list them all.
Ever since I discovered the church wasn’t true, I’ve wanted to debunk this story, and I finally found it today (The story begins about 30 paragraphs from the bottom.).
Now the story, according to Vaughn, was originally related by Aldin Porter.
Aldin Porter was born in Salt Lake, but raised in Idaho Falls, Idaho. According to the story, his teenage days were in some Utah town of no name. In this town there lived a “Countess.” She had a giant house, with house staff, and it was close enough she could identify Aldin Porter’s house as a “green house with the willow trees in the next block.” This happened “one day when I was about thirteen.”
Aldin Porter was born in June 30, 1931. That means this story should have occurred in 1944. We’re going to give him credit that he was probably mowing lawns in summer time after his birthday, which would put World War II in swing. The Normandy landing would have happened a few weeks before his 13th birthday.
“When the Countess gave an order, it was carried out.”
The next section reads. Clearly this was a figure of some import. I wonder why I can’t find any instances of a countess in Utah…
He then works for a full day for ‘I don’t know. Fifty cents, maybe.’ – about $6.39 in today’s currency. She pays him an extra $1.50, totaling about $2.00 which is worth about $25 in today’s currency. Decent pay for a lawn job.
The story continues:
There are as many ways of mowing a lawn as there are people, and they may be worth anywhere from a penny to five dollars. Let’s say that a three-dollar job would be just what you have done today, except that you’d have to be something of a fool to spend that much time on a lawn.
This is a fascinating evaluation of individuals. The idea that any person is only worth a penny, and that the boy she is having work for her is about $3.00. She also instantly includes the time-value of money, that one can spend foolish amounts of time on a lawn.
A five-dollar lawn is—well, it’s impossible, so we’ll forget about that. Now then, each week I’m going to pay you according to your own evaluation of your work.
What fascinates me here is that she first Shanghai’s him into the job, and then tells him she’ll determine what he’ll be paid. I have to wonder if the boy’s parents knew even where he was and what he was doing. As a father, I’m usually there to help broker and negotiate payment of services for my kids, but here, the discussion of money and time effort is completely devoid of parental oversight.
He then goes on to do increasingly better lawn jobs each week, wearing himself out at the $3.00 level.
‘You look like a good consistent $3.50 man,’ she would say as she handed me the money…‘Well, don’t feel too bad,’ she would comfort me. ‘After all, there are only a handful of people in the world who could do a four-dollar job.’
She sounds like a manipulative, controlling, piece of aristocracy to me by this point. This is a thirteen-year-old, who is on summer vacation and is earning side cash. I guess she was hoping for a professional gardener at teenage prices.
but I knew that a five-dollar lawn demanded that I line up each edge exactly with a yard stick and then trim it precisely with the edger.
This is the bit that stuck with me. For that extra $1 ($6 in today’s currency) he was going to hold a yard stick to every corner of the lawn? Seriously? And trim it all to precision? He was already cutting the lawn with SHEARS for crying out loud.
He then accomplishes the “impossible” five dollar job.
‘I think I know,’ she continued, ‘how you felt when this idea first came to you of caring for a lawn that I told you was impossible. It made you very happy when it first came, then a little frightened. Am I right?’
And the lady then instantly reveals that she was manipulating him all along. He’s lucky she didn’t invite him into a van for a piece of candy.
‘I know how you felt, because the same thing happens to almost everyone. They feel this sudden burst in them of wanting to do some great thing. They feel a wonderful happiness, but then it passes because they have said, “No, I can’t do that. It’s impossible.” Whenever something in you says, “It’s impossible,” remember to take a careful look and see if it isn’t really God asking you to grow an inch, or a foot, or a mile, that you may come to a fuller life.’ …
Ah… right. And now we get it, right. She thinks of herself as God pushing the boy to do something impossible. Pushing him beyond that first round of tiredness and the idea of doing a lawn.
Now let’s see that source: Richard Thurman, “The Countess and the Impossible,”Reader’s Digest, June, 1958.
Wait, what? Reader’s Digest?
That’s right. This story didn’t happen in 1944, and it didn’t happen to Elder Featherstone, nor to Aldin Porter. It didn’t happen to ANY General Authority. Richard Turner wrote an essay in 1958 to Reader’s Digest about a boy in Utah doing lawn care. I have found no records of a “Countess” in any small city in Utah. I can’t find who this Richard Turner is and, as one might know, a story does not have to be true to be submitted to Reader’s Digest.
No, the story, by all indications, is a fabrication. A lie. A fable to teach a purpose. But you see, the Ensign article cites Richard Turner’s Reader’s Digest as the ultimate source, but Mr. Featherstone… in Conference, he quoted it as being from “Aldin Porter,” effectively crediting it as a story that happened in Utah, as an actual story that happened to a General Authority, to all who were listening that day.
It’s plagiarism not to cite the original source, and to co-opt a fictional story written by someone in the world and transform it to push people to accomplish the impossible because “god can make them do so…” well, it borders on straight out lying.
It’s like using Pinnochio as a science manual to illustrate that Harry Potter transmogrifications (boys into donkeys) is possible.
Even worse, it’s published in the Young Men’s manual. At least it does cite Reader’s Digest in the online manual, but I was taught, as a boy, that it was a General Authority it happened to. I don’t know if my teacher was lazy and skipped the actual citation, or whether they quoted Brother Featherstone in the original manual.
Regardless, fictional “feel good” stories that can cause guilt for ages in young men, encouraging them in setting up impossible life goals, should be frowned upon by adults everywhere– particularly if one co-opts the nice story and makes it sound like it’s from God.