Some people call him the “Lawnmower Man.” All he set out to do was keep U.S. monuments in Washington, D.C. looking tidy and presentable during the federal government shutdown. In hindsight, it looks like Chris Cox may have ignited a volunteer movement across America.
It began shortly after the shutdown became official. From out of nowhere, it seemed, a man sporting a beard, an explosion of curly brown hair, and carrying the state flag of South Carolina appeared on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial. His name was Chris Cox. He brought his bicycle, his lawnmower, his chainsaw and a rake.
Why He Became the Nation‘s Unofficial Groundskeeper
Cox, who makes his living as a chainsaw sculptor, says at first he was there because the monuments were suddenly unpatrolled and defenseless against vandalism.
“The day of the shutdown – I’m watching the news…. and they’re talking about how vulnerable the memorials are,” Cox told the DailyMail. ”So right after the news I threw my bicycle into my truck and I patrolled the memorials all night long. They were right. Anyone could just come up there and spray paint or whatever.”
Cox spent the first couple of days on bike patrol around the various monuments, keeping an eye on them. Soon, however, he saw the trash cans around the National Mall overflowing and he understood what he really needed to do.
“I realized that I could serve my country better as a custodian,” he said. Cox got to work, spending 10 hours a day as an unofficial, unpaid groundskeeper.
“I emptied hundreds of trash cans on the Mall,” he told the DailyMail. “I grabbed a leaf blower and blew the leaves off the lawn near the memorials. Today I showed up and a giant tree had fallen over. I took my chainsaw and cut it up and hauled it away.”
What Cox is really known for, though, is the mowing. He did a lot of that over the course of about two weeks. Commuters and tourists saw him from their cars and tweeted photos of him, like the one below.
News of Cox’s selfless work spread on TV and via social media. Members of the public sought to help Cox by giving him tips. He wouldn’t take them, even to pay the parking tickets he was amassing.
“I can’t take any money,” Cox told ABC News. “If I do that, people are going to see me as a profiteer. Even if it’s $5 I need for gas … I’ve got to stand on my own two feet.”
Meanwhile, veterans, upset that national monuments had to be closed to the public because of shutdown-imposed furloughs, decided to hold a Million Vet March in Washington on Oct. 13. Hearing this, Cox was determined that they would have a respectful, safe, clean National Mall for their gathering.
“We’re here to represent the men who put their lives on the line,” Cox told ABC News. “From the Philippines, to men who had hand-to-hand combat with the Nazis – they’re here today and we’re going to show respect and we’re going to get this area cleaned up if it’s the last thing we do.” See a news report about Chris Cox and the work he did here:
Cox pulled together a band of 200 fellow volunteers who traveled from around the country to help clean up the half mile span between the Lincoln Memorial and the World War II Memorial in time for the march. Many veterans who showed up for the march knew of Cox’s work and personally thanked him for it that day.
Why He Had to Stop
You may be wondering why the federal government hasn’t done something to reward Cox’s heartfelt volunteer work. Don’t blame the feds — legally speaking, they can’t officially reward him.
The United States is prohibited by a long-established law known as the Anti-Deficiency Act from accepting volunteer services for work that is the responsibility of the federal government. This rule is in place to keep nefarious people from performing work and then forcing the government to pay them for the benefit they provided. This, and liability issues, are why Park Police ultimately had to shoo Cox away when they realized what he was doing.
“I had a great experience there for the most part,” Cox told the DailyMail. Park police “knew who I was by the second day,” he added. “And they all welcomed me. Nobody said anything to me for the next 6 or 7 days.” In fact, they clearly admired him and gave him high-fives.
“They’re not allowed to tell me, ‘Good job,’” Cox told ABC News. “They’re not allowed to really sanction it. But they obviously got to be happy that somebody’s doing it.” Ultimately, though, after giving him as much latitude as they could, park police had to ask Cox to stop.
It’s worth noting that one Congressman, Darrell Issa of California, recognized Cox’s commitment to his country and its veterans, as a letter thanking Cox demonstrates.
Crowdfunding a Big Thank You to the Lawnmower Man
A group called Crowd it Forward liked what they heard about Chris Cox. Crowd it Forward rewards do-gooders with “Random Acts of Crowdfunding.” They raised over $1,500, which they used to buy Cox a new Stihl chainsaw. They presented it to him on Nov. 13.
While the chainsaw is too big for his wood sculpting work, Cox has an alternate use in mind for it. He wants to keep the volunteerism going.
Cox has established a group called the Memorial Militia, which will send volunteers to the homes of housebound and disabled veterans. They will mow lawns, trim tree branches, pick up leaves and clear brush as gestures of thanks for military service. He already has 1,800 people who are interested in participating.
The motivation to travel all the way to Washington to keep the monuments in good order was not a political statement, according to Cox.
“I’m not here to point fingers,” he told ABC News. “I just want to try to get Americans to rally behind these parks. Forget about the party you’re in and who you voted for and come together as Americans and make a difference.”
Pay it Forward – You Can Make a Difference Too
Cox is right. Every one of us can take a look around, find something useful that needs to be done for our fellow humans or animals, and take it upon ourselves to do it.
Find a nursing home, a veteran’s group, an animal shelter, a charitable organization or a special needs facility and discover ways to help them. Think about the people who live on your street. Could someone use a helping hand? Most especially, reach out and do something for someone who’d never think to ask for assistance.
Follow the example of Chris Cox, the nation’s unofficial groundskeeper. Step up, unasked, and make the world a better place for us all.
Photo credit (main image): Thinkstock
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