1. One who lives near or next to another.
2. A person, place, or thing adjacent to or located near another.
3. A fellow human.
4. Used as a form of familiar address.
The source of our word, the assumed West Germanic form *nhgabr, was a compound of the words *nhwiz, “near,” and *bram, “dweller, especially a farmer.” A neighbor, then, was a near dweller.
As I look at the above definitions, I can definitely say that a gaggle of my neighbors were not necessary “fellow humans”, but some of them were assuredly a “thing” adjacent to me.
Some of the best stories of life do come from interactions with our neighbors. All of us have had those who show splendid behavior opposed to those were instant candidates for the Thin The Herd Movement at birth. I have had neighbors that are kind enough to let me know that I have left a sprinkler on, and those crazy enough to insist that my dog is continually going to the bathroom on their lawn, when I didn’t even own a dog. As I remember, after about the third complaint and explanation, I did use his lawn as my own private bathroom late one night – yes, #2.
There are neighbors who believe that their property line was drawn by the hand of God rather than a surveyor, self-righteous ones who keep their kids in Sunday clothes all Sabbath and keep track of your church attendance, and what color of shirt your wear.
There are those that insist you enroll in their newest Multi Level Marketing scheme, can show you a secret spiritual way to beat the stock market, through a master trader located in Macao, and are willing to ask you for a small loan to get them through Christmas. And then there are those who inquire about member of your family who may have some difficulty. You know the drill. “How is so and so doing with his problems, we are so concerned for you.” This all delivered in a false sympathetic tone, pained expression and the heart of a banshee – delighting in your misfortune.
Neighbors really do vary from kind and considerate to crazy nasty mean. But let me tell you about one who was somewhere in between.
I first met Jim when he came to work at the same stock brokerage where I plied my time if not my trade. He was straight out of the Air Force, with missions flown over Viet Nam, had three kids, good wife and a “can do” attitude. Instantly, I knew, here is someone to involve in dangerous and possibly illegal activities.
He was looking for a house and I had just finished up a Spec during my part time amateur homebuilding phase. I showed him the house, which was across the street from mine and we agreed on a price. After he had been in the house a month or so, he began to complain – the furnace didn’t seem to work correctly, his kids were always cold. When it snowed the drainage was such that all the water came toward the house, and he kept running into pieces of construction material when trying to get his landscaping in.
After back peddling a bit and complaining about the work of unscrupulous high priced subcontractors, I checked the furnace – fan had been installed backwards, so that the only heat came out thru the return air vents. The main problem with hitting construction debris was that we had buried all excess materials in the front yard, including carpeting remnants. He kept hitting large pieces of pad where ever he dug. I told him that there would be no extra charge for these little errors, which he took as a very humorless remark. As far as the drainage was concerned, I offered up an explanation that unconvincingly explained that it was the natural lay of the land. Slight lesson – don’t ever sell anything – especially a house to a neighbor.
As time passed Jim and I became friends although our two Type A personalities caused us to be competitors, especially at work. One day after work, I ask Jim if he wanted to go up to the Clay Pits above our homes and ride motorcycles? He said he thought so. I ask him about his ability to ride and he quickly replied, “I can handle a bike”. I had a couple of off-road bikes and in five minutes we were at the manmade hills of the clay pits. No helmets, gloves or any other protective gear, of course. I noticed that he had some difficulty shifting, but he said he was just getting used to the bike.
There is a section at the Pits called the Whoop –De – Doo’s. These were a bunch of mounds – one right after another, like you see in a motocross course. I said, “lets go do those; you can actually catch some air as you go off the bumps”. I led off and after a minute sat at the fifth rise and turned to watch Jim come through. He approached the first bump with trepidation, but slowly came over. This built his confidence and he added speed for the next, too much speed in my opinion. Coming over he flew up from the seat, and when he came down, his hand involuntarily cranked the throttle on full, which rapidly accelerated the bike. He roared over the third, caught about 10 feet of air, almost crashed, and came down with the throttle racked all the way back again – eyes wide, terror stricken, out of control. The fourth hill was his undoing – flying somewhere above the seat, death grip on the handle bars, he accelerated to about 30 mph; then elevated about 15 feet above the ground and crashed spectacularly some 40 feet half way up the last hill. I was concerned of course, but mainly about my motorcycle. He had torn the break and clutch levers off, but no frame or tire damage. After inspecting, I when over to his prostate groaning form. “You Good”, I ask, “that was one of the best crashes I have ever had the privilege to witness”. He confessed, thinking he was about to die, that he had not really ridden a dirt bike before, before passing out again. There were no broken bones, but severe bruising, and hematomas that expanded with amazing speed.
As a kindly gesture I told him he wouldn’t have to pay for the damage. In a month he was more or less okay albeit with a lingering limp.
Several months later I had acquired a 400 CC Yamaha, a something larger bike than I had ridden before. I had just started zipping around the neighborhood, when Jim drove up in his driveway. I yelled to him, come on, get on back and I’ll give you a short ride.” Not on your life, was his reply, remember the last time”. “Hey don’t be a chicken, just drop your brief case and jump on back”. He whined about me giving him time to change out of his suit, but I said, just hop on, we’ll go down the block and back. He dropped the case in the drive and reluctantly got on behind. There were no passenger pegs so his feet were dangling down.
The 400 Yamaha has incredible acceleration power, but unfortunately, this was not known to me. I turned the bike and headed down the street, popping the throttle to give him a thrill. With Jim on the back, the front wheel came up. As he jerked me toward him, the wheel came up higher and my grip on the throttle tightened. Soon we were doing a full wheelie at 40 MPH down the road, he trying to dismount, me trying to get the front wheel down.
We were almost vertical when we veered into the curb at an obtuse angle. The front forks came all the way over and we crashed back onto the roadway. The bike slid down the asphalt, and we followed, although Jim stopped with sudden impact on the cement curb. I checked myself, found only a few severe raspberries’ from the road and looked back for Jim. He was lying in the gutter, an egg sized lump on one elbow, blood running from arms and legs plus his mouth. One leg of his suit pretty much ripped completely off. At that moment his wife came streaking out of their house and ran over to where he lay guttered. I expected sympathetic screams for him and accusations leveled at me. But all she said as she looked down was: “Jim, that’s a new suit”. Despite my pain I had to laugh, and Jim, semiconscious, was able to deliver an uncalled for burst of profanity in my direction.
Eventually Jim began to speak to me again – impossible not to, since we worked together. I had secretly vowed that I needed to somehow make it up to him since our motorcycle adventures had been somewhat less than a total success.
He had an old Dodge pickup that had the mechanical reliability of a Yugo. He was always fiddling with it. The hood was up and his brother-in-law was trying to help him get it started. I, armed with self-taught professional level mechanical ability, quickly came over to see if I could help. The old six-cylinder engine would backfire and run for a second but not really start. I diagnosed the problem as lack of fuel running through the carburetor. Once primed, I suggested, the fuel pump would click in and all would be well. Jim skeptically looked at me and said they had no extra gas. I quickly went over to my garage and returned with a plastic gas can and removed the air cleaner. I told them Jim to crank the engine over while I poured gasoline directly in to the carb.
As you might have guessed the backfire shot flame and caught the spout of the gas can on fire. Rather than do the instinctive thing and panic, I withdrew the can, put a rag over the end and the flame went out. (Remember I was an expert in these matters.) I still insisted that the carburetor still needed primed and found a used MacDonald’s styrafoam cup in the weeds. I filled this up and we started all over again. Same result, although this time when the cup blazed I tossed it, catching the fender on the throw and setting the outside of the truck afire. No problem, we threw dirt on the side of the truck and got the fire out – gave the paint a nice two-toned look.
Jim’s brother-in-law said he had seen enough and wanted to leave. I convinced him that one more try would do it; he would just crank the truck, Jim and I would administer the gasoline more carefully.
Gasoline and Styrofoam are based on the same carbon formulas, something that I had forgotten. As such they are soluble one into another. I loaded up the cup again; carefully poured a small amount of gas into the carb, and yelled, “hit it”. As the truck backfired, the flames shot higher this time and immediately jumped into the cup again. Unfortunately I had not noticed that the gasoline had melted a hole the cup’s bottom and was dripping down my shirt. As went to toss the now flaming cup, I noticed my arm was on fire – I threw the cup, but hit the bottom of the hood and set the engine compartment afire. By now my entire front was in flames, and being the cool customer that I am, I took control of the situation and started to run like hell, further fanning the flames. Jim, assuring his place in the afterlife, took off after me and did a NFL world class tackle in the middle of my garden. There he proceeded to roll on top and heap dirt as his own clothing started to smolder. We got the fire out, realized that the burns I had were only 1st degree, and staggered back to the truck where the engine fire had not quite melted the spark plug wires. The brother in law was in his car – moving rapidly in reverse. He leaned out the window and said two things. “You two looked like gofers mating in the dirt and you are both crazy dangerous – I’m out of here. Jim thanked me for trying to help, but admonished me about ever trying to come near he or his family with anything mechanical again.
Jim died in his fifties of heart failure. I often wonder if it was the result of our neighborly friendship, especially those early motorcycle rides.
June – 2009