Are you the bad neighbor?

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By David Whitlock

Will there be fences in heaven?

That’s another way of asking, will your bothersome neighbor’s heavenly mansion be next to yours? Before you petition heaven’s city council for a privacy fence or request that your bad neighbor be confined to the eternal promised land’s back forty, make sure you yourself aren’t unwittingly the neighbor from hell who somehow slipped under the pearly gates unnoticed while St. Peter was distracted by a game of heavenly baseball.

Is it possible that you might be the neighbor who simply doesn’t get it? Could you be the annoying neighbor?

Take the case of Barry Alan Swegle, who as of last week has some new neighbors: his cellmates in the Clallam County jail in Washington. Swegle faces felony charges of malicious mischief. Mr. Swegle didn’t like the fact that a neighbor had placed a fence in a disputed area of Swegle’s property line, preventing him from moving his heavy equipment on and off his property. One such piece of equipment was a bulldozer.

So, Swegle decided to put the bulldozer to good use. Before it was all over, he had bulldozed four of his neighbors’ homes, a boat, a truck, a tractor, and had brought down a 70 foot electricity pole.

Maybe you’ve at least fantasized about doing something like Barry did. Perhaps your weapon of revenge isn’t a bulldozer but nails under the tires of that pesky neighbor’s car, or a snake in their mailbox, or a parrot that repeats obscenities to them.  All these retaliatory scenarios have actually been utilized by one neighbor against another.

I wouldn’t know how to drive a bulldozer. But I can ring a doorbell.
And that’s what I did to one of my neighbors, late one night, years ago.

The doorbell rang Doris’ apartment. She lived next to my wife and me when I was in graduate school. Doris would apparently fall asleep and leave her TV blaring. The paper thin walls of the apartment complex were no match for the volume of Doris’ TV.  I could easily hear the 11 o’clock news, followed by the midnight sports summary, followed by the 1 a.m.  sneak preview of the next day’s weather.

Sometimes it went on all night.

I tried the polite route. “Doris, would you please turn down your TV before you fall asleep?”

When that approach failed, I tried persistence, while remaining patient and polite. “Doris, we can still hear your TV. Would you please turn it down?”

Finally I lost patience, and with the patience went my politeness. Only the persistence remained, which I applied to the doorbell.

Storming down the stairs, I rang Doris’ doorbell again and again and again until she finally appeared at the top of the stairs, her hair pulled up above her head like a warrior’s headdress, her facial night cream looking like war paint, and with her tightly folded arms resting across her chest and her feet firmly planted at hips width distance, she had the appearance of a matriarchal chieftain ready to defend her throne.

But with my index finger still on her doorbell, I too was ready for battle.

“If I turn down my TV, I won’t be able to hear it,” she argued.  

“Tell you what,” I rejoined, “if you can’t hear it in your bedroom, just step into ours, and you can hear every word just fine.”

She slammed her door. By then, other tenants were peeking out in curiosity.

Taking my finger off the doorbell, I retreated.

Not even the landlord’s intervention would quell Doris’ TV. We didn’t get a reprieve from the late night news until Doris moved out.

I later wondered if there was there something about me Doris just didn’t like. Could it have been that I annoyed her? Was she retaliating against me? Was the loud TV her bulldozer?

It’s comforting to believe that in heaven we will have perfect neighbors, so we won’t need fences to keep someone’s pets from pooping on our heavenly lawns, or sound proof walls to silence a neighbor’s rock n roll, or bulldozers to adjust our property lines.

Robert Frost’s line from his poem, “Mending Wall,” is often quoted as a reason for having fences: “Good fences make good neighbors.” The irony is that Frost was challenging the very wisdom of that phrase.

We can’t have heaven on this earth where we are often too closely meshed together. But maybe we would do better in approximating it if we would take a closer look at ourselves and ask how we might mend a wall rather than building one.

Or bulldozing it.