A different sort of 'war story', now, from our good friend Charlotte Proctor. We
now live quite a bit farther from her than when we lived in Tennessee; until our
trip to Birmingham for the Jophan Family Reunion, we hadn't been there in four years.
We spent an enjoyable evening at her house the night before we left for Florida; it
was a night for remembrances, which included the following entertaining
Several years ago a retired couple moved in. They were both little people, short in stature and small in girth. I think they were both obsessive compulsives, too, judging from their frenzied activities: planting bulbs and flowering shrubs, and 'fixing up' the little house. They loved to talk, and would catch Jerry or me outside and bend our ear for hours (it seemed). They told us about the previous place they had lived that they had liked so much -- what a lovely street it was, and such fine neighbors, until for no apparent reason the neighbors (not all of them, just one houseful) had turned ugly. The situation became so untenable they had moved, and were looking forward to fixing up this new (to them) little house and getting to know all the neighbors, etc. etc. They also went to flea markets, and had a constant turnover in their 'collectibles'. I remember Mrs. Barber (for that was her name) gave me a pair of embroidered pillowcases that said 'Mine' and 'Yours', and one time they bought a small desk which we later bought from them for ten dollars. That desk is now a reloading bench in our first born son's home.
The continuing conversation at our common fence brought to light the sad fact that the place they had lived two residences previously also had neighbors who at first seemed friendly enough, but had "turned on them" for no apparent reason. And the house before that... I lost count after the recitation of about four bad experiences, and they all began to run together. In each case, the Barbers had felt they had to move to get away from vindictive neighbors.
Our household at that time was probably at its most active. SCA fighter practice was held in our front yard on Sundays, and SCA meetings in our living room on Tuesday evening. Our children were teenagers, with the accompanying teenage friends hanging out at our house. Hank Reinhardt (Ulrich Wolfhaven, a.k.a. the Grey Wolf, or Ghod of Southern Fandom, depending on the venue) came to visit from time to time. I remember one time when Jimmy Fikes (blacksmith/knifemaker) was there, too, and the guys decided to have a kyber toss. This involves throwing a heavy weight very high up in the air. The yardstick was our phone wire. No, the phone wire didn't come down, but there are indentations in my front yard to this day. It was a busy time, active, noisy, and full of laughter.
Our cat population at that time included Aldor and Baldor, two black and white cats named after favorite D&D characters... oh, I forgot to mention the D&D games around the dining room table. If one was scheduled for Sunday night while Jerry and I were trying to watch Masterpiece Theatre, there were sometimes altercations about the loudness of the TV in the living room versus the loudness of the gamers in the adjacent dining room. It usually ended with me shouting "Dammit, this is our house and we want to hear our TV!"
Uh, where was I? Oh, yes, the cats. There were Kira and Kinsey, named after Gordie Dickson characters, and Calico, the top cat. Calico was the oldest of all, and had presented us with countless litters before we wised up. Calico was getting up in years, but she never let her position in the household be challenged. Sometimes on her way through the house, she would go out of her way to cross the room to slap another feline resident up alongside the head. The chastised cat would hiss and assume a non-threatening position. Calico, satisfied, would continue to the food dish, where there had better not be another feline dining.
But, after a long and full life, Calico lay down one day in the warm sunshine and went to that big litter box in the sky. It was a peaceful end, but we couldn't help but feel sad. We had had that cat longer than we had had some of our children.
A proper burial was in order. It had gotten dark by the time we were ready. Calico was laid to rest in a fine shroud; a stone with her name and the years of her life marked her grave, and a plastic red rose adorned it.
Now, just where do you bury your dear departed pets? Certainly not in the middle of the yard where you might walk on the grave. Of course not! You bury them on the perimeter. And when it is dark outside, you dig where light happens to be shining. It just so happened that spot was on the side of the yard adjoining the aforementioned neighbors, the Barbers. This was pointed out to me the next morning when I went outside, to be greeted with their shrill indignant cries. "How dare you bury that cat right under our noses?! What have we ever done to you?! How could you bury that animal right where we will have to see it every day?!" ...and variations on the theme. My explanations, denials of evil intent, and protestations of innocence fell on deaf ears.
Neighborhood relations began to go downhill from there on. The Barbers dug up their bulbs planted on the other side of the fence, and transplanted them elsewhere. They filled in a place in the fence that was not complete. They began to berate the children playing in our yard.
I don't know what you call the kind of aberration they suffered from, and shared, but I knew we had joined their list of persecutors. Trips to the basement, yard-raking, and forays to take out the trash became fraught with danger for us. You never knew when the two of them would appear, like a couple of Pekingese nipping at your ankles, yipping and yapping in unison. We grown-ups tried to ignore them and go about our business after efforts to talk, reply, or reason with them proved fruitless. But what do you say to the children who come in from school having been yelled at by these crazy people, as they walked by the Barbers' house? You certainly don't want your children to reply in kind, to stoop to their level as it were, but this is difficult to explain to angry, defensive kids. I remember one weekend during this period that our friend Guy Lillian was visiting. Guy was in the yard with the kids, trying out their rope swing, when the Barbers came out and launched into their verbal attacks. He herded the children into the house. I didn't like the idea of my children being kept from their own yard, but he was probably right to bring them in.
I had told friends about Calico's demise, and one of them, Bill, the owner of Calico's son, came by to pay his respects one evening. Really. Bill stopped by after work, in his suit and tie, and we walked to the back yard and stood at her grave. She was a good cat. Yes. we'll miss her.
I also told another friend, Barbara, not only about Calico's passing, but also about the Barbers' reaction to her grave site. This was a mistake. Barbara was in the car with me, and when we got to my house she got out and, much to my amazement, began to wail and weep at the top of her voice, running across the yard to throw herself on her knees at Calico's last resting place. "Oh, poor Calico!" she keened (screamed, more like it), "Why did she have to go?! Poooooor Calico... *sob*, *gasp*, *sob*..."
Naturally enough, I rushed to comfort Barbara. Well, actually, I tried to make her shut up, get on her feet and into the house. Geesh. With friends like this, who needs enemies?
Lest the escalation seem one-sided, listen to some of the volleys they fired. A large piece of tin was put on their side of the fence, so they would not have to see the cat grave. And one night they called the cops on us. Well, this is a story in itself...
It was an SCA evening, and many people were at our house. The grown-ups were doing grown-up things like talking, drinking, and singing Irish songs. The teenage boys were outside doing whatever teenage boys do. I looked out from time to time and saw them sitting on the hood of the car and fooling around in the yard. In a little while, Dennis, the most timid of the bunch, came in and sat on the couch. "Oh, ho," I thought, "the boys are up to something Dennis would rather not be associated with." Not long after, the other seven came in and scattered to the bedrooms and bathroom on the Barber side of the house. They did not turn on the lights. Well, I'm no fool. I knew something was going on, and they were looking out the windows from darkened rooms so as not to be seen themselves. (I later learned that the police came in answer to a call from the Barbers accusing "them boys" of trying to break into their garage, which abutted our property beyond the break in the fence. The police shined their lights on the lock and could see no evidence of tampering.) As there were no hostile knocks on our door, I didn't pursue the matter any further that night.
The next morning I was met at the fence by two hysterical senior citizens. "Them boys were throwing knives in our garage!" they shouted.
"They were not throwing knives," I replied (for it was now all falling into place), "they were throwing sherakins." (Throwing stars, à la Kung Fu and other martial arts movies, were the newest 'toy' in the SCA crowd.)
Undeterred, the Barbers screamed in unison, "There were six of them, and we know who they are!"
"There were eight of them, and I know who they are, too," I rejoined.
"We called the police, and we are going to call the FBI!"
There didn't seem to be any reply to that, so I got in my car and drove off. I asked the boys that night why on earth they didn't throw at our tree instead of somebody else's garage! "If we missed the tree, we might lose them in the grass," they explained.
That night, Jerry decided enough was enough. He built a very tall, very wide, very white cross. He planted this tall white cross at the head of Calico's grave, where it rose high above the piece of tin, and the late afternoon sun cast a no doubt pagan shadow across the Barbers' property. Reaction was not long in coming.
The very next morning as I was about to leave the house, who should appear at my back door but the Barbers. They had never crossed the property line before, but there they were, looking very subdued. "Oh, please, we don't know what we have done to offend you, but please forgive us!"
My jaw dropped open. What's going on now, I wondered?
"We don't know what we have done, but we are so very sorry! Please forgive us; we'll do anything to make it up to you, whatever we have done, but please take down that cross!"
"I can't take it down. My husband put it up. I'll ask him when he gets home tonight."
They had to be satisfied with that, and went home, heads hanging, defeated in the great neighborhood wars once more. Of course, Jerry took the cross down that night. He knew what their reaction would be, and it was, in spades. But it had done the trick, and they quit yelling at us every time we or our children stepped outside.
A little later, during the time Jeff DeWitt (Jeff is a rotund, hairy individual who looks like a large economy size Fidel Castro) was sleeping on my couch while he was between jobs and places to lay his head, Baldor was hit by a car. Mr. Chandler, our neighbor on the other side, called me early one morning. It had just happened. I put on my dressing gown, combed my hair, got some newspapers, and went down to the end of the alley. There was Baldor, deader'n a doornail. I wrapped him in newspapers and strode up the alley, holding him as far in front of me as I could, in case he dripped.
He was heavy, especially in that position, and my progress was stately. The English gentleman who lived down the alley came to the fence to express his condolences. I said it was quick, and Baldor didn't suffer. The body was still warm. Mr. Chandler came to the alley, too, and I thanked him for letting me know so I could take care of things.
Upon reaching home, I put Baldor's body down in the backyard. Jeff (asleep on my couch, remember?) had always said for me to let him know if he could do anything to help me out. Well, this was it. I woke him up and said, "Jeff, would you please bury Baldor?" To help a bleary-eyed Jeff grasp the situation, I added, "He's dead."
"Uh, yeah, sure," Jeff replied. I got dressed and went to work.
Well, wouldn't you know? Without any malice aforethought, Jeff buried Baldor on the Barbers' side of the yard.
And that evening, there was a 'For Sale' sign in the Barbers' front yard.
# # # #
The little house next door has had many tenants in the past twenty years. One couple entertained us to no end when the biker husband came home, drunk. He generally stopped his bike by running into the oak tree whereupon his pregnant wife would come out on the porch and beat him about the head and shoulders with a broom, yelling great imprecations all the while. But none shall burn so brightly in our memories as the crazy Barbers and the Great Pet Semetary Wars.
All illustrations by Phil Tortorici