A few weeks ago my father, ever diligent to watch the obituaries in his small town way, sent one of his weekly email announcements to my brothers and I. In typical fashion, we got the same announcement from my mother, prefaced with “your dad probably already told you this”. Any time someone from our family’s past or present is in the hospital, dies, or does something significant, my parents follow the same email procedure. My brothers and I laugh. Mom is likely sending her email while sitting with her iPad in her living room easy chair. Dad is a few feet down the hall in the study, coffee next to him and their dog at his feet. They could easily check with each other, but somehow it’s not important that they don’t. That’s all part of their magic.
Dad’s email was to advise us of the obit for Harry Critcheloe, our next door neighbor from the time I was 9 years old until my parents moved when I was in my mid-twenties. If it’s possible to dance on someone’s grave in an email, that is what my father was doing, very odd for my usually compassionate and caring for all humanity father. When Mom sent her email a few minutes later, she was not too broken up herself.
We figured Harry was too mean to die young. Both parents said that. Cancer got him, they both reported.
Harry was one mean, obnoxious, terrible man to have as a neighbor, especially for reasonably well behaved boys like my brothers and myself. Believe that one. We were good boys, a necessity in a small town since everyone knew everyone’s business, talked about it out in front of the church on Sunday (not IN the church, God forbid). Fences were a rarity, definitely not really needed as we all knew each other, looked out for each other, sought to come closer to each other instead of shutting out our neighbors with the barrier a fence could be. Our neighbor did everything he could to try to provoke the bad out of me especially, the oldest of three boys, as well as my brothers. He scowled and cussed at me every time I walked out our front door, calling me a fag or homo or any other assortment of insults that I did not understand. When he did it, an evil grin replaced the scowl, his intent was to make me cry, to destroy the strong boy that I am sure he hated because of whatever lurked in his own past.
My parents gathered us to pray after Sunday dinner nearly every week, not just for Harry but also that we would stand strong in our witness, not react in a way that betrayed our Christian values. I am not sure Harry was aware that instead of tearing us down, he was teaching us to be strong in a different sort of way, a spiritual and a human way.
Dad says that Harry’s feud started when Dad was building our house. I spent a lot of time there helping Dad, noticed Harry sitting outside watching us work. In the years to come, Harry was always outside doing something in his garage, where he kept a weight set and worked out. His lawn was a precious possession to him, a refuge that should never be crossed.. nor did Harry every leave it except for his early morning jog. When Dad used a tractor and rake to prepare our yard when the house was near finished, he accidentally swung the rake into Harry’s yard, the only time that Harry crossed the line into our yard, furious with my father. No matter how hard Dad tried to apologize, Harry refused to bend, cursing him for weeks afterwards.
That was 45 years ago. That memory has little haze. I still remember the hate in Harry’s eyes, the bewilderment in my father’s eyes. Dad had a temper, but it wasn’t evident then.
I remember the day when my friends were over to play baseball in our large back yard. We always used a hollow rubber ball, called a “Peewee Ball”, hit it with a wiffle ball bat and caught with our bare hands. Harry sat on his back porch and, when the ball landed in his yard, ran out to take it, refused to give it back to us. Mom saw it happen, confronted him, endured the B word and many others, left in tears without the ball. She called the police, who were incredulous at the way Harry acted. He refused to give the ball to them, saying that we were telling a lie — the ball was his, not ours.
Soon afterward, Harry posted five NO TRESPASSING signs facing our yard, four on posts and one nailed to the side of the garage. One of the funniest times I ever had with my mother was the night she and I dressed in black, including stocking caps, stole over to Harry’s yard in the middle of the night and painted over those signs with thick black paint. Mom was laughing like a kid the entire time. Harry never said a word, replaced the signs shortly after we painted them.
Our next midnight mission was to pull them up, then toss them on his front porch. He replaced the posts with longer ones.
Next we knocked all of them from the post with an aluminum baseball bat (Mom has a very good swing). Harry found a way to keep that from happening again. So my Grandpa asked me to help him take down that old wood fence he had in his back yard. We used the wood from that fence to build a barrier along the lot line, obscuring Harry and his signs. If Harry was going to harass us, he had to do it from the street in front of our house. He did. Often. Any neighbors who doubted our stories about how Harry had berated my brothers and I no longer had those doubts. They witnessed him spitting insults at us as we played basketball in our own driveway or washed a car or mowed the front lawn.
Harry attended our church now and then with his wife and two daughters. He didn’t attend often. His practice was to sit across from my family in the church auditorium, arms crossed, staring at us. Our preacher saw that, talked to us about it, visited him and asked him to stop. I am pretty sure his wife was the reason why, from then on, he sat in the back corner of the back church pew, left out the back doors before the last hymn was finished.
The last memory I have of Harry Critcheloe is perhaps the worst confrontation that occurred between us. I was 19 years old, in my second year of Bible college, and was loading the trunk of my car early in the morning to go back to school after Christmas break. Harry was an early morning jogger, a very good runner as a matter of fact, and he stopped a few feet behind me as I finished loading the car trunk. Mom was watching through the front door, waiting to say goodbye to me before I left.
I don’t remember a whole lot of what he said. He called my mother a whore and several other select names, me a faggot preacher boy as he aggressively stood within inches of my face, his chest pressed against mine.
He hocked up and spit in my face.
“Go ahead, cry faggot preacher boy. You’re not man enough to fight me.”
Those years of praying looked to be paying off at that moment. I didn’t move. Didn’t wipe his thick spit from my face. I wanted to cry. I knew if I said something, it would not be good. I could hear my mother screaming for my father from the front porch. Our neighbor from across the street came running out of his front door as Harry spit in my face again, stepped back, and swung at me. I dodged the punch, pushing Harry face first into the gravel as he lunged past me, my knee in his back as I pulled his head back by his hair. There was blood pouring from his nose, his mouth bloody.
All I could think to say was “I forgive you”.. and I screamed it, Harry’s thick mucus dripping from my face. Mom and Dad came out and pulled me off of Harry, a towel in her hand while she wiped my face and hugged me. Dad and our neighbor dragged Harry away as he yelled “Did you see that? I’m calling the police!”. Both men encouraged him to do that.
Everyone has a Harry in their life, I think. Oddly enough, I am glad I did. I learned a lot from that man. While I still don’t have it completely right, I learned a lot about people from Harry.. and how to react to them from what my parents taught me in the way they dealt with him. Not once did they react to him in anger. They prayed for him. They knew that the hate he had for us was really for someone else, not us. We all need to be able to look at people that way.