Friday, April 15, 2011

NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH: HOW CHRISTMAS CAROLS SAVED MY LIFE



During interim at college in Florida, I spent the Christmas holidays with an elderly woman I called “Widow Eleanor” (Eleanor thought “Mrs. Rogers” was too formal. She also did not care for the title “widow”, but I felt the need to distinguish that I was not routinely shacking up with some young chick two weeks each year). Eleanor had me do chores around her house to justify keeping me around. I raked up bags of the never-ending, sticky pine straw and prickly seeds that fell from her trees. She lived on the water with the Gulf Coast in her backyard, so I also picked up the never-ending pile of junk the tide brought in from the occasional water cooler to the lone flip-flop to part of a refrigerator once. I would renail parts of her dilapidated boat deck. I would restack her firewood (Once while restacking, I came upon a frozen mass of snakes, each as thick as my wrist, bedding down for the winter at the base of the woodpile. That was the last time I stacked wood). The work was menial, and though I secretly thought Eleanor should pay me, she made up for it by giving me my own room, making me turkey and cranberry sandwiches, and going to bed early at night so I could read the books in her extensive library.

Eleanor lived in the little town of Shalimar which lay between Niceville and Fort Walton Beach, Florida. She resided on a quiet street where the houses were generously spaced apart, and the streets were especially wide. A sign indicated that hers was a “Neighborhood Watch” neighborhood. It was the first time I had ever seen the sign and it struck me as funny that a sign would warn a thief that he was not welcome in this neighborhood (but feel free to try the next neighborhood). Eleanor explained how it really wasn’t that way. Then she would launch into a catalog of the signs of the times, evidence she saw in her own neighborhood: kids stealing, kid’s using bad language, kid’s listening to loud music, kids racing in cars down the streets. I was never really certain if Eleanor was referring to the Last Days or to her own last days (she was 76).

One Saturday before Christmas I went to the gym at Eglin Air Force Base with a retired Air Force pilot who at 48 was in comparable shape to me. We knew each other in Germany and would workout incessantly. Eleanor was at church choir or some sort of church-related festivity that morning, and she planned to be home by 12:30 p.m. I was already finished with gym and dropped off by 12:15.

The one thing I did not like about Eleanor’s house was her front door. It was stubborn and would not open apart from my cajoling it for several minutes. Eleanor would show me over and over again how to unlock the door with as little force as possible, a kind of jujitsu. It never caught on. That afternoon after having worked out I was dying to get into the air conditioning, so I proceeded to forcefully unlock her door. I jerked on it, pounded on it, kneed it, lifted the handle up and down, jiggled the key in the lock one hundred different ways. It wouldn’t budge.

I was unaware of a couple of important things. First, I was unaware that I was causing so much racket. Most of Eleanor's neighbors were of the geriatric sort, so aside from the occasional speeding car, the street was absolutely silent.

I was also not aware that Eleanor did not tell her neighbors I was coming to stay for Christmas. This is an important part of the story, because Eleanor did not have one neighbor with my profile on her street (or on the adjacent streets). The man across the street, hearing the racket, looked through his kitchen window and saw a Black man in a red wife-beater (That's what the South calls a "tanktop"), shorts, and with no car in sight, brazenly trying to force Eleanor’s front door open. It didn’t help that I had been at it for ten minutes and that I kept looking up and down the street every few minutes for Eleanor who was soon to be home. The door finally gave up. When the neighbor saw me enter the house and shut the door, he panicked, called the police, and went to his garage for a shovel.

Inside the house I was elated to be out of the sun. I jumped into the shower. Overcome with my victory over the front door and with Christmas spirit (even thought it was 76 with humidity outside), I broke out in song and sang every Christmas Carol that came to mind: Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem, It came Upon a Midnight Clear, We Three Kings, Hark the Herald Angels Sing. And I sang every verse of each song loudly and joyfully. As I was dressing post-shower, I heard Eleanor's front door creak open. Ever so quietly.

“Eleanor, is that you?” Eleanor had no way of knowing I was home aside from the unlocked door (I had no car), but with her stories of Last Days break-ins, I did not want to give her a heart attack should she unexpectedly find me in the house. I threw on my shirt and walked down her narrow hall to the living room. There crouched along the far wall by her television were two men with pistols drawn, pointed to the floor at my right. We looked at each other for a few seconds, they taken aback by my greeting and I trying to come up with a good explanation for their presence. One of them finally spoke.

“Do you live here?”

“No, but I stay here each Christmas with Eleanor.”

“Do you have any identification?”

“Yes.” I ran back to my room to get my wallet, the policemen jittery but too nervous to follow me (I found out later that Eleanor’s house was surrounded by police, so they would have had it covered had I tried to escape out the window). When I returned, they still had guns drawn. Looking at my military I.D., they were satisfied, and I walked them to the front door. There on Eleanor’s lawn were her neighbors, whispering to each other, certain that I was going to come out in cuffs.

Because the police didn’t really explain anything to the crowd (and because a few of them looked unconvinced) I addressed them from the steps, telling them who I was and that I had been staying with Eleanor for the last two Christmas holidays. A few of them murmured that now they recalled seeing me a year or two before. I think that their street was so boring that they wanted some action. One by one, the neighbors melted away. The man with the shovel remembered me, too. Embarrassed, he stayed around to offer an explanation. One of the policemen addressed me.

We figured you couldn’t have broken into the house. We walked around the house before we came in and heard you singing Christmas carols."

The neighbor had a different story. He described how from his perspective I was angrily forcing the door open in order to get at Eleanor to kill her. He called the police, got his shovel from the garage, and came into Eleanor's yard. He heard me singing carols, too, but thought I had already killed Eleanor and was maniacally singing seasonal songs over her dead body.

When I told Eleanor, she thought it was funny. I was a little hurt and tried to explain to her that there were guns drawn. She still thought it was funny. That next year I stayed with a family in Niceville. I loved Eleanor, but that was too close.

2 comments:

  1. I will always remember this story. Eleanor kept telling me that afternoon that she was certain she told her neighbors I was staying with her and that the neighbors were at fault for calling the police. Either way, I have never been that close to a gun that was meant for me.

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