Friday, March 14, 2008

Lessons in conflict resolution

I've had an old college friend and his family visiting from New York for the past few days. It's been enjoyable not just for the grownups, but for my 2 1/2-year-old son and my friend's 4-year-old daughter. The kids are excited to see new faces and have hit it off -- which has made bed time just a little challenging. So all the adults in the house were very happy when temper tantrums were done, pajamas were on, and the kids finally went down with their stuffed animals and began dreaming sweet toddler dreams.

And then, at 9:30pm, all hell broke loose in a roar of machinery and the glare of bright lights.

We've always gotten along just fine with the neighbors. We're very different people, but there was courtesy and respect shared both ways. But the neighbors moved to Oklahoma a few weeks ago and leased their acreage to new people who we don't know very well. But now we know the new folks aren't averse to cranking up a front-end-loader at an hour that's considered very late indeed in this rural area.

"What are you going to do?" my wife yelled over the racket.

"I'm going to tell Mike to shut off his goddamned machine," I yelled back.

"I'll back you up," my friend said -- a credible offer, since he's strong as an ox and built like a wall.

The new folks proudly fly a Confederate battle flag. I don't really care, though I'm a bit wary until I'm sure what they mean by that bit of cloth. But the stars and bars are an especially unwelcome symbol to my Jewish wife, which probably prompted her next comment.

"Will you take a gun?"

I paused.

"Sure." It couldn't hurt, I thought. My .357 wouldn't fit in my jacket pocket and my compact .45 was unloaded, so I grabbed my wife's .38 revolver and stuffed it under the leather flap of my old bomber.

I strolled across the yard, almost blind in the glare of the heavy machine's spotlight and deafened by the engine's roar. I was vaguely aware that my buddy accompanied me to the fence line, then waited at the gate where he could keep an eye on things as I went through.


No answer.


The engine cut off, the glare disappeared and peace returned to our little piece of paradise.

"I have two kids in bed over there," I said, pointing to my house. "It's a little too late to be running heavy machinery."

He looked startled.

"Oh. You're right, it is. Sorry about that. I just got home late and wanted to get this done."

"It's too late for that," I repeated.

"We can load this by hand," he said, pointing to some scrap metal left by his landlords and then to a huge disposal bin he had set up. His sons crowded around, obviously realizing that they had a little more manual labor to do than they'd planned.

"Thanks. I appreciate it."

And that was it. I went home, feeling a little silly for the revolver in my pocket, but glad that the matter had concluded so easily.

My friend's wife met us at the door.

"Wow," she said. "That was easy. I would have just called the cops."

I thought about that, and what it meant. As unhappy as I was to have to have to go over and ask the new neighbors to tone it down, I can think of nothing more certain to guarantee a confrontational relationship than siccing a sheriff's deputy on them within a week of their moving in.

I'd been afraid of an argument, but none was forthcoming. Instead, the matter was settled by a polite discussion. I had a gun in my pocket, just in case, but it proved to be entirely unnecessary.

But if I'd tried to "solve" the problem by summoning a uniformed, openly armed representative of the county government to browbeat the new neighbors into submission, I'd certainly have bred bad feelings and sparked something akin to a feud. Yet calling the cops had been the first reaction of the visiting New Yorkers.

In fact, calling the cops had been the reaction I'd considered normal when I'd been a New Yorker myself. I don't know whether that instinctive reaction causes much of the tension you see in New York-style life, or whether it just reflects attitudes that were already there, but it can't be healthy when people regularly summon armed troops to settle minor disputes.

That doesn't mean that things are entirely hunky dory out here under the open sky. I still want to know what that Confederate flag is all about. If it means nothing more than "leave me alone," well, that's cool. But, if it means my neighbors are racists, I'm not about to go running off to some official office to settle my concerns.

Nope, if I have the hoods-and-crosses set living next door, I'll just host a few friendly NAACP picnics or Obama fundraisers. That's the neighborly way of standing your ground.

And it's a peaceful way of dealing with folks who are reasonable enough to stop making noise when you ask them nicely.



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