The Need for Neighbors

by | Oct 15, 2019 | CNF, Issue Eleven

When I was ten years old, my divorced father fantasized about fleeing the prying eyes of neighbors. He talked about the Amazon rain forest or a beach in Mexico, but the only place my mother let him take me and my brothers was the Uintah Mountains in Utah where our neighbors were coyotes, campers, and a clever game warden.

The warden dumped hatchery fish off a bridge into the river near our campground. The throbbing knot of flailing fins didn’t even make it out from under the bridge before we caught them, grabbed their tails, and banged their heads against a boulder. The next morning we were the only ones there because the other fathers had been sober enough to leave early. So when the warden paid us a visit and casually asked, “How many ja get?”

My oldest brother said, “Sixty-two.”

We were all taken into the small mountain town. My grandmother wired the $300 fine. My father’s subsequent shame subdued his drinking enough to get us back home without a driving-while-under-the-influence charge.

I finally got the chance to sleep on a Mexican beach with my boyfriend when I was 24 years old.  We slept beneath a blue tarp tied to a barbed wire fence in Cabo San Lucas. But we were not alone for long. A young woman from Washington State asked if she could set up her tent next to us. She said there was a group of Americans who camped around a large bonfire every night. She said the men kept bothering her. I was happy we could be her neighbors.     

When I was fourteen my band director and choir teacher, a man whose cologne I would later recognize as remarkably similar to vodka, wanted to take his students away from their neighbors. He planned to take us on a road trip to Mexico. This man was also living with the eighteen-year-old drum majorette who had graduated the previous year and was not going to college, about which her parents were quite upset. I auditioned by singing “To Dream the Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha, and then I did not hear any more about it until after they had left. When they returned, I heard he’d called late-night rehearsals during which all of the teenage girls had worn their nightgowns.

When he saw me at school, he asked, “Why didn’t you come with us?”

My mother, not too overwhelmed at this point in her life, must have torn up the permission letter, saving me from his ogling and a failed career as a lounge singer.

In 1971 a fifty-something-year-old man was entrusted with three eleven-year-old girls in the back country of California’s Yosemite National Park because our divorced mothers were too overwhelmed at the time to think much about it. My teacher taught us how to wear a large backpack, unhooking the belt when we crossed a river so that if we fell in the water, the pack would not pull us down. He showed us how to cook dehydrated food in metal coffee cans. He showed us how to spot stacks of rocks that signaled where the trail crossed granite. He showed us how to set up pup tents in which we waited out the afternoon rain showers. This was how children learned problem-solving skills and thus gained self-confidence.

I hiked with him while the other two girls lagged behind. Then it got dark. He said we should set up camp. He told me not to worry. He would notify the ranger about the girls in the morning. He was the adult. Of course he was right.

We took off our backpacks, and he started a fire. I began to rub my sore shoulders. He took over the job, kneeling behind me, his hands pressing into the flesh, but I pulled away.

He seemed irritated. His hands returned to my shoulders, becoming insistent. “This will relax your muscles,” he told me.

The backpack straps had worn my skin raw, and he was making it worse. “It hurts,” I insisted.

Other campers set up nearby. Thank God for neighbors. He backed off and let me alone.

The girls arrived at our campsite the next morning. They were also grateful for neighbors–the camping family near the trail who had fed them.

Our trip continued peacefully, the only danger coming from a lack of calories our final morning because while we slept, a bear pulled down the bag of food we had hung on a tree branch. When I remembered this trip later as a teenager, I was struck by this bear’s culinary fastidiousness, how it had eaten everything except the dehydrated green beans and potato soup. As an adult, I was struck by my teacher having abandoned two eleven-year-old girls in bear country.

When I was nine years old no man wanted to remove me from the prying eyes of neighbors. He didn’t have to. He was my grandfather, and all he had to do was be alone with me in the house.

Read more CNF | Issue Eleven

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