Good Fences = Good Neighbors?

“Good fences make good neighbors” is a line from “Mending Wall,” a Robert Frost poem.  I must confess that I don’t know the rest of it.  I suppose I could Google it or look in Wikipedia, but the hour grows late, and my nerves are frayed from some Internet issues earlier tonight.

I think of the above line because I came home from work a few days ago and there was a section missing from the chain-link fence that separates our back parking area (can’t rightly call it a yard) from the next door neighbor’s house.  (They’ve been gone for some time, leaving behind mountains of trash and the remains of a Foos-Ball machine in their yard.)  Because of this, I thought of an incident when good fences definitely did not make good neighbors.  They had the opposite effect.

When I was nine, two women moved into the house next to ours on Seventh St. in Marietta.  One was a widow in her early 60s, the other was her unmarried daughter.  (I thought of them both as “the old ladies” at the time, but now I realize that the daughter must have been the age I am now.)  I don’t recall them getting off on the wrong foot with anyone, but when summer rolled around, the trouble began.

The boy whose back yard abutted ours and I would play baseball in the very small, very narrow yards.  Both of us had mothers who were overprotective to the point of psychosis, so we both knew better than to ask them if we could walk the half mile to Washington School’s playground, where there would be more space and probably kids who could join us.  They told us these wild stories about a man who was on the playground “scaring” little children.  He and I had also heard stories at school about “Paul Revere the Midnight Queer,” who loved staring at kids for hours as they played in the parks and playgrounds.  (I believe that he is Marietta’s equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot: Everyone knew someone who had seen him, but there was no first-hand evidence of his existence.)

And now, back to our story… as the announcers on radio soap operas would say.  In such a small yard, the ball was always going to go astray, and the first time it landed in their yard, I nonchalantly strolled in there and got it.  The older woman came out and yelled at me about it, and I was properly contrite as I retreated.

At first, both women were grudgingly willing to throw back the ball if it landed in their yard, but being on the other side of the shrubs that separated their yard from ours was like boldly marching across the 38th Parallel. They soon informed us (and our parents) that any balls that went into their yard would be gone forever.

My mother was furious about this, and railed about it, very high decibel, to my dad, to her friends, to anyone who would listen.  My mother went nuclear when she looked out the side window and there was a black and red NO TRESPASSING in the window that faced our house.  She said much of this in my presence, and even if I wasn’t in the room, I didn’t have to hold a glass to the wall to hear what she was saying.

(The sign now reminds me of a verse of “This Land is Your Land” that you don’t often hear:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

Who knew our music teachers were teaching us such socialist propaganda?)

This led my friend and me to do something that was clearly wrong.  I think we thought we’d be okay because neither his parents nor mine had a kind word for these women.  One summer afternoon, we sat down with a pad of paper, a bag of rubber bands, and some rocks.  We wrote nasty–but not threatening–notes (such as “You bingbat (sic),” “Leave Ohio,” etc.  We would then wrap the notes around a rock with a rubber band and toss them into their yard, just like characters in adventure cartoons.

Whether they liked the women or not, our parents did not approve.  He was grounded, I had to write and hand-deliver a letter of apology, and the atmosphere in the house was Arctic for the next several days.  (It usually was, when my parents weren’t screaming at each other, but it’s far different when it’s directed at you.)

During the fall and winter months, we didn’t see them, they didn’t see us.  It was getting too chilly to play outside, and that fall I was constantly ill, starting with several bouts of flu and culminating in chicken pox.  I didn’t see much of my friend, either.  (“Friend” is the default term here.  I don’t think we really liked each other, but he was the only boy my age in the neighborhood, and we were the prisoners of our mothers’ paranoia.  It was more a marriage of convenience than a friendship.)

When the warm weather returned, Mother freaked out when she looked into the back yard and saw a chain-link fence under construction.  (The fence was purely symbolic on the women’s part, since it was lower than the hedge that separated our two yards.  I think the point was that now we couldn’t go into their yard after stray balls, even if we wanted to do it.)  Mother was especially incensed about upward-pointing sharp spikes at the top of the fist.  In her mind, she had staged several scenarios of how I (or other children in the neighborhood) would be impaled on these.

I don’t know if I knew the word hypocrisy at that time, although parents and parochial schools are the two best places to see it in action.  The previous summer, remember, my friend and I had gotten in trouble for throwing those nasty notes into the women’s yard.  As the fence neared completion, my friend’s mother had posted three signs on the rear of their garage, facing the women’s yard.  One said Love Thy Neighbor in a heavy Black Letter font you see on Bibles and newspaper mastheads.  Another said Children at Play, and the third said Sure, We’ll Take Criticism… If You’ll Take Ours!  On Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, she would seethe as she saw the two of them, dressed in their churchgoing clothes and carrying their Holy Bibles, walking to services at the church in the next block.

My mother’s recourse was much more expensive.  The above signs probably came from Woolworth’s, and probably cost a total of $2.  Mother, on the other hand, wanted a higher fence, right next to the women’s, and the fence builders would weave long plastic strips through the links.  The idea sounds idiotic as I type it today, but that night I crowed in my diary: “We’re having a fence built that’s higher than Fathead Jackson’s [not their real name]!!”  My dad was too much of a dishrag to tell her that this was not only a childish, but expensive, project.  I never thought of what a waste of money it was to carry on this war of the yards.  I just remember at one point lying back in a lounge chair with a tall glass of iced Kool-Aid in my hand, leisurely watching the workmen construct the fence.  No doubt they thought this a fool’s errand, but it was one that would earn them some money.

We moved away from there when I was 13.  Mother had left about six weeks after our fence was ready, leaving by way of the mental hospital and then several different jobs, cities, and schools over the years.  During the time I was on my own, which was most of the time, I had found other interests, some licit, some not.  The older of the two women died about 14 years ago at 80.  (I checked the Social Security Death Index  before I started typing this.)  The younger one still lives in the house.

If you’ve read the pre-April 2010 entries of this blog on LiveJournal, at, you’ll see we had our share of neighbor problems when we lived in Franklinton.  We’ve been fortunate here.  The neighbor on the other side of the duplex has only seriously grated on our nerves once.  During the Christmas season, he favored us with endless repetitions of “Carol of the Bells” on his electric guitar.