Of mice and burning trucks

I’ve awoken from my sleep in the middle of night for several reasons: a headache, a bad dream, or my son screaming from being awakened by his lucid nightmares.

Most of these awakenings I can deal with.

There have been other times in my life when I’ve been awakened in my sleep to situations I’m not at all prepared to tackle: The time a drunk 17-year old plowed his El Camino into our house at 2am at 40 miles per hour, the time another drunk driver (subsequently in another El Camino) plowed into my neighbors truck head on at around 3am, and then there was last night…

At 2:15am my wife Kelly and I awoke to the sound of what (we thought) were mice running through our heating vents. Light “popping” sounds seemed to be coming from the basement where—earlier in the week—a mouse had somehow managed to wiggle its way into our walls. Thinking it had now somehow found its way into the ductwork I drug myself down four flights of stairs to listen for the scampering of tiny feet on tin. I listened closely, my ear perched towards the unfinished basement ceiling like a metal detector waiting for a beep to point me in the right direction…

BANG BANG BANG went the front door upstairs. The frantic ringing of the doorbell pierced the quiet, moist basement air and Kelly—like a frightened cat with a hunched back and hair on end—shouted out, “Honey, someone’s at the door. What’s going on?”

I scaled the basement steps towards the front door not knowing what to expect aside from the fact that something was definitely wrong in the night air of Fort Collins. I slowed as I came to the front door, a bit hesitant to greet this unexpected pounding on my door. I peered through the window to see a man I have never seen before looking upset and disheveled. For a moment I thought, “Do I open the door?” and almost within the same breath sized up the man and determined I could take him if he were to become violent. All at once I found myself unlocking the bolt, turning the knob and preparing myself for the unknown. A dozen thoughts ran through my mind, “I’ve made a mistake,” “I’m putting my family in jeopardy,” “If he attacks, will I duck or strike…”.

As the door swung towards me the man said plainly, “Your neighbors truck is on fire. I’ve already called 9-1-1”

My mind raced to a gear I felt I had very little experience using. Like a granny gear in your grandpa’s truck or that 6th speed in a friends sports car, I took in the sight almost clueless as to how to process it: My neighbors truck—Brentley’s truck—was engulfed in greasy, 20-foot-high flames that were licking the side of my house and my car.

My brand new house—not even a year old.

My car—that only has liability insurance on it.

My neighbors truck—that I saw him rebuild and restore over the past four weeks…bondo, sanding, priming, replacing the dashboard and upholstery…

Now in flames.

The smell of burnt rubber filled the neighborhood as I turned to my wife and told her to wake the boys and take them to the back of the house. Scratch that. Take them next door to our other neighbor’s house.

“What do I do?” I told myself. Like a 6th grader looking for some divine guidance on how to answer a pop quiz essay question they knew nothing about, I did what most kids do: I faked it.

I ran for the phone, then back outside to see the flames. Then back for the keys to my cars—both vulnerable—sitting in the driveway. Then back around the corner of the house in case the truck blew up. Peered out again thinking, “I need to move the car or it’s going to catch fire too.” Then back into safety in case the gas tanked caught and ignited.

This dance went on for sometime as a flurry of ideas ran through my head: Grab the garden house and douse it, get the cars out of there, wait for the fire department…

Finally a thought that made some sense clicked in my mind: I ran for the car nearest the fire, unlocked the passenger door furthest from the flames, slid into the drivers seat, turned the key two clicks without starting it, slammed it into neutral and coasted into the street.

My wife screamed as I acted, “Don’t do it!”

Safely in the street, the onlookers in their PJ’s shouted, “Get out of the street…the fire trucks are coming.”

I started it up, threw it into drive and parked quickly in the non-truck-burning-in-the-front-of-their-house neighbor’s driveway.

I rushed over to the group of pajama onlookers and asked if Brentley and his wife were home and made it out of their house. They had…and there they were—dogs in arms, watching their truck burning at a safe distance.

I walked over to Brentley and the first thing out of his mouth was, “You didn’t believe me when I told you my other truck was burned to the ground two weeks ago did you? Do you believe me now?”

Like a kid busted for trying to swipe a box of chocolates at the local five and dime, I said, “I sure do.”

Brentley is one of those guys that is never short on stories. From having a gun pulled on him, to having been witness to multiple horrific accidents up close and now—having two trucks burned in the past two weeks. Part of me wondered if this guy was for real. Any doubts were I had were vanishing like the smoke from the truck into the cold night air.

As we watched the fire trucks pull up and extinguish the flames I learned several new things: The world is full of psychotic and oftentimes angry individuals, safety is like a reliable car and shouldn’t be taken for granted and good neighbors are closer and more important than one might think.

My wife Kelly and  I decided to buy in our subdivision because we felt this would be a good opportunity to engage with a new group of families. We knew moving onto Thoreau drive that we would be apart of a home owners association, that there would be new friends to make, and new opportunities to reach out and connect with new people. So far, we haven’t been disappointed.

I’m thankful for the guy who knocked on my door at two in the morning, for neighbors that spend more time in the front of their house rather than the back, and people that find ways to live in harmony in spite of sometimes overcooked feelings on whose dog pooped where or who didn’t come to a complete stop.

I’ve learned so much from my neighbors. I’ve had some neighbors that drove me crazy with a barking dog and I’ve had other neighbors that surprised me with a thoughtful gift for our firstborn son. What I’ve learned most about being a neighbor over the past decade is that to be a great neighbor all you need to do is one thing: communicate.

Roll down the window and say hi as you pass someone, stop to greet someone at the mailbox, take walks on Saturdays.

I’ve also learned the requirements for being a bad neighbor. If you want to be a bad neighbor follow these rules:

  1. Don’t talk to anyone.
  2. Run your air conditioner instead of opening windows in the spring and fall
  3. Gossip about what you hate about the neighborhood: the person with the loud truck, the neighbor with the barking dog, or the kid with the loud car stereo.

Follow those three simple rules and I guarantee you’ll live a bitter, pessimistic life. Incidentally—the antidote to being a bad neighbor is simple.

Communicate.

Engage with people around you. Talk to them about their dog or their loud stereo. Don’t be afraid to be a little confrontational, but here’s a tip—start the conversation with something positive before bringing up anything negative. Spend 20 minutes talking about their well-cared for lawn and 2 minutes talking about the fact that you wished they’d be a bit more thoughtful about their dog’s recent bomb that got was planted on your precious petunias.

Direct communication goes a long way.

I woke to the sight of a burning truck this week. I also woke to the realization that the goal of getting to know our neighbors is sometimes accomplished through pain and hardships, As C.S. Lewis once said, “God whispers in our pleasures, but shouts in our pain.” He also said, “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

He might as well have said, “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a sleepy, disconnected neighborhood.” Let’s hope this isn’t the case. Let’s work towards getting to know our neighbors before the next big thing happens. That way, when it does happen, we’ll be equipped to give aid, support and encouragement without a sense of awkwardness because we don’t even know our neighbor’s name.

Enough of my tirade. I’m closing the laptop lid and going to enjoy my flight to Seattle.

 

 

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