Can We Be Friends?

18 06 2012

“If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” Mother Teresa

Old Ernie, now there was a character once you met you never forgot, most likely because you wanted to remember him well enough to avoid at all cost after that! Ernie was an old crotchety chap that lived next door to some friends of mine in Michigan, just across the Indiana border. I found him to be a tall individual in his 60s the 1st time we met, very little hair, and what he did have was completely gray. I would see him as he arrived home from the workday. The soiled work uniform told me he had put in a hard day; his large calloused hands emphasized that he had been doing it for years. For a gentleman who obviously toiled hard for a living, I couldn’t help notice his posture straight and his pace quick and punctual, like a trained military man. My friends knew very little about him since they had moved to the neighbor just short of a year ago. What they did know did not sit well with them. My friend Frank told me, “Yeah, in the time we’ve lived here, I’ve had three conversations with Ernie and I can remember all three. One was my lawn was too long and I needed to cut it. The next, I didn’t get my trash cans put away fast enough one week and they were partially blocking the sidewalk. And the last was when the dog got out and left a pile on his yard. He told me in no certain terms the ramification that would follow if it ever happened again. He hit the wrong nerve finally and I really told him off and we’ve never spoken since!” Frank also told how he knew a couple of guys that worked with Ernie and how nobody liked him there. “He’s real picky, you don’t leave anything in his work area that’s not his, not even a cigarette butt; if you do, he goes ballistic! He even jumped a few guys one day who weren’t doing anything, just standing around talking and drinking coffee. Gave them a bunch of guff how they ought to be working and not acting stupid, like it’s any of his business what someone else does! Other than a couple of older guys like him, his machine helper and the boss, everyone just stays clear of the jerk! He’s supposed to retire in a couple more years and nobody there will miss him, but then I’ll have him home, next door all the time. I’ll have to sell and get out of here before that happens, I won’t be able to take it!”

I got a small taste of the Ernie described to me on my next visit. He pulled up and got out of his car like he always did at the same time, every day after work and was into his military strut when I called out from Frank’s front yard, “Good afternoon, good day at work?” Ernie immediately came to halt and stared directly at me, which caused my blood to run a little cold. Strolling over to the edge of this yard he inquired who I was and what I was doing there, which I told him his neighbor was a good friend of mine. Without missing a beat Ernie came back with, “Not very picky who you hang out with, are you? Tell your “friend” one more loud party and I’ll call the police.” And turning on his heals he headed into his house. I chose not to deliver the message to Frank, figured it would be like throwing gas on an already blazing fire. Now I won’t portray myself as an expert on knowing people and what makes them tick, but something told me there was more than what meets the eye with old Ernie. Not only that but years earlier I made the mistake of casting a dark shadow on how I saw someone who’s attitude was a lot like this man’s. Later learned what fueled that attitude and that there actually was a lot more good in them than I saw or gave credit to. Something told me that was the case with Ernie also; it would be almost a year before Frank and I made the discovery of who this ill-tempered Ernie really was.

It was summer and I had made a trip up to see my friend Frank. A silent, invisible wall had gone up between his house and his surly neighbor’s, which is just another way of saying things hadn’t gotten any worse but they hadn’t improved either. A unspoken covenant was etched that said you leave me alone and I’ll do the same with you and we’ll both get along just fine. This was a little strange to me considering how well I knew my friend. He wasn’t the type to hold grudges or not get along with someone. He did his best to live by the words “live at peace with all men.” I surmised he had finally met his Waterloo in Ernie and resolved to live with this barrier between the two as long as they were neighbors. But something else was going on that Frank hadn’t revealed to me, yet. Saturday morning at his house, he woke me up early to say we were going out for breakfast. A short time later we were sitting, drinking coffee at a diner. “I’m expecting someone to join us so we won’t order yet,” Frank told me with a small tone of secrecy in his voice. Fifteen minutes passed and a young man looking to be no older than 20 strolled in the front door. “There he is,” Frank said while standing up and motioning him over to our table. We made small talk with this young man over breakfast with Frank and him throwing friendly, but funny barbs at each other. “Well, you two have hit it off well,” I spoke, “Where did you guys meet?” There was grin between them before Frank spoke. “We met right next door to each other; Jimmy here is Ernie’s son.” Okay, they had my attention, let’s hear the story.

Jimmy was going to college out of state so he and Frank had never met until he came for summer break. It was apparent that he was closer to the age of being Ernie’s grandson than his son. Jimmy was a late-life child from Ernie’s second marriage. His first ended years ago when his wife then left him for another. He had two children from that marriage, but they had little to do with him which broke his heart. “So all these years he has worked hard at the factory and became bitter because of his 1st wife and what she did to him, right?” I asked. “Oh no, “Jimmy responded, he has only worked there since I was a little boy.” “Dad used to own a company that was in direct competition to where he works now. The bottom fell out and he had to close the doors. When he went to work for the place he’s at now, they were more than happy to give him a job. Dad thought they would give him a spot in management, but they got their jollies by humiliating him with a menial job on the floor, something he never got over.” I also learned that the military strut in his walk was no accident. “Before dad started his company he was a major in the Air Force and commander of a unit of bombers during WW2.” Jimmy proceeded to name off medals and commendations that Ernie had been awarded that was lengthier than this post. “I guess that’s why he has no patience for some of the guys he works with,” Jimmy told me. All those years in the military left him with the mind set if you have a job to do, don’t fool around, do it! “Yeah, dad is set in his ways but he’s really a great guy with a sense of humor like mine.” That statement made Frank and I both push back in our seats. Ernie with a sense of humor, you could sell tickets to people to see that. Frank now was looking at me. “I don’t know when I’ve been so miserable living somewhere, knowing I had a neighbor I couldn’t get along with. I prayed often for God to open some door where he and I could come together and become friends, I believe that door is Jimmy.” Jimmy sat there chowing down on his pancakes, all the time wearing a silly smile that said, “Yep that’s right.” Frank was correct, the relation he was building was Jimmy could be a big help to winning Ernie over, but there was something else.

It’s been said over and over through the years, each of us have a story to tell, some good, others not so good, at least in certain areas. I hold to the belief that nearly all of us start life happy. Where will you find a happier setting than a baby with their mom and dad, or a group of kindergartners learning to play and sing together? Somewhere after that point we start to develop our own traits, usually influenced by sources and situations around us. For some the road of life is a smooth one, while for others, not so. Those who land on a hard road generally become hardened themselves and possibly even recluse because they don’t want others to know what they’ve had to go through, such as our man Ernie. So the question comes down to, how do we approach people such as the Ernies of the world. Unfortunately, in today’s society the easy way is usually the norm, ignore them and maybe they’ll go away taking their attitude with them. But, can we agree that the most rewarding is making a friend where there wasn’t one? And taking an interest in another the way you wish people would do for you? That’s what Frank did with Ernie. To judge or to learn? To wound or to heal? To be part of the problem or part of the solution? Guess its best said in a pop song I once heard, when it comes to judging others, I’m stating with the man in the mirror, “We can never judge the lives of others, because each person knows only their own pain and renunciation.”

Another book I like to quote says it this way, “Stop judging others, and you will not be judged. For others will treat you as you treat them. Whatever measure you use in judging others, it will be used to measure how you are judged. And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying, `Friend, let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log from your own eye, then perhaps you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5 )

Just a thought on the subject. 😮

On another one of my visits to see Frank, I found him in the backyard with Ernie and Jimmy, all three gazing up into the sky at a plane flying across the sky. “Dad’s teaching Frank how to judge the altitude and speed a plane is going using a counting method,” Jimmy explained. Ernie looked over at me, threw his hands up and shook his head, “Oh its hopeless, Frank does okay counting unless it goes past ten, then he needs to sit down on the ground, take off his shoes and socks to count his toes. By then the darn plane’s out of sight!” Frank looked over at me now and said, “I’ll translate what he just said, I speak fluent Ernie. ‘Hello John, it’s nice to meet you. I’m just out here talking to my friend and neighbor Frank.’” A smile from Ernie and then the words that says it all, “Close enough! 




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