While the fence was down

WHEN a capricious gust of wind blew over the fence that stood between our backyard and our neighbor's, we had no way of knowing it would take six months before a new one would be erected in its place. We had no way of knowing that, in response to contractor bids and insurance estimates, I would step forward to build it myself. But that's the reason we and our neighbors, the McMullans, found ourselves sharing for half a year one big backyard in our small suburb of Los Angeles. They are an older, retired couple of Midwestern stock who go to bed early, rise before the sun, and work several hours each day in their modest vegetable garden. In the past they had left an occasional sack of home-grown tomatoes, limes, or zucchini on our front porch. But with the fence gone, they invited us across the now-invisible property line to harvest the produce for ourselves. We did; and soon my wife began reciprocating by giving them freshly baked cookies and bread or a jar of her famous red pepper relish.

Mr. McMullan, in the meantime, continued his daily practice of sitting out back with a cold drink, surveying his small estate, and periodically shouting orders at his uninterested tabby cat. Only now he found himself with front-row seats for the heated basketball shoot-outs my 10-year-old son and I would have on our half-court driveway. And when an errant jump shot would carom into his vicinity, Mr. McMullan would be there to help out. He was part of the team.

On the whole, we adjusted rather well to our newly enlarged community. For there was hardly an instance of our walking back to the garage that we would not wave or call a greeting to our friends. More than likely, we'd enter into a longer discussion on the weather, gardening, or the progress of the proposed fence. It was during one on the latter that Mr. McMullan suggested I put up a wire cyclone fence like one he'd had in Arizona. He claimed it was more durable than wood and much easier to install. I tactfully told him ``no thank you,'' while I inwardly criticized his sense of aesthetics.

But now the fence has been restored. With the help of friends, it was completed in a week's time. It's 90 feet long, 6 feet high, and made of sturdy rough-sawn cedar boards -- a worthy tribute to the do-it-yourself spirit. So why do I feel just a little empty when I look at it? Because we no longer see the McMullans very much. Oh, we can still hear them working in their garden, as muffled sounds emanate from behind the new wooden barrier. And they still leave sacks of vegetables on our front porch, as before. But only if our paths cross on the sidewalk do we actually stop and chat.

It's made me consider how single-mindedly we pursue our privacy without regard to the larger implications. Come to think of it, Mr. McMullan might have known all along. Perhaps his suggestion of a cyclone fence came from something above financial or cosmetic considerations. Perhaps he was merely asking for company -- a chance to enjoy his new ``picture window'' on a more permanent basis. Or could it be that the wind that started this whole episode is nature's way of telling us to expand our outlook, to reach beyond present limits and include others. If it is, I wish I'd listened more closely.

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