An Excuse to be Neighborly

During my first semester in college, I lived about two miles from campus in an apartment. A high, well-trimmed hedge eclipsed my building from the house next door. It was difficult to get a clear view of my neighbor Alex's house. In fact, the only sign of life was the occasional bark of a dog.

Whenever I heard these infrequent canine greetings, I thought of two tracking dogs my father owned when we lived in Kenya, which he used for finding wounded animals. The dogs would help him follow the signs of fresh blood or only three footprints so he could care for and release the animals back into the woods.

One day I asked my father why he took care of wild animals. He looked me straight in the eyes and said, ''They are my closest neighbors, and yours, too. If I help them in time of need, they will help me too when the time comes. They will protect me and my own family.''

Then he told me about a time when my elder sister was not yet 2 and had disappeared one day from under my parents' watchful gaze. After a desperate search, they found her under a neighbor's building that rested on concrete pillars three feet above the ground. She was busy scooping soil with her feeding cup and pouring it onto a 16-foot python.

The snake had protectively coiled three times around her, leaving enough room for her to play. When my mother called my sister and showed her a bottle of milk, she simply crawled over the reptile and came to Mother unharmed. Such protection convinced my father that what he was doing was right and for a good cause.

From my father, I learned how to regard animals as neighbors, but my mother taught me the significance of being a good neighbor to people.

''A neighbor,'' she once told me, ''is the closest person to you no matter where you are.'' I also learned from her that it was my duty to speak to my neighbor, but not until I had given him or her the first opportunity to make contact.

It had been nearly a month since I moved into my new apartment. None of the neighbors had made any attempt to introduce themselves to me, and I decided it was time I did something about the situation.

I went to work on a natural-history class project wondering what would be the best way to introduce myself.

The project involved observing all the wildlife in an 10-by-20-foot area of the woods that had been marked off with red ribbons. This was my natural-history class garden - a garden from which I was to learn how life unfolds. The instructions were to spend two hours a week observing and recording all that I saw, heard, felt, or smelled in the area regarding animals, plants, birds, and insects.

Setting aside thoughts about my neighbor, I got to work on the assignment. Within two hours, all aspects of the project but one - listening - were complete. I sat down in the middle of the garden, closed my eyes as if to meditate, and listened. I was not long in that position when I heard a sound, which I knew from childhood experience was the sound only an animal in a hurry or one in new territory would make. It was the crack of a dry, wooden stick snapping in two, a sound no animal would make under no rmal conditions without grave consequences. My father used to call it the betrayal sound.

I stood up and looked around. Nothing was visible. I sat down again and resumed my work. Within a few minutes I heard another sound. This time it was the sound of an animal running full speed toward me. I opened my eyes just in time to see two wet paws landing on my chest, throwing my back to the ground.

Although the attack was sudden, I still had my wits. I remembered from childhood that the best way to win a battle with an animal was to stop struggling and surrender. I kept my body still and my eyes open. When all was quiet, I studied my captor. He was a big gray dog with a blue ribbon around his neck. Someone's pet, I realized. Grabbing him by the ribbon, I pushed him off me without letting him get away.

In case someone was looking for him, I didn't want him to run off again. I fashioned a leash by sliding my belt through the ribbon and decided to take him home with me.

By the time I got home, it was nightfall. I called a few people I knew on campus and described the dog to them. No one seemed to know either the dog or the owner. I was tempted to give up when I thought to call my natural-history professor. After a moment's hesitation, he said the description fitted Alex's dog. I was thrilled! At last, I had an opportunity, not only to speak to my next door neighbor, but also to meet him.

I phoned Alex immediately and told him that I had found his dog. He was delighted and insisted on coming to get Chanon himself, even though I offered to return the dog to his house. Alex said he had been wanting to visit with me for a long time, but was waiting for a reason to do it. Now that Chanon had provided the opportunity, it would be unthinkable to let it pass.

Alex came over and brought two friends who had helped look for Chanon that afternoon. For the first time in a month, Alex and I met. We sat and chatted as neighbors for almost an hour.

The dog was a necessary link; it brought us together. It was the beginning of a long friendship that Alex and I continue to enjoy even though we now live thousands of miles apart.

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