At first glance the stranger looked ominous: tall and lanky with a rifle slung over his right shoulder. And those piercing eyes staring out at us seemed to be sizing us up for the kill. We came upon him while walking up a rough and washed-out road near our vacation spot in Vermont. Up the mountain we had trekked, unaware that he was on his way down in his enormous hiking boots. Until we met at the halfway point.
We stopped. He stopped. We faced each other and my daughter, Ami, offered a tentative, but clearly non-menacing, “hello”.
And then a smile. A smile! Not a sneer, but a real smile, ready to offer a neighborly hello.
This, my husband, Joe, and I realized, was the neighbor we had been warned about. “Be careful,” they had all said. “He has a hunting camp at the top of the road and is sullen and strange.”
But me being me, and Joe being Joe, we decided to not listen to the warnings and so walked up to him, hands out in a “lets shake hands” gesture, and introduced ourselves and our family; kids and grandkids who were walking with us that morning.
And the response from our neighbor was a grasping of our outstretched hands accompanied by the admission that he was hard of hearing and, thus, didn’t hear Ami’s greeting to him.
Falling into step with us, he chatted a mile a minute, filling us in on the history of the area as we continued our ascent up the mountain road all the way to his hunting camp. It was a charming little cabin, immaculate and filled with rustic devices (a hand operated water pump in the kitchen) and amusing little touches like the huge outdoor mural of a lake with a miniature golf green – complete with golf ball sitting in front of it.
This was clearly not a man to be feared or to avoid. This was a man who loved to meet people and was eager to accept us into his life as he shared stories and good humor with us.
We met again the next weekend while walking up the same road. And the next morning he actually came to our kitchen door to ask if the worker and piece of equipment he had hired might turn around in our driveway. And he remained in our kitchen far longer than that short question and our response would have required.
It dawned on me that this man, who had been so misunderstood by others, had not had the opportunity to demonstrate his good nature as he had done with us. In their incorrect assessment of him, others had avoided the man, thus creating a scenario where he appeared to be unfriendly. Well, who wouldn’t be unfriendly if everyone shunned you? As a matter of fact he stated during one of our conversations, “folks come right up to my camp and don’t even say hello.”
He was genuinely confused and upset by those slights. And in that confusion he might very well have looked disgruntled. Creating, of course, the misconception that he was unfriendly and someone to be wary of.
How often do we jump to conclusions about people? And how often do we actually go out of our way to investigate the veracity of those conclusions? It is a shame when we let others form our opinion of strangers without finding out the truth for ourselves.
As for our neighbor in Vermont, well, we are lucky to have met him. And those others who will still chose to avoid his company are missing out on the friendship of a very special, caring and fascinating man.
Oh, and that rifle? He told us he never shot a human being. Yet. Good to know.
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