Goodbye, Neighbor

By Ron Ciancutti

My neighbor Chuck passed away on New Year’s Day. He was 67 years old, 10 years older than me. When my family and I moved in next door 24 years ago, he was a youthful 43-year old—albeit living with his parents—but still a man with dreams. A week after our arrival, his dad had a heart attack and died on the kitchen floor. Oddly, all these years later, the EMS squad found Chuck in almost the exact same place. Chuck and his dad were plumbers but never really had a formal business, but they always had work simply by word of mouth. He bailed my family out of several plumbing problems over the years, and I could see how he and his dad always were in demand.  They were skilled, very capable. Chuck had a brother as well, but he didn’t exhibit the same prowess with a wrench.  Shortly after hearing of his dad’s passing, he died too. We never knew the circumstances of his death, but I recall how the doubling effect of losing two family members in such short order certainly put Chuck’s head down for a few months; it’s an interesting situation since the man we came to know was so carefree.

Recently, Chuck’s mother was in a nursing home, so he stayed alone. The house clearly did not have the shine it once did. It was especially noticeable because it had been meticulously groomed when his parents tended to it, like his mother’s prize-winning roses, etc. Those things didn’t matter to Chuck though. A lot of things didn’t matter to Chuck.  Many times, he made me wonder whether I worried about things too much.

At Odds With Himself
He was essentially a “hippie” of the 1960s and ‘70s. He was a large, Sasquatch-looking man. He had played football at the University of Toledo but didn’t stay with it and eventually dropped out. He always spoke as if it didn’t bother him, but we all knew better. He had a habit of starting projects but never really finishing them. Carcasses of half-rebuilt lawn mowers, weed-eaters, and chainsaws littered the backyard near the half-painted fence; many of them were rusted and aging from neglect.

He was a man at odds with himself. He knew he had more in him but could never quite muster the effort to put it all together. To hear him ponder politics or medicine, I saw he was sharp and well informed, but he was also immersed in those “hippie” habits that always prevented him from conformity.

Fond Memories
These are the things he did that made him such a character:

  • He asked me to help him find a regular job once, but in the lobby of the place I had recommended, he fell asleep (apnea sufferer) while filling out his application. Needless to say, the company “passed” on Chuck.
  • He and his dad once rigged up a gas grill in the backyard, and every once in a while he would fire it up and throw a big steak on. Sometimes the meal was in the evening, and he would appear in nothing more than a towel, having come right out of the shower. At 6 feet 4 inches and 300 pounds, that towel needed to be a lot bigger, but he couldn’t have cared less. On those nights, I got the women and children in early.

I had a pool in the summer for my kids, and after they were in bed I would often cool off there, too. In the dog days of summer, I would sometimes hear a quiet splash around midnight and was sure the grizzly bear that lived next door had stopped by for a quick dunk. I used a lot of chlorine the following day.

When I couldn’t stand the sight of his unkempt lawn any longer, I cut it myself (for 24 years). Sometimes Chuck would get a lawn chair out with no sign of regret or gratitude and just watch me. In turn, we had a type of “trade of talent” agreement: when I needed plumbing work he would help me at no charge, etc. But after he grew so heavy he could barely squat down anymore, I just cut the lawn every week without expecting a return favor. But I did find a watermelon on my porch the next morning, or a new basketball would fly out of nowhere over the fence while the kids played. “Thanks, Chuck,” they would yell. “OK,” he would bellow.

When picnic season began and my family filled the yard, Chuck would always amble over and have a burger or two, and when we had a holiday dinner or family birthday, my wife was always sure to take a plate over to him. He was exceptionally loyal to us, and on one occasion we came home to find the front door had been broken; he noticed us standing apprehensively outside, so he casually walked over with a .357 Magnum in his hand and calmly entered the house, going room to room ahead of us. “You’re clear,” he finally said. Vintage Chuck.

One time, after coming groggily home after a full day of Fourth of July events, my wife and I took the kids up to bed. I came back downstairs and found a bat clinging to the wall. After I got a bucket and broom from the garage, I saw Chuck sitting in his lawn chair next door contemplating the moon. “I’ve got a bat in the house,” I said. Without hesitation he said, “Aw, could I have it?” I shook my head and said, “What?” He said, “Yeah, it’s my nephew’s birthday and I didn’t have a gift for him.” He followed me into the house, removed his hat, and grabbed the bat with it. Then he threw the bat into a giant plastic jar and sealed the lid. He just said thanks and walked out the back door. The kids were in awe of this guy; he was so unabashed and unique.

And then for a while he had a girlfriend. He dressed sharp and combed and cut his gruff beard, and we barely recognized him. The relationship must have ended at some point because he went back to his Grizzly Adams look, and we never saw her again nor heard about what had happened.

Twists And Turns
The point is I met this man one day and watched a life spent vacillating between accepting who he was and resisting what he could have been. I never doubted he had a high IQ, and his ability to remember details was astounding. He was kind and generous to those he let in, but he didn’t let many in, struggling with his inability to trust people. An angry fire burned beneath the surface. Maybe it was regret or sorrow never expressed, but when he was telling one of his tales and something noble or wise would accidently pop out, he would pause and change the subject; maybe there was a path he should have taken that he didn’t want to think about. I just couldn’t ever make peace with his potential versus the final product. It seemed like such a waste of a mind, but it didn’t seem to bother him a bit.

He hasn’t been gone long, but I feel his absence each time I pull in the driveway. Others might tell you his purpose on earth may not have been fully fleshed out or that he wasted his days, but I beg to differ. I think he got out of life every bit of good that came from the things that came easily. He just didn’t know he had more in him. It’s funny how people are quick to use titles all the time. Was he just my wacky neighbor or my friend? Is dying on the kitchen floor poignant or regretful? The fact is he left an impression on everyone he met, and I am sure very few saw in him what I saw, but perhaps some people live to show others how not to die. I’ll have to ponder that one a while.

One night he helped me install a new hot water tank in my basement. We muscled it down the steps, stood it up, and made all the connections, but when he reached down to pop the ignitor, nothing happened; no snap, no click—the sealed spring had gone lifeless. “What does that mean? Do we have to return this whole unit?” He exhaled, “Maybe.” I said, “Don’t move.” I ran up the stairs into the backyard and dismantled the ignitor from my gas grill. I cut the wire with plenty of slack. Running back downstairs, I reached into the well of the water-tank with needle nose pliers, plucked the ignitor out, and replaced it with the gas grill unit. It fit perfectly. I pushed the button and the tank whooshed to life, to our amazement. He was especially in awe. “My fellow plumbers will never believe this story,” he said. “Ron, you are the strangest guy I know.”

Ron Ciancutti has worked in the parks and recreation industry since he was 16 years old, covering everything from maintenance, operations, engineering, surveying, park management, design, planning, recreation, and finance. He holds a B.S. in Business from Bowling Green State University and an M.B.A. from Baldwin Wallace University. He has held his current position as Director of Procurement since 1990. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at ron@northstarpubs.com.