With a couple of taps from a sledgehammer, the sections of rickety fence came tumbling down like a row of rotted dominoes, opening up a world whose existence I had only suspected.
The admonition "Don't ever take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up" didn't enter my mind until the deed was done. Time would tell whether my family and I would suffer, or enjoy, the consequences.
The old wooden fence had stood for some 15 years, the last six rather shakily. It had effectively cut off communication with three neighbors. Two homes sat behind the fence at the back edge of our property and another behind the section that ran along our eastern property line.
For the half-dozen years we had lived in our home, those three neighbors were mostly rumors, suspicions and disembodied sounds.
On warm summer nights we'd hear the gentle splash of the pool opposite our back yard and the hushed voices of a young French couple, skinny-dipping in the moonlight.
Sometimes we'd hear a huge bark booming over the fence from the French yard. The dog would race our dog back and forth along the fence, even though neither could see the other, except for paws between the bottom of the fence and the lawn. When the fence finally came down, we saw him fully for the first time -- a big-shouldered, chocolate-colored Lab.
The dog's owners were an attractive pair named Mick and Minette, who clearly had an affectionate relationship. We chatted for a few minutes about our new views and the possibility of never again erecting a fence. That's when Minette squeezed Mick's arm playfully and in her fetching French accent, teased, "But if you don't put up a new fence, Mick and I will have to behave ourselves."
Our neighbor on the eastern front, a sour gnome of a man with whom we had an uneasy detente and hadn't spoken more than two words in any single conversation, suddenly became as chatty as a used-car salesman. With the fence reduced to a stack of rotted boards and his view unobstructed, he was inspired to discuss everything from the weather to U.S. foreign ,, policy -- this whenever my very pubescent daughter came out to swim in her two-piece.
A more pleasant introduction was to the neighbor next to the French couple. In one of those ironic twists of life, it turns out she was tutoring a boy from my wife's elementary-school class. The woman, Cindy, asserted that 6-foot-high fences serve their purpose, to provide privacy, but she regretted that ours had prevented her from meeting -- until now -- her nice neighbors.
All these years we had heard rising from our neighbors' yards howls of laughter and bursts of anger and squawking birds and (( mating cats whose plaintive cries on soft spring nights mimicked those of babies. In short, the sounds of living. The faces and bodies and shapes we had only imagined were now there for us to see.
We were waving and smiling at people who had gardened and sunbathed and barbecued not 20 yards from us, previously unseen. That 6-foot-high, 1-inch-thick fence might just as well have been the Great Wall of China, for all the friendship it allowed to pass through.
Of course, now that the fence was gone, its absence presented a problem of an altogether different nature. If we lived in the country, where the nearest neighbor often lives a football field away, we wouldn't have been troubled. But urban dwelling requires that you play by stricter rules.
One evening after the fence had been removed, I went for a swim in our pool. I floated on my back, letting a breeze push me in and out of the yellow lights reflected on the water from our neighbors' patio. For some reason, I thought of pictures I'd seen of gondolas on the waters of Venice, a city I have never visited. It was as pleasant a moment as I could remember. And then I glanced up at the neighbors' back windows. With the view unimpeded, I saw right into their kitchen and dining room. They were serving friends dinner, and from my vantage point I could clearly see the entire amiable scene. Half-filled wineglasses, a basket of rolls, a sliced roast on a platter, a bouquet of flowers in the center of the table.
And then, as if startled awake from a dream, I looked in the opposite direction at our own kitchen windows. From where our neighbors sat, we were silent-movie entertainment for them too. How many stolen kisses, family squabbles or other intimate moments would they have witnessed over the years had the fence not blocked their view? Under the circumstances, I thought, we'd have to be more guarded, and also cross off skinny-dipping from our list of recreational activity.
There was only one thing to do: Call a fence company for an estimate on the construction of a new barricade.
The salesman had good news and bad news. His crew could restore our privacy within a week, but it would cost $1,200. Still, it seemed a small price to pay to be able to flirt with my wife in our own house or swim in the buff without giving the neighbors a cheap thrill.
As much as I still anticipate developing a friendlier relationship with Cindy the tutor, the young French couple, and even the peeping gnome -- I'm inclined to agree with poet Robert Frost, a lover of the great outdoors who nevertheless observed: "Good fences make good neighbors."
DAVE WIECZOREK is assistant editor of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel's Sunshine magazine.