The burden of being different


I’ve told this story before. This is the abbreviated version.

I’d just moved to a rural mountain community high in California’s Sierra Nevada, a young father with two kids and long hair. It was 1970, the Viet Nam war raged on, and wearing long hair was often enough to provoke some people, who, on occasion, would target some hippie as the representative of everything they thought had gone wrong with the country. 

We moved into a house outside of town, on Greenhorn Creek, a place that seemed to have been named in anticipation of my arrival. I was a greenhorn in more ways than one. I knew little about living so far from the urban and suburban sprawl, and I knew even less about the way things worked in small towns, places where who you knew was more important than what you knew.

Horrified that hippies had invaded his mountain retreat, my new neighbor, a beefy retiree from LA, began discharging a .12 gauge shotgun at all hours. He would watch me leave for work, then begin a series of hang-up calls to my wife. When I asked that he not fire his shotgun so near where my children played, or so early in the pre-dawn hours, he said, “You’re in the mountains now, hippie. Get used to it.” 

The harassment continued; the unease increased. I called the cops. There was no response. I researched local law and found that my neighbor was violating two provisions of county ordinances that made it unlawful to discharge a firearm within 100 yards of an occupied dwelling, or within 100 yards of a roadway. 

No sheriff’s deputies ever responded. Finally, I went to my boss, the president of the small college where I was teaching. I told him what was going on, that it was making it hard to focus on my work. 

He spoke to the district attorney at the next Rotary Club meeting, the place where the town’s movers and shakers gathered for lunch each week. Following whatever was said at the bar there, I got a call from the D.A.’s office. The secretary said her boss wanted to meet with me on Saturday morning.

When I was ushered into the district attorney’s office, I found myself standing before a squat little man who didn’t rise to greet me. He motioned me to a chair and said, “Mr. O’Neill, I hear you’re having a spat with your neighbor. I thought we could settle it without getting things all complicated. I’ve invited your neighbor to this meeting, and he should be here any minute so we can resolve this.”

“But,” he continued, “before he comes I wanted you to know that I am a fair man. When I look out this window and see a nigger with a white woman on the street, that makes me sick. But if that same nigger gets charged with a crime, he’ll get the same treatment as a white man.”

He stared at his hands clasped on his desk before him. “By the same token,” he said, “I hate long hair on a man. Long hair is for women. But you need to know that you’ll get fair treatment from me, nonetheless.”

Almost on cue, my neighbor entered. We had an uncomfortable back-and-forth. I left feeling hopeless. 

My neighbor had been the campaign manager for the D.A. when he ran for office. I also learned, through one of my students who worked in the courthouse, that after I left, the D.A. told my neighbor to knock off the harassment. He was getting pressure from the college president, it was making him look bad at Rotary, and if my neighbor didn’t quit, the D.A. would be forced to let me file a complaint. 

That happened in the high country of California, not down on the flatlands of Ferguson, Missouri. It happened more than 40 years ago, not this year. I was a young white college teacher with long hair, not an unarmed 18-year-old black kid, without clout or connections.

When it comes to good ol’ boy networks, the shadowy way things work, the endemic prejudice that rots the soul of this nation, and the perversions of justice endured by people who aren’t in the loop, the French phrase still applies: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Jaime O’Neill is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He writes in California.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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