05 July 2012

A Cautionary Tale

By Eve Fisher

Ah, the High Plains.  Where the living is easy, there's more freedom, less government intrusion, and you can do any damn thing you want to do.  Sorry, but there’s no such place.  Sure, you get enough  acres, you can do just about any thing you want out in the middle of it.  But you’re still going to have to behave yourself once you come out of there:  for one thing, there are such things as OTHER PEOPLE.  Even in South Dakota.  We don't have a huge population up here, but that only increases everyone's dependence on everyone else, no matter what they think of that concept.  And, as always, it helps if you treat people decently, and don't quarrel with them, or else you could end up like a man I will call Gus Olson.  (All names, and some details, have been changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty.) 

Gus lived in an old house on a corner lot in a town much smaller than Madison.  The trouble all started with his old cars.  First he had two, then he had five, then he six, then he had eight, next thing you know a dozen, and they were all junkers, piled up on top of each other and rusting away.  Well, there were complaints, and the city council gave him warnings, all of which he ignored.  Except for some choice language.  He quit repairing or painting his house.  Trash started piling up.  So did the citations.  Eventually he put up a ten foot high board fence running all the way around his property, which cost him a lot more than moving the cars and hauling away the garbage would have.  

Now Gus had decided he was being persecuted back when people complained about the junkers.  So he started warning people to stay the hell off of his property.  Nobody took him real seriously until he started standing on his front steps with a shotgun.  Didn't shoot, didn't threaten, just stood there.  Technically, it was legal, but it was sure unfriendly.  Basically, Gus made it plain that nobody – NOBODY – was to set foot on his property.  He met the postman down at the sidewalk, and he stood right next to the meter reader as she read his dials.  A couple of people tried to talk to him, but he chased them all off.  He put up signs all along his property:  
He quit talking to just about everybody in town, except to snarl at them.  He showed up at city council meetings and school board meetings and county commission meetings to rant about how persecuted he was, and how he’d have anybody’s hide that touched one thing on his property.  That a man’s home was his castle, and the rights of private property were absolute.  There was no doubt he meant every word of it.  And legally - we have "castle doctrine" big time in SD - he was absolutely right.

So, when Gus’ garage caught fire one night, the fire department – did I mention that up here small town fire departments are all volunteer? – showed up and did nothing but wet down the tall fence, and even doing that, they felt they were risking their lives.  After all, Gus had personally threatened to shoot each and every one of them if they ever set foot on his property.  So they stood there and watched as Gus’ garage burned to the ground, and half his house went with it. 

For some reason, he was pissed off about that.  He wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper saying, and I quote, "I don't understand how they could stand there and do nothing.  I know I said I'd shoot them all, but still, they should have tried to put out the fire." 

So, what do you think the fire department should have done?   As for Gus, he's still around, but he's not nearly as mouthy as he used to be.


  1. Eve, until a few weeks ago, we had a Gus on my little street in Orlando. He was among the last of one of the original Orlando families, once major land owners and once politically influential.

    Our Gus began collecting barrels of oil and parking them around his property. He picked fights with neighbors… pretty much everyone but me, but then I'm a night person, I don't take things too seriously, and I'm irresistibly charming. It didn't help when his next-door neighbor moved a dozen lawn chairs, a beer cooler, and barbecue into position so he and friends could watch old man Gus as if he were entertainment.

    Gus also picked fights with our county Code Enforcement. There I had some sympathy; Code Enforcement is an insidious cancer in Florida… they fancy themselves a quasi-police force who fine 'violators' $100 a day if they don't like your fence or the way you painted your front door. They certainly didn't like the junk Gus began accumulating in his yard.

    Gus had dogs and birds, but he took a particular dislike to neighbors' cats, and they began to disappear. One of the neighborhood kids found the cats in one of Gus' oil drums.

    Gus also armed himself. Now my little street would be about 2½ blocks long if it had cross streets, which it doesn't and it dead-ends at the lake. That makes it a good place to raise kids, but a man brandishing weapons modified to fully automatic concerned some of the mothers and, as many of us former brats know, kids have been known to tease eccentrics. Almost as bad, Gus threatened to use weapons on Code Enforcement if they continued to come around.

    I had mixed feelings about that latter part. Well, no I really didn't… even little fascists like Code Enforcement didn't deserve personal threats 'for just doing their job.' (Not sure you noticed, but I don't think much of bureaucratic bullies.)

    Gus threatened neighbors and police appeared every couple of days, but their powers of persuasion were limited. His family didn't have any better luck and he viewed them with suspicion.

    I'm not sure what tipped the balance, but between his family, neighbors, and the police, but he was 'Baker Acted', a Florida term for committing a person to a mental institution. While neighbors felt relieved, I also thought it sad some part of his brain fomented paranoia to the point he couldn't distinguish friend from foe.

  2. Very interesting piece, Eve. My next blog touches on the issue of civility, as well.

    As for the fireman, if they truly felt threatened, then I don't blame them. But, if it was just pay-back, then that's something else again. I'm assuming they were on-scene to keep the fire from spreading. If that was the case, and the old man didn't actively threaten them, then you have to wonder why they didn't do something since they were already within shotgun range. Of course, I don't know the distance the house was from the fence. It sounds as if it might have been considerable. In any event, it's a classic case of reaping what you sow.

  3. The firemen incident reminds me of my own childhood. I grew up in the 30's in a small Long Island town. There was a Nazi camp in town, Camp Siegfried. As you may surmise, it was not welcome. The inhabitants of the camp made matters worse. They were arrogant, bullying and superior.

    Whenever a fire broke out in the camp, which was often, (and suspicious), the fire department was slow to respond. To the best of my knowledge they never saved a house. Was this dereliction of duty? Of course. But in those pre war days when feelings ran high, it was never questioned. We were about to go to war with these people and such activities as the fire department engaged in were patriotic.

    Criminal behavior in the name of patriotism is still criminal behavior. But at the time I was told it was the right thing to do,and even after all these years I have a hard time condemning it.

    Your case is different. It is quite possible the firefighters felt threatened by this guy's behavior. Understandable.

  4. Sometimes individualism has to pay a heavy price. Was their failure to put a little water on the garage and house payback or real fear that Gus would do use that shotgun on them? I think I would have opt to stay off his property unless he threw down the gun to show he wanted help.

  5. I honestly don't know if it was payback or genuine fear. I know if it was fear, it was justified. I also know that Gus has mellowed since... Hard to say.

  6. Referring to my comment above about the Long Island Nazi camp, Camp Siegfried, here are picture postcards.


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