The night Bob Dowler set fire to his neighbor’s storage shed is still discussed by those who live within the gated community of ‘Phase 2 of the Presidio’. Everyone agreed it was bound to happen sooner or later because Bob could never let anything go. A few say the stress of his job, his nagging wife, and his good for nothing teenage son drove him to insanity. A few claim he was simply bucking the system, and praise his ingenuity at sticking it to the Homeowners Association and the uneven enforcement of the rules. Some say that Randy Rattsloff was lucky Bob didn’t burn his house down, because that S.O.B. never knew how to be neighborly. And some even blamed mad cow disease. The truth, if anyone had bothered to ask Bob Dowler, was as surprising and as strange as the fire itself.
It hot been a hot, tense summer and ‘Phase 2 of the Presidio’ was in the midst of upheaval. The housing development had stood separate and exclusive from the edge of the city for thirty years and refurbishment was called for. The residents were preoccupied with arguing landscaping and color schemes when Randy Ratsloff slipped a large, wooden storage shed onto a corner of his lot.
To the untrained eye, the storage shed seemed quite ordinary, but Randy’s neighbor Bob could see immediately that a line had been crossed. The shed was too big, too messy, and most importantly to Bob Dowler, too far over the property line.
Now, Bob Dowler was no stranger to the Board of Directors of the Homeowners Association of “Phase 2 of the Presidio’. Bob prided himself on being busy and organized and was the first to point out when something didn’t obey the rules. A few said he was just a good citizen, but most dismissed him as a high-strung busybody with too much time on his hands.
The majority of Bob’s constant complaints about ‘Phase 2’ focused on Randy Ratsloff. Bob had lived in his house for twenty years and when Randy moved in sixteen years later he unpacked a tribe of kids and friends who kicked up fun like a circus. At first, The Board of Directors listened to Bob’s constant complaints about Randy, but when the color of a boat in Randy’s driveway somehow became the wrong shade of blue, the tide began to turn in Randy’s favor. The board began to overlook the parties, the teepees, the water fights and soccer games that happened in and around Randy’s happy yard.
Bob learned to grit his teeth and turn away from the commotion, but try as he might he couldn’t ignore that giant wooden storage shed that appeared in May. Three inches of Bob’s yard were trapped under that shed, and he implored everyone he could that they should offer help and sympathy. His neighbors and co-workers initially listened, eventually shrugged, and finally just ignored him. The Board said there was no action to be taken and his family simply didn’t care. By October and with no relief in sight, he’d decided to take Randy to court. That this course of action would be diverted by dogs was as surprising to Bob as the fire itself.
It was also the summer Bob realized that nothing was going as planned. His office was hiring brash young kids. They didn’t follow rules and could have cared less about how things should be done. They tried hard to avoid Bob’s advice and only asked about his potential retirement. His moody and always difficult to control wife had started to complain more often, although about what Bob couldn’t say, since he didn’t listen anyway. And his loud and unpredictable son had decided to join the Peace Corps after high school. Bob was sure this meant a lifetime of chaos and financial support. The world was changing and no one was as worried as Bob.
All of this made things come to a sudden end and unstable new beginning on that fall night for Bob. After a tense and tasteless evening meal in his increasingly cluttered house, Bob determined he needed some air. At sunset, he adjusted his smile, donned his hat and entered the streets of ‘Phase 2’. As usual, he stiffened himself to the affronts of the Ratsloff residence, but this night was just too much. He was stunned to see Randy and a horde of hooligans attacking a large amount of yard with an even larger amount of Halloween gewgaws. And it abruptly felt to Bob that the entire world was too big, too messy, and too far over the property line.
Never at a loss for an abundance of mostly useless words, Bob stood mute and unnoticed. He quivered with indignation, and self-pity overwhelmed him. With nowhere left to turn, Bob bolted into the hills next to ‘Phase 2 of the Presidio”. He felt an overwhelming need to escape his shrinking world and be by himself.
It was an easy hike to the top of the nearest hill and he stood at the edge panting, sweating, lost and alone. Not being one who took to nature easily, he was unaccustomed to the panoramic views, the sweet night air and the cricketing silence. It all made him feel like someone else, and while Bob stood looking down at the Presidio, a pack of stray dogs sat in the treeline looking at him.
What happened next would be the defining moment of Bob’s carefully planned life. It would lead to a bitter divorce, a change of residence and lawsuits brought by both the Presidio and Randy Ratsloff. It would get his name mentioned on the news and his boss to demand his resignation. Bob wasn’t prepared for the invitation the dogs sent his way and the upheaval it caused him was neither planned for nor embraced. They recognized a man fenced in and they began to howl.
There were only seven in this family of mutts, but they’d had a lot of practice with their choir. There are many different stories a stray dog can tell, but this night they talked about freedom. It was a long, slow, rebellious bay that sent dogs near and far into fits. Whether the answering frenzy of the dogs in the Presidio was in protest or solidarity didn’t really matter. The effect on Bob was the same.
The sound of all those dogs hit Bob’s beaten bones like a tuning fork, and the careful man who went up the hill came down the hill unleashed. With all the conviction that a simple man can muster, Bob Dowler decided to handle the Randy problem once and for all. He quietly, methodically and swiftly went to work setting Randy’s wooden storage shed on fire.
The uproar this caused would last for months. It took an hour before the firemen, the neighbors, and especially Randy Ratsloff even noticed Bob. He was relaxing in a lawn chair in his driveway, happily watching the flames. By the time the cops arrived, Bob’s mortified wife had left for good and the sun was coming up. It would take a few days before Bob began to question his garbled stab at justice, and a few weeks later that the lawsuits arrived.
To this day that night remains a mystery to anyone who was there. It was only the stray dogs who watched from the safety of their hill who understood what really happened. As usual, Bob wasn’t listening and didn’t catch the true pleading of stray dog freedom. It’s the freedom to let go, of even three big inches.
Written by Kris K. QUINN