Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Halloweens Past & Present, Good & Bad

Well, another Halloween has passed and this one turned out to be a particularly fun and pleasant one. No ill-tempered young'uns, no costume malfunctions, no rushing off to someone's particular house across town to catch them before they turned off the porch light and stashed away the candy bowl. No, this October 31st turned out to be a pretty easy-going one and absolutely perfect weather-wise down here in Middle Tennessee. Cool, blustery, and with a big ol' full moon, to boot. You could almost hear the werewolves howling in delight.

The Kelly kids certainly seemed to have a good time. My oldest daughter, Reilly, dressed up as a purple-haired punk rocker, my five-year-old, Makenna, went as Hanna Montana (surprised?) and my nineteen-month-old son, Ryan, was decked out as Batman. Without the cowl, that is. Ryan's kind of funny about stuff on his face and head. He hates wearing caps and hats, so he certainly wasn't about to please dear old dad and wear his Batman mask. Funny... whenever the girls deck him out in a golden tiara (to my horror!) during playtime, he'll parade around the house wearing the thing for a good half hour. Better trade that dime-store crown for a John Deere cap, my boy... if only for your father's peace of mind.

One thing that made this year's trick-or-treating run smooth as silk is the spread of Trunk-or-Treat in the area. Several of the local churches did it last year. Folks would park in the church parking lot with their trunks open, full of treats and decorations. The kids ate it up (along with the candy) and the social interaction was fun for children and parents alike. This year Trunk-or-Treat went a step further. Several of the town merchants and churches decided to set up on the town square, some with their trunks open, some with booths. The volunteer fire department was even handing out drinks and hot dogs. And of course we visited family, as well.

All in all, a very pleasant and memorable Halloween for the entire Kelly clan.

* * * *

Of course, not all the Halloweens of my life have been as pleasant and brimming with good memories. One particular Halloween comes hauntingly to mind. One that still leaves an ugly shadow upon my yearly celebration, even across the lengthy span of 42 years.

When I was a kid, I grew up in a picturesque Southern town. It was nestled in a valley surrounded by wooded hills. Railroad tracks ran straight through this lovely hamlet. There were several churches, a grocery store, a post office, and a single elementary school (which, incidently, was located directly behind my back yard). Kids could ride their bikes from one end of town to the other without worrying about gangs or child molesters. And our Halloweens were the same; full of freedom and frights in the darkness, without our parents following us around in cars.

But my town wasn't a perfect town. Far from it. It possessed its share of bigotry and racial injustice. To the north stood a tall hill where all the black folks in town lived. It was known by all as N----r Hill (I'm sure you can fill in the blanks if you use a little imagination). The town dump was on that hill, along with tin and tarpaper shacks that no one should have been condemned to live in. But, unfortunately, it was merely a fact of life back then. My journeys to the town dump was always a sad sojourn, witnessing unfortunate poverty from within the safety of my father's two-toned '56 Chevy. Compounding my misery, was my father's constant barrage of comments and n----r jokes. I loved my father dearly and still do, but he was raised as many were in that era, with an aire of racial superiority and little tact to go with it. I can recall feeling a mixture of anger and sadness and fear, wondering if he would go to hell for his constant use (and abuse) of the N-word.

Thus the Halloween of my eighth year comes uncomfortably to mind. It was 1968 and it was a dark and dangerous time in my home town. During the April of that year, Martin Luther King had been assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and, in turn, a people we had never seen as much of a threat now seemed to possess the potential to be so. I remember hearing my elders talk about how "uppity" the black folks were getting following the death of Doctor King and how something ugly was liable to happen, due to anger and bad feelings between the occupants of N-----gr Hill and the townfolks below. Animosity between races was building at a steady pace and it seemed like only a matter of time before hostile feelings got the better of reason, in both whites and blacks.

That Halloween night had a different feeling to it. There was a blanket of tension over the entire community, and particularly in the faces of my mother and father. My parents forbid us to stray beyond the stretch of our street, but wouldn't give us a concrete explanation why that restriction had been set. Still, we netted a bagful of Halloween candy by eight o'clock. As was customary, my brother, Kevin, and I would don our pajamas by eight-thirty and begin the task of seperating our treasure-trove of candy into seperate piles: bubble gum, suckers, candy bars, etc.

It was nearing nine o'clock, when the worse fears of my hometown almost came true... within our own house.

Someone knocked on our door and, being the trusting lady she was, my mother went to answer it. As I arranged my candy, I heard her say "What do you want?" and then, in growing alarm, "You can't come in here!" I turned and looked through the door that lay between the living room and the combination kitchen and den. There were six or seven tall young black men entering the house, silently, but deliberately. They said nothing at all. They simply walked in, carrying the smell of autumn woodsmoke and damp leaves with them. I recall my mother backing into the den, her face full of fear. There was a strange look in the eyes of those home invaders. I was too young to comprehend that expression at such an early age, but now I would indentify it instantly as a mixture of malice and lust.

Two of them were actually through the doorway and in the den, when my father's voice boomed from the end of the hallway near the bathroom. "What are you doing here?" That was when the invaders lost their resolve. They scrambled for the door, afraid that my father was about to shoot at them (which was impossible, since my mother forbid firearms in our home). I remember the last one -- a boy no more than fourteen or fifteen years of age -- turning and looking at me full in the face. There was as much fear in his eyes as there was in mine. They seemed to say "What the hell am I doing here?". But, before leaving, he couldn't resist grabbing up a handful of my very best candy; Babe Ruths, Butterfingers, and Tootsie Rolls. Then he was out in the darkness and running with the others.

I remember my mother sitting on the couch, her face pale with shock and fear, while my father stood in the yard ranting and raving. I also remember feeling anger at the theft of my candy bars. My brother, only four at the time, didn't seem to realize the potential danger we had been in that night.

Many Halloweens have passed since then and now I can look back at 1968 objectively, with neither anger or fear, but with understanding. At the age of eight, I knew nothing of the impact Martin Luther King had made upon the African-American community or the anger and loss they had experienced following his brutal killing. But at the age of fifty, I can understand what they might have felt that year, when a smirking white face may have looked hauntingly like James Earl Ray to them and stirred feelings they wouldn't have normally even considered or acted upon.

And, as for my stolen candy, I can't honestly begrudge that frightened teenager his clutching handful of Snickers and Bit-O-Honeys. I figure it may have been well-deserved, considering that he was restricted from trick-or-treating in my neck of the woods; barred from my picturesque Southern street by long-standing prejudice and underlying fear.

Yes, that was a long, long time ago. But when the clock strikes nine on Halloween night, I can't help but think about that knock on our door and the misguided retribution it might have brought.


1 comment:

~katie~ said...

Thanks for the story Ron.
Stuff like this always gets to me because people who are in a time of crisis can end up doing things that really harm their cause.
Maybe these boys felt justified in walking into your home but honestly...where on earth could that justification have come from?
I doubt I will ever understand the concept of mob mentality when people allow themselves to do something that they would never normally do on their own. Why is it that sometimes when two or more are gathered for a cause, irrationality takes over? When I was in Birmingham I went to the Civil Rights Museum and I learned about the Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee that planned sit ins and other forms of non violent protest. I don't know if this is taught in schools now but I think it should be. Too many young folks just don't understand the consequences of the choices that they make and I don't know how to remedy that.

I just heard about students taking over the AdMin building at UC Santa Cruz to protest the raising of school fees by 32%. Apparently when they left the building...the administrators went in and found everything 'trashed'. While 'trashed' is a subjective term, it just made me think about how irresponsible protesters can be and how much they can hurt their cause by the way they carry something out.
It also made me think that if people are protesting today, that they need to document themselves just in case someone comes along later who would choose to lie about it and say that things happened differently than they did.
I love that you can look back on this event so objectively.


I am hoping that you documented those cool costumes with some photos!