Here was the worst thing that ever happened to me on Halloween. I was 7 years old. I wanted to be a mummy. Since mummy costumes were hard to find, my mother cut white rags into narrow strips. Then she wrapped me from head to toe. To keep the rags tight, she safety-pinned them together. As ideas go, it was long on love and short on practicality.
Oh, I looked fine when I left the house. But halfway through a school march — in those days we paraded through town in our costumes — the rags loosened and gravity set in. First the legs. Then, when I bent over to fix them, the torso. Then, when I grabbed at the torso, the arms. I was unraveling like a stripper. I began to cry, and the rags drooped off my face.
I felt as naked as a 7-year-old can feel. I saw the parents lined up on the streets, pointing and covering their smiles. After several blocks of this humiliation, I spotted my mother.
“You ruined my life!” I yelled.
She burst into laughter, followed by tears, which, looking back, was the right reaction. As I said, this was the worst thing that ever happened to me on Halloween.
My point is, it’s not too bad.
I never had to worry about poison. I never had to worry about being abducted. It was safe to walk the streets, to knock on strangers’ doors, even to unravel with my other 7-year-old friends. We trick-or-treated by ourselves. No parents were necessary. At the end of our journey, we came home and dumped our pillow cases onto the floor, separated the candy treasure by category — chocolate over here, fruit flavors over there — and fell asleep with dreams of how many Hersheys, Necco Wafers and Good ‘N Plentys we would devour in the days to come.
That was then.
Curfews and candies
This week, Halloween comes again. And concerns seem to outnumber candies.
Parents say things like, “We have to hurry before it gets dark.” And “Never let go of their hands.” And “Go through every piece of candy — you never know when some sicko is trying to poison your kid.”
There are curfews in certain neighborhoods. Sirens sound, and the streets must be cleared. Halloween is now best done in daylight, in only the safest neighborhoods, no children knocking on doors without the protective grip of a parent or guardian.
What’s bothersome about this isn’t the fear.
What’s bothersome is how much we accept it.
It is just one of the ways that the worst of human behavior — in this case, adults who would harm children — has taken over our daily lives, to the point that we barely notice.
Take the airport, another place where fear has become the rule book. To get to your flight these days, you need to show photo identification, even though you already purchased the ticket. Then you must pass through metal detectors and perhaps be patted down. You need to open your laptop computer or cellular phone and turn it on, every time, over and over.
We do this as if doing the laundry, in rote, robotic motions. But ask yourself, why are you turning on your devices for a security guard? Because the possibility that you are a terrorist hiding a bomb in your laptop or phone is now so great, all laptops and phones must be opened.
Pretty frightening, isn’t it?
Who’s running the asylum?
The minefield of life
Now, it’s true, fear is not a new thing in life. Cavemen lived in fear of saber-toothed tigers. Bedouins lived in fear of sandstorms. Kingdoms lived in fear of other kingdoms. It goes back to the dawn of time.
But as we progress as a society, as we build computers, rocket ships, laser surgery devices — the fear of beasts, weather and even natural disaster has shrunk.
Yet we fear each other more.
We fear deviance. We fear the loner with a gun. We fear the “sicko” who didn’t get enough love from his parents and wants to make society pay. We fear the political assassin, the terrorist, the religious zealot. We fear the rapist. We fear the child molester. We fear the disgruntled worker who bursts through the door with a shotgun and an attitude.
We fear the candy-poisoner.
So we set up metal detectors at airports and workplaces. We arm our homes with alarms. We meet our kids at the steps of the school. We walk them through trick-or-treat as if negotiating a minefield.
The worst that could happen is now the unthinkable and the unthinkable has become the possible. Fear reigns — in big ways, but worse, in little ways. In everyday events. I look back on the Halloween I unraveled as a mummy and yearn for a life when loose rags were my biggest concern.
Mitch Albom will sign “Tuesdays With Morrie” 8-9 p.m. Tuesday, Barnes & Noble, Grosse Pointe, and 8-9 p.m. Wednesday, Barnes & Noble, Toledo. To leave a message for Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.