Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Halloween is for bullies too

My brother said the Wilnut kids had head lice and I believed him.

Scab-crusted and grubby, they patrolled my neighborhood like a pack of wolves.

If it wasn't nailed down, the Wilnuts stole it.

If you had pride in something, they destroyed it.

In summer they took bikes, scooters and roller skates off our front porches.  They broke into our garages and set our pinewood derby chugs on fire.

In winter they urinated on our snow forts and trashed our front yard snowmen.

It was Dickie Wilnuts who threw Cathy Fletcher's kitten under the wheels of Mr. Mannering's Edsel on a cold, October morning.

And Diane Wilnuts who cut down the apple trees in Mr. Key's back yard.

None of us ever knew how many Wilnuts lived in the beat-up mansion on Lexington Avenue.  Mrs. Wilnuts was always pregnant, and every Wilnut kid looked like the last - redheaded and covered in bruises.

My mom called them "ragamuffins and hoodlums."

Today she'd call them "bullies."

Halloween hell. 

On Halloween the Wilnuts made the neighborhood into a hot slice of hell.

They didn't trick-or-treat like the rest of us.  The Wilnuts didn't bother with costumes, knocking on doors.  They didn't need to.

When darkness fell on Halloween night, they hid under the shrubbery of dead lilacs, lurked behind elm trees.  The smaller Wilnuts flattened themselves deep in the street gutters. 

And when we passed by in our mother-made fairy suits and Superman capes, they jumped us like bandits on The Lone Ranger - grabbed our candy and disappeared into the night.

My father missed his Snickers.

Every Halloween, we'd come home empty handed and helpless.

"Those damn Wilnuts," my dad said. "I got half a mind to call their old man and give him what-for."

But he never did.  My father knew the real evil behind the doors of the angry house on Lexington Avenue.

Today, the Wilnut family would be under the watchful eye of county child protective services.

But I grew up in "the good old days," when a man's home was his castle and domestic abuse was as ordinary as candy corn.

Imagine a world where a slapped, beaten, battered wife is ignored; where men who belt their kids might be called "cowards," but never "criminals."

Imagine a society where police only arrested violent parents, battering spouses when the victim turned up dead.

Welcome to "the greatest generation" of World War II survivors where men were breadwinners - women were housewives.  And no one messed with the system.

We know better today.

Bullies are made - not born. 

This year, when the Halloween doorbell rings,  I open it to a new generation of ragamuffins and bullies.

But new studies exploring the roots of bullying teach us new things about our children.  The lesson is simple -  when we treat them with respect, when we educate them and nourish them well, they grow into productive citizens.

Bullies are not freaks of nature. They spawn from the behaviors taught in families.  They grow in in the fertile filth of neglect and abuse.

Our bullies are ourselves - only more so.

The ragamuffins at my door.

The Wilnut family sold their home and moved away when I was still in grade school.

I don't know how many of them survived their tortured childhood.

I think of them on Halloween when I open my door to one of the strange, scruffy little bullies who push their way to my treat bowl.  I remember the pain that trapped my playmates; the cruelty that framed their days and nights.

Many of the children who trick or treat in my neighborhood are strangers to me.

Few remember to say "thank you."

Even so - each child who comes to my door goes home with a full-sized Hershey bar.

I consider it pay-back for what I learned from the Wilnut kids.

First - it's not always easy to be a child.

And second - the bully is not to blame.

Especially on Halloween.

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