DRC_James Baird

James Baird

When I was a kid, my favorite holiday, eclipsing even Christmas, was Halloween, because you got to go out at night by yourself!

You have to be careful, but I wonder how a whole generation of children who have been protected and driven everywhere their entire lives because you can’t trust anybody will respond when they do have to trust somebody, such as when you love someone, which means taking a risk and maybe getting burned. You can’t give up on other people simply because that happens to you sometimes. A society can’t function without trust. Well, maybe they will come up with an app for that.

Here’s my story. One Halloween when I was 10, I set out to go trick-or-treating. I was old enough not to wear a mask or costume and just had my bag. Before I even stopped at a house, I met three of my friends. “Hi, guys,” I said, “want to go trick-or-treating together?” They shrank from me like Dracula seeing a crucifix.

“We don’t trick or treat anymore. We just raise hell.” They had dropped the “treat” out of the holiday, or maybe the trouble they caused was a new form of treat.

I got it; these boys were getting ready to become the tough guys from high school that we all admired. The tough guys themselves were in training to become real men who answered any threat with violence that silenced protest.

I’m 10, don’t forget, so I was eager to fit in and join the fun. One of us spotted a mailbox on a front porch post. “Let’s tear down this guy’s mailbox!” somebody whispered, and off we went. The mailbox was attached with not one but two screws and hard to get off. We made a lot of noise. Just when we got it off, the porch light went on and the guy in the house came out.

We scattered down his walk with me in the rear, to my good fortune, as it turned out.

“Hey you,” he said, “Come back here.” Then, because I had always been a good little boy who obeyed his parents and went to church and Sunday school, I turned and went back. I was ashamed, not only because an adult was about to discipline me, but in my very first attempt to be a tough guy, I had failed.

But instead of yelling at me, berating me, and threatening to call my parents, he said in a calm voice, “Why did you tear down my mailbox?” Now that I was close to him, I smelled liquor on his breath, but he was not drunk. I could recognize that from the guy up the street.

“I don’t know” I replied. Of course I did know — I didn’t want to appear a sissy to my friends. When you are afraid, reason disappears. One of the things I learned from this encounter is that you can still think even if you are scared, but that revelation came upon reflection. If I had taken a sociology class, I would have said “peer pressure,” but if someone had given me that as an answer then, I would have said, “What’s a peer?”

But he accepted my non-answer. “Well, would you help me put it back up?” We did that.

“OK, kid.” He reached in his pocket. “Here’s a nickel for you. Thanks.” He went back in the house.

This unknown man, whom I was with less than three minutes, is one of the most important people in my life. Instead of falling into the expected pattern of anger, condemnation and revenge, his response reached across and destroyed all social categories. He was not an adult talking to a child, but a human being talking to another human being. His remarks and behavior carried another message: “Even though you don’t even know me and you did something that hurt me and caused me trouble, I don’t think of you as an enemy but as a basically good person who still deserves the respect you denied me.”

He understood that I was just a silly kid but redeemable. Since that night, I have never engaged in senseless violence and damn little violence that made sense.

He gave me a new perspective on drinking, too.

I figured that my friends had made it to downtown Dallas by now. Instead, I found them plastered against a hedge a few houses away. “What happened?” they asked breathlessly.

“He gave me a nickel.”

JAMES BAIRD is a writer and photographer who lives in Denton. He may be reached at jbaird@unt.edu.

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