Keeping Halloween safe

Published 4:35 pm Tuesday, October 23, 2018

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This newspaper has been delighted to organize “Safe Trick or Treat,” with cooperation from Main Street businesses and the Smithfield Police Department, for the past two decades.

We didn’t know much about the concept when former Police Chief Mark Marshall asked us to help organize one back in 1998. It turned out to be pretty simple. Businesses, as well as a few civic organizations, buy a bunch of candy and hand it out to children parading in Halloween finery along Main Street. Police keep things safe, the kids get to show off their costumes and parading for an hour, participate in a costume-judging here at the paper.

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Then, to cap the evening in true Halloween spirit, the families wander over to Grace Street where several residents take great pride in decorating for this celebration of make believe.

Through it all, town police keep traffic under control and the thousands of pedestrians safe.

It’s one of the simplest events that downtown hosts each year, and, for local residents, it’s one of the most popular. Our best estimate of the crowd — and this is every year — is about 3,000 people. It’s impossible to know precisely, but we seriously think that’s a reasonable estimate.

Back when

Times were a lot different during the 1950s, when a “safe” trick or treat outing basically meant getting home without serious mishap. We country kids were invited by our friends who lived in town to come join in the door-to-door trick or treating in what we now know as the Historic District.

In-town mothers did their level best to ride herd of a bunch of kids who were bound and determined to get into some kind of trouble on Halloween.

Ironically, Grace Street seemed to be Halloween Central back then, just as it is today. Parents didn’t decorate except for putting a jack-o-lantern on the front steps, but that’s the street where we gathered each year. Roddy Delk’s mother, Evelyn, and Maynard Gwaltney’s mother, Lucille, directed the comings and goings to the extent that 10-year-old boys could be directed, and from their houses we went forth into the night to collect some candy and concoct what “tricks” might be possible without landing in too much trouble.

Those and other mothers worked hard each year to dampen the enthusiasm for Halloween mayhem. Their most organized effort was to embrace the then-flourishing nationwide movement known as “Trick or Treat for UNICEF.”

(UNICEF is the acronym for the United National International Children’s Emergency Fund. It was founded after World War II to help care for children in war-ravaged Europe. The program continues today to raise funds and work with children in need.)

I don’t recall the year that we first carried orange boxes around town asking for loose change to help children less fortunate than us, but it had to have been roughly 1955, which is when the UNICEF program was expanding rapidly.

Our mothers organized a Halloween party at the old Community Hall at the corner of Grace and Institute, and we were told (we were rarely “asked” back then) to gather there where we were issued our boxes and sent forth. We then returned to deliver the money we had collected and to enjoy refreshments, bob for apples and participate in whatever else these dutiful mothers could come up with to provide us with what they hoped would be sufficient entertainment.

My best recollection is that they succeeded in collecting money for the world’s needy children, but largely failed to keep us out of trouble. Not huge trouble, mind you, but trouble that in today’s society would be intolerable.