The “elephant man” needed no costume on this Halloween night. You would find him walking the streets of my city at night for fear of being recognized and scaring the wits out of some unsuspecting child. Much as you wanted to see his face, it didn’t want to see you—given his disfigurement.
He shuffled his way along, perhaps on an errand, hunched over with a facial distortion. An over- growth earned him the somber nickname from children in the neighborhood born to ridicule. The more abusive thugs would fire stones at the man.
He would turn and face his antagonists, pretending to charge them like a rampaging bull. Off they would scamper, laughing in their tracks. The abuse he took was worse than his impediment.
“Grotesque” was deemed a mild word in describing the individual. “Monster” was more the vernacular. At the time, monster movies were in vogue. One day it was “Frankenstein.” Another day, it was Lon Chaney and “A Man of a Thousand Faces.”
One evening we followed him to see where he lived. It was inside some old, dilapidated barn secluded in a wooded part of town. No windows. Had there been any, the rocks would have found them.
The joke around town was blatant. Be bad and the elephant man will get you. He carries a curse and will torment you. We kept our distance, just far enough to outrun a surge if he ever retaliated.
Later came a movie called “The Elephant Man” about Joseph Carey Merrick, an Englishman with severe deformities who was exhibited in circus life as a human curiosity. Merrick died in 1890 at age 28, but not after some valuable contributions he had made to the medical world.
For beneath the veneer was a kind-hearted, compassionate man who defied all the ridicule sent his way. Much like the Beast in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.”
It was Halloween. Would we dress as Count Dracula? Gangster Al Capone was a hot commodity. So were your cowboys like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. World War II soldiers were also popular, as was Franklin D. Roosevelt and Superman.
One kid donned a Hitler appearance, for what reason I’ll never understand.
My uncle happened to be a member of the Auxiliary Police Department in town and was well aware of the shenanigans we kids would encounter. Soaping windows was benign. Tipping over a trash barrel was mischievous enough.
Maybe we would meet up with the elephant man and give him the business.
“You’re coming with me. I need some help tonight,” my uncle mandated, handing me a kid’s police uniform. “That way you won’t get into trouble. I won’t have you defacing property and being a delinquent. If you behave yourself, I’ll make you a junior patrol officer.”
Before the guy nabbed me, I disappeared into a freakish costume and went on the prowl. Fright makes might, I proposed.
I happened to notice it first: smoke coming from the roof of a house, then flames soaring from a window. People were running to the street below, coughing and hacking out the fumes. Before long, the entire dwelling was engaged. Sirens were heard from a distance, ready to arrive momentarily.
“There’s a baby in there. Someone please help. He’s on the second floor. Oh, please…”
The voice belonged to a distraught mother, fearful of losing her child in the blaze. All of a sudden, a man in black appeared out of nowhere and rushed into the burning home. What seemed like an eternity was only a minute, no more.
Out he came, cradling the child as the mother cried on his shoulders. Spectators gazed upon the scene, acknowledging a hero in their midst. A closer look revealed his identity. It was the elephant man. He had sacrificed his own life to save another on this Halloween. Fright Night took on a different meaning this day.
In the days and weeks that followed, we didn’t see too much of the elephant man. And when we did, a different opinion was formed. He was no longer the freak we had envisioned him to be. No longer society’s discard.
Instead, the community extended a heap of gratitude to the man. A collection was taken, enough to discard his shelter in the woods for a decent apartment. The disfigurement was addressed one day by a hospital gift and improved his appearance. An employer was kind enough to offer him a job.
I think of Halloweens gone by as my own children and grandchildren tend to their tricks.
The treat is finding the goodness that often goes unnoticed.