The Great Trick or Treat

The Great Trick or Treat

How a 9-year-old and his friends looted North Bethesda and helped launch the 1950s

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The author (left) with hisbrothers, Michael, Peter and Bruce Clausen. Photo courtesy the author.

When I was 6, my parents moved with their four small sons to Page Hill in Bethesda’s Alta Vista neighborhood. Originally built up near a streetcar line that extended to Rockville, our little enclave was almost completely self-enclosed, with only one exit to Old Georgetown Road, a bonus for parents with young children. It also had its own tiny elementary school, Alta Vista School, with acres of playground.

By then, the summer of 1948, the streetcar line had been turned into the walking path that is now known as the Bethesda Trolley Trail, which runs to downtown Bethesda. Our house had a septic tank buried in the backyard, and the only available telephone service was a party line. A few houses beyond ours, Montgomery Drive dead-ended at the edge of thick woods that went on for miles.

Many Page Hill residents, including my father, were civil servants who worked at the National Institutes of Health. One family we knew was in the Foreign Service, and there were several lawyers. But our next-door neighbor was a streetcar driver in the District for Capital Transit, the private company then responsible for public transportation in the metropolitan area. The father of my best friend drove a delivery truck for The Evening Star, The Washington Post’s afternoon competitor. Nearly all the parents had grown up in straitened circumstances during the Great Depression, and then endured the dangers and privations of World War II as young adults.

All these humdrum facts have a bearing on the Great Bethesda Trick or Treat of 1951, an event that to me has come to symbolize the end of the drab postwar life my parents’ generation had been leading up till then. The grim first half of the 20th century—world war, the Depression, then world war again—was finally over. Whether they knew it or not, they were ready to party. Boom times were about to dawn.

Sixty years before “free-range parenting” in Montgomery County became front-page news, most children were far freer to roam on their own—on foot, by bicycle, or on public transportation—than they are today. Our school had a lecture on traffic safety every year from Dick Mansfield, a retired D.C. cop whose unforgettable slogan was, “Look both ways, live more days.” Otherwise, the authorities left us alone unless we got into trouble.

We walked to school, and at the age of 6, I could go anywhere I liked in Alta Vista or the nearby woods. My parents’ one prohibition was crossing Old Georgetown Road. But there was little reason to cross it. The Wyngate development that now stands on the other side was in its earliest stages; almost all our friends lived on our side of the great barrier.

That first fall, I knew about Halloween but was unsure of its possibilities. Wartime sugar rationing had just ended the year before, and there were only about a dozen promising houses for me and my 4-year-old brother, Peter, to hit up. Worse, our father insisted on taking us himself, which even at that age was a humiliation.

And there was another hitch. My first-grade classmates warned me that the local date for trick-or-treating was Beggars’ Night, Oct. 30, not Halloween itself. When I timidly informed my father of this, he declared it was nonsense and insisted on taking us out a day late. Every house we visited had been cleaned out the evening before. Deprived, humiliated, forever skeptical about the wisdom of adults, we vowed to do better next year—and from then on, to go alone.

A year later, to my surprise, my parents raised no objections. Peter and I were allowed to roam the neighborhood freely, but only for an hour. Children of that age travel in packs, and some of our friends were just ahead of or behind us. It was the heyday of Western movies, so boys were disproportionately dressed as cowboys. Like most semi-military operations, trick-or-treating was a predominantly masculine pursuit, although some girls took part in witch or Snow White costumes.

Much the same thing happened the following year, with a wider radius. The treats were becoming more lavish—some families must have spent days creating their own candied apples or popcorn balls. I’m ashamed to say that anything homemade went straight into the storm sewers, along with fruit of all kinds. What we liked most were candy corn, Hershey’s Kisses and, above all, Clark Bars, Baby Ruths and 3 Musketeers. We went for quantity, which turned the whole business into a race. We even tried bicycle trick-or-treating, but it was too awkward to carry the bags and park the bike at every stop.

By the fall of 1951, the prohibition on crossing Old Georgetown Road had been lifted. Wyngate had been built out to the point where it dwarfed our own little community. It had so many inhabitants that Alta Vista School, despite two additions, was forced to hold two sessions each day—one in the morning and one in the afternoon—to accommodate all the kids. We explored and mapped each new development systematically, not by street names and measured distances, but the way children learn to map places, by friends’ houses and pictures imprinted in the mind that can last for a lifetime.

We had prepared methodically. As soon as our parents grudgingly let us leave the dinner table around 7 p.m., Peter and I each helped ourselves to a full-size shopping bag from the kitchen and suited up. With the grids of Alta Vista and Wyngate firmly in mind, we set out like the Eighth Air Force over Europe to make the most of a night of good weather. This time, nobody was going to limit our campaign to an hour or two, or even to a single shopping bag.

After we filled our first set of bags in Alta Vista, we returned home briefly to deposit them, helped ourselves to two more, and crossed Old Georgetown Road. Our progress through Wyngate that night was rapid, efficient and even more lucrative than we had hoped. Just as we crossed paths with Wyngate friends earlier in Alta Vista, we now saw other Alta Vista friends in Wyngate. There was no rivalry or territorialism; all of us were willing to share the bounty of our own streets as long as there was enough for everyone.

And there was. How the adults who shelled out for the hordes of children who rang their doorbells felt about it, we never found out—or even gave it a thought. We played our part in a ritual of newfound plenty, and they played theirs.

The second shopping bag was full in no time. Again we discarded unwanted items before going home in order to make room for the things we really craved. By the time we finally got home, long after dark, the houses we left in our wake had been totally stripped of treats. We were loaded down and worn out. Our two younger brothers were already in bed. They had gone out earlier, but their stamina and the size of their hauls were proportionally smaller.

Though still recognizable, Alta Vista today is far more affluent and less isolated than it was 60 years ago. Alta Vista School closed when neighborhood elementary schools consolidated into a few larger institutions. The building, externally unchanged apart from a new façade, now houses the private Bethesda Country Day School. Montgomery Drive is no longer a dead end, and the woods that stretched nearly to Rockville have been largely displaced by town houses and hotels. Many of the small postwar houses where large families grew up have survived, often with additions. Others have been torn down and replaced by McMansions.

Nowadays, Halloween, like most aspects of children’s lives, is much more tightly regulated. Are kids today really safer for being deprived of the opportunity to explore their world?

Nobody knows. The insatiable trick-or-treaters who ransacked Bethesda on Beggars’ Night 1951 were among the first generation to grow up in the new prosperity. We were also among the last American children who, all by ourselves, took possession of neighborhoods that had sprung up overnight as if by magic and, beyond them, of woods and creeks full of other wild creatures.

Christopher Clausen (cqc1@psu.edu), who graduated from Walter Johnson High School, is a retired Penn State University professor and author of books including Faded Mosaic: The Emergence of Post-Cultural America. Now a resident of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, he frequently visits relatives in Bethesda.

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