Let me tell you about my older brother and the dark and monsters.
I was a fearful child.
Until my tenth birthday I had crippling night fears. I avoided the dark, which I imagined to be populated with werewolves.
Here’s the thing about monsters: I wasn’t afraid of the Frankenstein monster who lurched awkwardly from place to place. If a clumsy Frankenstein, moving in slow motion, got you, well, that was your own fault. I also wasn’t afraid of vampires. They were just too fantastic to believe in. And, even if they existed, the best way to avoid being murdered by a vampire is to forego climbing into a creepy mausoleum and prying open its coffin. Leave well enough alone is my motto. And, as for huge monsters like Godzilla or other out-sized critters who dominate the horizon, I figured I could see those gigantic threats coming and adjust accordingly, so there was no danger of being surprised by such monstrosities.
But werewolves were different.
A werewolf is a normal person who is the victim of an unfortunate curse. A werewolf could be anybody and, if you happen to be out for a stroll with the wrong individual on a full-mooned night, it is far too late to notice while holding hands that your companion has suddenly sprouted canines and is badly in need of a shave all over. Besides, unlike Frankenstein who can be eluded by anyone with normal reflexes and a will to live; and unlike Dracula who won’t bother you if you don’t try to exhume him; and unlike Godzilla and all over-sized monsters which can be detected miles away and thereby avoided; werewolves are elusive, agile, rapacious creatures of average height and they live among us.
And they work at night.
So you can see why I was afraid and I might have stayed afraid, but this is where my big brother comes in. I had been keeping my night fears a secret until one day I confided in a friend. Soon word got around our neighborhood that I was afraid of the dark and, when the news reached our house, my brother set out to cure me.
His method was simple and straight-forward.
The year was 1955. I was ten years old and my brother a year older. We were playing together one evening near the building where my father worked as an all-purpose repairman. This rather unremarkable building had once been part of a World War II prisoner-of-war camp; an old barracks which ten years earlier had housed defeated Germans. It was a long and windowless clapboard building that sat in an unvarnished industrial district next to an equally long and windowless brick building.
In between the two buildings was a narrow hard-packed dirt passageway which ran north and south and beyond the passageway and several feet away was a major east-west street. The street was a busy roadway which periodically filled with automobile traffic when cars ebbed and flowed as the traffic lights changed.
At night, when both buildings were dark, my brother and I waited in the dim passageway for cars to pass. As each car rolled by, its headlights glanced into the passageway and that sudden burst of light reached us and elongated and animated our shadows. Remaining in the passageway, and keeping safely out of the passing traffic, we ran in circles, weaving and jumping with abandon. All this crazy motion caused our distorted shadows to bounce from one wall to the other before being swallowed by the night. And it was in the midst of this boyhood playground that my brother decided it was time to teach me about the dark.
Because traffic was periodically halted at a traffic signal, the passageway was dark for several minutes before the next line of cars drove past. During one of these dark spells, my brother took my hand and pressed it against the textured wall of my father’s shop.
“Feel that?” he asked.
I said I did. Then he walked me across the passageway to the brick wall.
“Feel that?” he asked.
I said yes.
“Now keep your hand on the bricks and watch,” he said as the next line of cars illuminated our private shadow box. We stood still this time as snatches of light danced around us, me with my hand pressed to the brick wall watching the interplay of light and dark, my brother standing nearby, his arms folded. When the cars were gone and the darkness returned, he put his hand over mine and said, “See, it’s just a wall. There’s nothing in the dark that’s not there in the light.”
That was the night my fear of the dark vanished forever. The years have passed, but I still remember that long ago lesson. Nowadays, thanks to my brother, I can be found traversing midnight trails to photograph the star-spangled sky or standing waist-deep in a mountain lake fishing beneath the full moon or merely sitting alone, enveloped in the dark, as I breathe in the night air.
Thanks, bro. You’re a good teacher.