Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Candy-in-the-Ditch Gang: Boyhood Memories of Halloweens Past

At the risk of sounding chauvinistic, I believe that Halloween has always been -- and will forever be-- a boy's holiday.

Oh, sure, girls are really into it on October 31st. They love the costumes and the candy. But the girls of my era (the mid-60's and early 70's) were more interested in Frankie Avalon or the Beatles, than Frankenstein, Dracula, or the Wolfman. They had more important things to do than spend their Saturday afternoons putting together Aurora monster models or rushing down to the corner drugstore for the latest issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine. They lacked something that the majority of red-blooded males possessed... an almost limitless fascination with the macabre and an unending desire to be "totally grossed out".
I believe I would be safe in the assumption that alot of boys between the ages of eight and twelve view the approach of All Hallows Eve with the same reverence that some folks view the Second Coming. I know I did at that age.

The amount of preparation during the four week period prior to the big night shows the degree of devotion involved. First, there are the decorations. Back in my day, we didn't have fake cobwebs, yard zombies, or life-like bats, rats, and spiders. And we sure didn't have life-sized animatronic witches and monsters who actually talk and, yes, even sing and dance (the mere thought of possessing such a wondrous thing back in the 60's and 70's would have been more than our youthful minds could have handled!) No, we were satisfied with a meticulously carved jack-o-lantern and a jointed, glow-in-the-dark skeleton we bought at the Ben Franklin five-and-dime in town.

Then there was the selection of precisely "what we would be" on the important night... alias "our secret Halloween identity". At the ages of three through seven, the pre-packaged costumes in a box were acceptable. Monsters, superheroes, astronauts, and TV stars were the most popular. The brittle plastic masks were cheaply rendered and the full-length body suits of non-flammable material were okay for the unseasoned tyke. I remember in the fall of 1966, the entire boyhood nation was bitten by the Batman bug. That Halloween, the streets were teaming with minature Batmen (no Robins... who wanted to be that sissy-pants Boy Wonder?) I was a member of that legion of Dark Knights on that dark night, polyester cape flapping, running down sidewalks and leaping upon porches without the aid of a tethered Batarang. Unlike my counterparts, I had talked my mother into cutting off the bottom half of my face mask, leaving only the cowl above. This puzzled my fellow Caped Crusaders to the point of irritation, but while they sweated and struggled for oxygen beneath their unaltered masks, I breathed in the cool, crisp air with great abandon, resembling -- in my six-year-old mind, at least -- a heroic and debonair Adam West.

As our age progressed, we cast aside the baby costumes and advanced to the next level... the latex rubber monster mask. Oh, how we yearned for those detailed Don Post creations that were offered in the back pages of Famous Monsters, but, alas, who our age had $39.95 back then, and an additional $18.95 for the matching hands? So we compromised. On the first day of October, my cousins and I would converge on Grant's Department Store (a precursor to Walmart) and head to their celebrated Halloween section. There, amid everything else, was a huge bin-table that was a good foot deep with every cheap rubber monster mask imaginable. You could find just about anything if you searched long enough... gorillas, devils, zombies, cavemen, werewolves, vampires. Some had hair, some didn't. There could have been a nest of rabid rats holed up in there, but we didn't care. We dug and rooted through that truckload of latex, trying them on, making sure the eyeholes aligned properly. Sure, we'd get a snide comment from a sales lady or the store manager about "spreading germs", but it failed to phase us. We searched for maybe an hour or so, just to find the right one.

Later on, when we had reached the wisdom of double-digit age, we would experiment with costumes other than those that involved masks. White and black greasepaint, rubber scars you stuck to your face, and plenty of fake vampire blood. Ocassionally, you wanted to do something completely different from the usual monster fare. One Halloween season I pretty much pestered my mother to death about dressing myself up as the Amazing Collosal Man. But she refused to let me go out in public dressed in nothing but a bald-headed wig and a loincloth.

Then there came the actual night of Halloween itself. That afternoon we usually had a party at school; playing games, getting treat bags from the teacher, and bobbing for apples (talk about spreading germs! Yeeech!) Then, that evening after supper, we'd suit up for battle and go trick-or-treating. Back in the mid-60's , folks seemed a little more trusting of one another than they do now, and parents especially so of their kids. If the young'uns were really young, a parent would accompany them, but if they were older than seven, they were pretty much set loose like a pack of candy-hungry Tasmanian devils, while their folks stayed home and gave out treats. I remember us wandering all over our small town with a freedom that is no longer possible in today's dangerous world. There weren't that many cars out back then; just gangs of trick-or-treaters on the prowl, with no reflective clothing or flashlights. The darkness was our friend and we embraced it.

And there was always one or two houses that were considered "haunted", either by ghosts or by particularly weird folks... but you still went there, if only for the thrill of bragging that you survived the visit. I remember back in '71, my brother and I went to the house of a new family that had moved into town only a couple of months previous to Halloween. Unlike the usual houses, where our treats were deposited on the doorstep, we where actually invited inside at this one... and, despite our better judgement, we actually took them up on their invitation. "There's someone in the den who would like to see you," said a skinny, bird-like lady. We walked into the room to find an overweight man in a leather recliner, dressed up like an evil clown. He had a wild, multi-colored wig, white face, red rubber nose, and a wicked looking grin. "Come closer," he beckoned with a bone-chilling giggle. Frightened (but deliciously so!) we crept forward. The guy stank of beer and unfiltered Camels. He deposited a wrapped popcorn ball in our sacks and said "Come back and see me again next year... if you dare!" We left that house feeling like we'd been in the presence of a true monster and that we had survived the encounter. For all we knew, the fellow's wife could have been a bone-gnawing cannibal and he could have been the most vile child molester/murderer on the face of the earth, but, at that age, we didn't care. It was a Halloween visit that we would remember and talk about for years afterward.

Of course, returning home with that night's booty intact was another story. It was common for us to romp through the darkness, stepping into sinkholes or falling into ditches, ripping our treat bags on tree branches or thorny shrubs. Sometimes we would make it home to find that half our candy was gone, lost somewhere along the way. The next day, after school, we would go out looking for lost treats. It was almost like an Easter egg hunt on the first of November. Bubble gum and Bit-O-Honeys would litter the lawns. If it had rained the night before, you could find bite-sized Babe Ruths bobbing in the drainage ditches like brightly-packaged turds in the bottom of a toilet.

These days, trick-or-treating is a different matter entirely. Parents have almost abandoned the practice of going door-to-door in favor of taking their kids to the local mall or a non-secular party at their local church, where ghosts and goblins, and particularly witches, are frowned upon.
Luckily, my kids still have the opportunity to experience Halloween the way it should be. In the nearby town of Alexandria (where my wife grew up) hundreds of trick-or-treaters converge on the town's main street, going from door to door without fear. Everyone knows everyone else there and the town police are out and about to keep order. Folks sit on their porches with big bowls of candy or treat bags, commenting on how cute or creative the kids costumes are, while socializing with the parents. It is a community celebration that is rare in this uncertain day and time and I'm thankful that my children are fortunate enough to take part in it every year.

Sometimes, when I'm standing at the end of the sidewalk, watching my young'uns on the doorstep with their bags extended and the words "Trick-or-Treat!" on their lips, a nostalgic feeling nearly overcomes me. I kind of wish I was a foot or two shorter, dressed in a Creature from the Black Lagoon mask, feeling the satisfying weight of a pound or two of candy in the bottom of my treat bag. Those days are past, but, through my children, I can still relive the magic of those wonderful Halloweens past.

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