Halloween Tales

Members of the CN&R editorial staff recount their childhood memories of All Hallows Eve

PAJAMAS AND PATCHES A gift set of Asian pajamas was supposedly the inpiration for writer John Young’s sister’s costume (left); the author’s outfit was vaguely derived from legendary clown Emmett Kelly. And how about the details on those old masks?

PAJAMAS AND PATCHES A gift set of Asian pajamas was supposedly the inpiration for writer John Young’s sister’s costume (left); the author’s outfit was vaguely derived from legendary clown Emmett Kelly. And how about the details on those old masks?

Courtesy Of John W. Young

Of costumes, candy and tummy aches
When I was a kid I adored Halloween. I’ve been (in chronological order, and please note the significance of me remembering): a ghost, a bunny, a clown, Santa Claus, a ladybug, a black cat, a black cat and a black cat.

My mom was the hippie type who put wheat germ on everything and considered Cheerios and Rice Krispies sugary cereals. But on Halloween everything was fair game. Mom and I would divvy up the spoils. She liked Heath bars and Hershey Pot O’ Gold, I liked anything without nuts. She weeded out the apples (razor blades, you know) and checked for LSD-laced Mickey Mouse tattoos. There’s a picture of me in 1975, in a candy-induced stupor, sitting blissfully on the living room floor with my Santa beard caked with red goo.

My mom made all of my costumes by hand, per my request. One year she was Raggedy Andy and I was Raggedy Ann. We’d wear our costumes to school—something that’s not always allowed nowadays. The kids with the store-bought costumes envied me. Our town also had a window-painting contest, and I did that, too.

Just when I was getting too old to go trick-or-treating, kaboom! My baby brother was born. Sweet! I milked another few years out of that.

Nowadays, Halloween isn’t as much fun. We live in an apartment, and no trick-or-treaters knock on our door. I’ve been downtown a couple of times, for work. One year I put on the leopard costume I’d sewn in high school (it won first prize at the fair) and said I was a “spot news” reporter.

But when I go home to visit my family, we still go to the pumpkin patch, and I still carve the same three-toothed smile on my Jack O’ Lantern. At least some things are as cute as they used to be.

Remember that one guy?
I don’t remember many of my costumes as a kid. I think it’s safe to assume there were some original Star Wars characters, maybe a pirate with Rollie Fingers-style mustache, and some comic book superheroes. I can still recall the funky, polyurethane smell of that old (flammable) Batman costume straight out of the box from Ben Franklin’s Drug Co.

CAT COSTUME FEVER Devanie Angel (then Anderson) asked her mom to make a black cat costume, and she proceeded to squeeze into it for three consecutive years even as the feet wore out. Later, her brother donned the suit.

Courtesy Of Devanie Angel

More than individual costumes, I remember the mood of the season. A popular, organized local haunted house tour back East—the Boo House—inspired us neighborhood kids to make our own homemade house of terrors, usually in the empty basement of a local girl, Mason, who was the daughter of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ kicker (back during the Iron Curtain days).

Upstairs there was a picture of her dad with “Mean Joe” Greene and Terry Bradshaw, so we could always trick some kids into thinking Mean Joe might be hiding somewhere in the dark basement. We also had the usual blindfold-and-touch booth featuring wet noodles (veins), peeled grapes or olives (eyes), hamburger meat (intestines). Fun stuff.

Concerning Halloween night, I remember only the aftermath: friends sitting on the floor before massive piles of candy that left us with stomachaches when we devoured the nasty stuff that night or later the next day.

More vivid in my memory still were those very last years of trick-or-treating around the ages of 13-15, when people started to wonder just what we big kids were doing out there. Instead of being about candy, it was all about roaming the suburbs at night and wreaking havoc.

The people who were foolish enough to give lame fruit offerings to kids—or those goofball parents who staked out their yards Charles Bronson-style every year—invoked our most serious wrath: smashed pumpkins, maybe some toilet paper or eggs, fireworks: generally harmless hooliganism. Oh, unless you count that one time we accidentally killed the old guy with the blunt end of an ax and got away with it.

Nowadays, I just like to watch a horror film or two, maybe a Peanuts or Simpsons Halloween special, and there’s always pumpkin carving.

Black face and a paper bag
I didn’t fully understand the ritual—hell, I was only 4 years old. As near as I can reconstruct, my first Halloween costume was that of a short, fat, pipe-smoking black man. I remember looking down and watching my sisters stuff rags into the front of the red flannel shirt—probably my brother’s—they had draped over my shoulders.

Then they took small chunks of coal from the coal room in the basement and scraped it across my face. (We had a coal-fired furnace, and our basement was just like the one in the movie Signs; very scary.) They put a straw hat on my head, stuck a corncob pipe in my mouth and declared me ready for trick-or-treating.

My sister Sue, 12 years older than I, seemed to be in charge. In fact, I think it was her idea—let’s dress little Tommy up as, well, “Uncle Tom.”

Armed with a paper shopping bag, one of those deals with two twine handles, I set out with Sue and my other sister Becky, 6, on this cool, dewy night. I don’t recall Becky’s costume—maybe she was the plantation owner’s wife.

Our first stop was the home of Betty and Bill Johnson, who lived directly across the street. As we walked up the long gravel driveway I saw that the front porch light was on. I wasn’t sure what we were up to. Social visit? Borrowing something? Looting the back yard? And why the hell am I dressed like this?

When we got to the porch, Betty met us at the door. She’d seen us coming. She had a big bowl of candy in her hand and I remember she made a big deal out of the way I was dressed. Actually, she pretended to not know who I was.

“Who is this?” she cried with way too much enthusiasm. “Oh that can’t be Tommy! He’s not old enough to smoke a pipe!”

I remember smiling and just kind of going along with the joke, my confusion growing deeper.

Betty tossed some candy in my bag. This is a good deal, I thought. We should do it more often.

Next stop was the home of Ida and Fran Sage, followed by Flo and Louis Glisson (they had a pony named “Fidel"). On we went into the night. I remember seeing my buddy Frank Vargo behind a cheap plastic Pinocchio mask. He didn’t say anything—I think he was as stunned by this ritual as I—but I somehow knew it was him.

As we headed home that night, I figured I’d taken in a pretty good haul. I couldn’t really tell by the weight of the paper bag; because of my short legs, the bag had dragged along the wet ground the whole way.

But when we got home, in the warm glow of the living room lights, I made a horrific discovery. Dragging the paper bag across the dewy ground had opened a hole in the bottom, leaving a trail of candy behind me.

Thus I was forced to watch my sister Becky hoard and slowly eat her takings, making them last well past Christmas.

Clowning around the neighborhood
For my first Halloween experience (or at least the first one I can remember), I was dressed up somewhat like a miniature Emmett Kelly.

Who’s that, some of you under 40 are bound to ask.

Emmett Kelly was considered one of the greatest clowns ever to put on the big red nose and greasepaint. He did all of his bits in pantomime—silently. His most famous was attempting to sweep up a large spot of light. Once he’d gotten it down to a manageable size, however, the darn thing would start to leap around. He could never quite get that last spot of light, but he never stopped trying.

And so, much like a raggedy, American-hobo version of France’s Marcel Marceau, he appealed to all nationalities, all peoples, all age groups. There was a touch of the everyman in his reactions to those gentle frustrations set against him, and especially in his quiet dignity and determination to attempt overcoming those equally silent adversities. He was loved as all true clowns are loved—because he held a gentle mirror up to us all, such that we were softly seduced into admitting that what he showed us was the truth. At least, as much the truth as anything can be in human existence.

None of this would have occurred to me in 1960, however. I was just 3 years old. At most, Emmett Kelly would have been funny. And, at 3, that’s more than enough.

I can’t remember what my sister was. A princess or ballerina, I suspect. (As it turns out, she was attired, rather embarrassingly in hindsight, as a “Chinese” person; see accompanying photo.)

Being just little kids, we were taken around by our mom to the immediate houses in our neighborhood in Colusa. And that was it, pretty much. A brief perambulation, a few exclamations over how cute we both were, and some goodies deposited into paper bags for later.

But it was my first Halloween excursion. And while I was to have many other enjoyable All Hallow’s Eve adventures, the anticipation and excitement over that first one has yet to be truly matched. For one evening I got to be Emmett Kelly.

And that was pretty swell. See Community Calendar on page 46 for Halloween events.