I wrote this memoir a couple of years ago for a Jordan School District inservice writing class.
Countdown to Halloween, 1953
Lordsburg, New Mexico
Thursday evening, 22 October: The four of us are in the darkened kitchen surrounding the table. Light from Mrs. Kip’s back porch silhouettes the cut out paper shapes of pumpkins, black cats, and witches taped to the window panes. The table is bedecked with presents and a two layer, home-made chocolate cake covered with dark red-orange frosting, a shade of orange much darker than the one my mother painted the living room last year.
“It complements and sets off the brown and orange pattern in the fabric of my ‘early American’ maple furniture,” she said proudly when I asked why she painted the walls orange. The Winebrenners, who live across the street, came running over thinking the house was on fire the first evening she turned on the lights in her bright, orange living room.
The frosting orange, which she mixed with paste food coloring, is a bit more reddish than real pumpkins, but I think the cake is perfect with a jet-black jack-o-lantern face and six yellow candles on top. I want a cake just like this every year from now on! The light of the candle flames flickers on our faces as I take a huge breath and blow out the pale light plunging us into deep October darkness.
|Me and my little sister, Jill.|
We jumble down the steps to the noisy basement where children are running between the booths yelling, laughing, and sometimes throwing paper at each other. My mother would call it “organized chaos” and avoid it at all costs. The basement has an open central room that amplifies the noise, with six classrooms: three each on two opposite sides where the activities are in full swing. There is a fishing booth, a fortune teller, a cake walk, games with prizes, and a spook alley all decorated with crepe paper streamers.
We skip the fortune teller and try out the cake walk and fish pond a couple of times. We finish at the spook alley where some high school boys tell us we will have to walk through a dark room and put our hands into different bowls that have eyeballs, brains, finger bones, and, they snicker, other body parts. They tell us we will be too chicken to make it through without wetting our pants, and we babies should go find our mommies and head for the fishing booth.
We hand them our tickets anyway, and with maniacal laughs and grimaces they slowly open the door for us. Another boy inside the black room flips on a flashlight and aims the light into our eyes. Then he grabs us and yanks us inside. The door slams shut behind us. Pointing the flashlight beam at the floor, the boy guides us to the tables and tells us in a ghoulish voice what is supposed to be in each bowl. After putting our hands in bowls of pealed grapes, cooked macaroni, gelatin, pumpkin guts and seeds, boiled eggs and other things we can’t identify, we are brusquely ushered out of the room. Our hands are wet and sticky.
|Johnny Winebrenner, Jill and me.|
Our eyes meet the glowering jack-o-lantern face of a huge pumpkin impaled on the corner fence post by the back gate. Thick, acrid smoke from burning pumpkin and smoldering manure is billowing out the top. My father starts laughing and says it must be a “gift” from the boys on his high school football team.
Halloween evening: We have hamburgers over at Winebrenners as we usually do on Saturdays, but we don’t stay to watch television; they have one, we don’t. Rin Tin Tin will have to wait till next week. Trick-or-treating rules tonight, and Johnny and I have to get into our costumes. He is going to be a cowboy, and I am going as the headless horseman. The headless, horseless horseman my father says.
I am wearing a large coat buttoned up over my head and carrying a jack-o-lantern carved pumpkin as my lost head. I use the pumpkin as my candy holder because I can’t manage to hold a sack and carry the pumpkin at the same time. I meet the cowboy on the street, and we start our rounds.
As we gather loot, the heavy pumpkin becomes harder to carry. When I put it down and reach in to try a sample, my hand finds the candy covered with slimy pumpkin sweat. No one thought to put a lining inside the pumpkin. We lug the pumpkin back to my house to see if we can save some of the treats. My mother says she can wash the candy bars, but the cookies, popcorn balls and the loosely wrapped candy are ruined.
It is not too late to go back out, but I don’t have a head now. My mother paints my face with makeup and pushes one of my father’s old hats down on my head.
“There,” she says, “no one will know you’ve been there already.” Then she paints a Lone Ranger mask on Johnny, puts a different bandana around his neck, and sends us out the door again.
After an hour, we head back home with our paper bags heavy with Halloween treasure. Too late to avoid them, we see five big high school boys shambling down the sidewalk toward us. They look like giants to us in their boots, blue jeans, white tee shirts, and letterman jackets. They are smoking. A couple of them are not too steady on their feet. When they see us; they stop. We stop.
“Hey, looks like you two made out like bandits,” says one of them as he flicks his cigarette into the street and ambles over to us. “Show us whatcha got.”
He leans down toward us. We back up and tighten our grips around the bags.
“Just give us a look,” he says, while the rest of the boys encircle us so we can’t escape. One of them looks a bit like Johnny’s high-school-football-playing brother, but maybe not. Anyway, he doesn’t seem to recognize us, so it must not be him.
Johnny and I slowly open the bags and hold them out so the guy doing the talking can look into them.
“Share?” he asks nicely.
“OK,” I say hesitantly, and before we can react, he grabs both bags and tosses them to his buddies who burst out laughing and howling.
“Thanks, suckers!” He pushes between us and punches one of his friends playfully on the shoulder. The big men continue their shamble down the street jostling each other, laughing, and eating our candy. “Couple a looosers,” laughs one of them as they turn the corner.
We just stand there, Johnny and I, two little six-year-olds in the dark of the last night of October, 1953.