Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween memories

When you're a kid, Halloween is the second biggest day of the year -- right behind Christmas in the "Boy, I can't wait -- how many days until it gets here?" department. A few days before Halloween, saliva would involuntarily begin leaking out of your mouth due to the anticipation of all that sweet stuff you had coming.

As an somewhat overweight child who liked to eat, Halloween was a big day for me. I lived in a fairly prosperous suburb of Houston, Texas, and back in those innocent days of the 1960s, Halloween had not yet gained the violent, ugly and overall negative connotations it has today. Parents accompanied toddlers trick-or-treating, but they thought nothing of sending their costumed elementary school children out into the neighborhood alone or with a group of friends, armed with nothing but an empty bag and a flashlight (which rarely if ever got used).

My memory is somewhat deficient, but I don't recall ever being a big fan of costumes all that much at Halloween. Those masks you bought at the store (with the laughingly thin rubber bands attached with staples) always were too small for my face, and were hot and uncomfortable to boot. I was usually too big for the manufactured costumes (Batman, Robin, the "fun" Joker), and although I probably took an old sheet and cut out eye holes and a mouth once to become a ghost, that was so cliche even back then to designate the wearer as an unimaginative loser.

So, I believe my usual costume disguise was "chubby pre-teen boy looking for candy." Since none of my school friends lived within walking distance, I usually teamed up with my younger brother. Lazy as we might have been on boring summer days, or when there was yardwork to be done, on Halloween night we were quick-moving, efficient machines of accumulation. While other kids might stop and talk with friends, admiring costumes or showing off props, we were focused like laser beams on the goal of visiting as many houses as we could and filling our sturdy bags as full of sweet swag as possible.

We would quickly scour the four streets in our immediate neighborhood, going methodically down one side of a street, then up the other side, then changing streets and repeating the process. We were always cheerful, polite and said "Thank you," as our parents instructed us to do, but we didn't hang around long.

Once we finished with our neighborhood, my enabler parents would drive us to a larger, somewhat richer neighborhood down the road where they would drop us off for a few hours. We had friends in this neighborhood, who we enjoyed seeing and chatting with, but again, our goal was conquest.

When we'd finally get home late that night -- some of the last kids out on the streets -- we'd come in the living room and dump out our bulging bags of hard-won treasure. The hundreds of pieces of candy that would spill out would cover half the floor. Our parents, on cue, after expressing amazement about how much junk we'd gotten, would warn us not to eat too much at once or we'd get sick. But we always ate a lot at once, and we never got sick, although by about the end of the first week of November we were secretly disgusted with candy, although we'd rarely admit it in case our parents would suggest we throw away the remains.

We'd always begin eating the best candy first, of course -- chocolate bars, Sweet Tarts, caramels, candy corn. After awhile the good stuff would disappear, and all we would have left is the second-rate remains -- rock-hard taffy drops, stale popcorn balls, mints, red licorice. But we'd eventually eat all that as well, unless it was truly nasty. If we couldn't feed it to the dog, only then would we throw it away.

Back in those innocent times, everyone went door-to-door trick-or-treating, and there were no "Fun Nights" or "Fall Festivals" sponsored by churches and other groups like there are today. But going door-to-door back then was truly safe. And every now and then, you'd find a house where the people really got into Halloween. They would have fake spider webs everywhere, with maybe some bloody monster dummies laid out by the front door with a record player blaring "Monster Mash" over and over. A great final touch would be the big black pot filled with water and dry ice to produce clouds of smoke over everything.

I remember at least a few houses in my neighborhood where the family temporarily cleared everything out of the garage, put up some dark curtains and black lights and made a "haunted house" they'd invite trick-or-treaters to come in and tour. In one area there was always a sheet with a hole cut in it, and when you put your hand through you'd be encouraged to dip it into a bowl of what you were told were human brains or intestines, but it always ended up feeling just like cooked spaghetti.

I also remember that Halloween night was a good time to determine which people on each block liked kids, and which did not. The kid-lovers had lights turned on and always had someone stationed by the door, ready to answer and dispense candy from big bowls. The non-kid lovers, by contrast, either had every light turned off (both inside and outside), or they had only a few dim interior lights left on. If you were brave or foolish enough to go up to the door of one of those houses and ring the bell, you'd wait a long time until someone finally opened the door, verrry slowly, and then asked, "Yes?," in a prickly tone as if you were selling life insurance or magazine subscriptions, or as if you had just relieved yourself on their orchids in the front flower beds. They never had candy.

This is hard to believe nowadays, but some people back in the 1960s actually took the time and trouble to make treats to give out on Halloween. They'd put together 700 popcorn balls (each wrapped in Saran Wrap and hand-tied with a little twistie), or make candy apples or little bags of homemade cookies. This wonderful tradition eventually stopped, however, when parents heard reports of sickos putting razor blades in apples and dousing baked goods with poison. Local hospitals would cheerfully offer to X-ray your candy for metal objects hidden within, but people just stopped making and accepting homemade goods.

This is the first Halloween where neither one of our girls is going trick-or-treating. They are both old enough now that they have switched roles and are working at our church's Fall Festival tonight. It's a fun night with big inflatable slides and jumping rooms, horse-drawn carriage rides and lots of games for smaller kids like ring toss and a cake walk. There's still lots and lots of candy given out, and I enjoy it, but somehow it just doesn't compare to those Halloweens of days gone by.

Have a great time tonight with your kids, and save the black licorice jellybeans for me.


Stephanie said...

Oh the days of homebaked goodies! Since we lived out in (what was then) the middle of nowhere, my grandpa would drive us around to family and we'd collect candy. Only when we were too old to trick-or-treat did we realize that we could have been going to fancy neighborhoods. Oh well. Our teeth probably were the better for it :)

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