Thursday, October 25, 2012

Schemes, screams and Halloween dreams

Fall is falling fast this year.
After weeks and weeks of glorious autumn colors and golden sunlight, gusty winds, driving rains and roller-coaster temperatures have begun to strip trees of their seasonal finery, leaving bare limbs and mottled masses of wet-soaked leaves on lawns, cars, porches and patios. The neighborhood squirrels have discovered the dried shocks that decorate our front stoop, and now raid steadily, devouring and disassembling our happy autumn display, while freezing me with a beady-eyed look that seems to say, "Stand back, old man. We're here for the corn."
They know November is on the way. They know what comes next.
But the best part of the season is yet to come.
There are plenty of special days to celebrate when you're a kid. Days that feature candles and a cake, presents under a tree, and baskets filled with jelly beans and chocolate eggs.
But for me, there was one day that rose above all the rest. A day I dreamed about all year long. A day--and a night--that I still contemplate with a certain amount of joy and wonder.
I mean, really, what can compare with a celebration that lets you disguise yourself as something scary, then plunge into the dark of night to terrify the entire town, while gathering bountiful bagfuls of tasty treasure?
It was a day worthy of careful planning and thrilled anticipation.
I still remember the excitement as my friends and I would gather at recess to discuss the vital, do-or-die decision that would seemingly mold the rest of our young lives.
"What are you gonna be?"
We would swap lies and dream hopeful dreams about the great costumes our parents were going to buy us for the big night. After school, we haunted the aisles of the downtown five-and-dime store, fondly fingering the costumes and accoutrements we lusted for.
Zorro. Dracula. Superman. The Wolfman. The Mummy.
Swords. Fangs. Capes. Fur. Fake blood.
Of course, for most of us, store-bought Halloween costumes were as out of reach as brand-new bicycles, unused baseballs and clothing that had not been worn before by older siblings and out-of-town cousins.
Raised by thrifty parents, most of whom had lived through The Great Depression, we mostly made do with the fruits of our mothers' skills and imaginations, with many of them seeming to specialize in a certain kind of costume. Some moms were good at scary stuff or funny stuff, while some poor guys had mothers who created cutesy little outfits that doomed them to a long night of ridicule.  But for the most part, clever moms relied on the materials at hand, which meant the streets were jammed with little boys dressed like pint-sized ghosts, pirates, cowboys, indians, football players, clowns and hoboes, while most of the girls hit the scene as fairy princesses, witches and gypsy queens.  My own mother was on the cutting edge of the costume-making art, as she had discovered theatrical makeup, thick, sticky, evil-smelling stuff that made me perspire heavily the moment it was applied to my excited face. The result was often a startling, indescribable mixture of sweaty, runny greenish goop that she would discover lingering behind my ears and under my chin for days afterwards.
The deal was, as we understood it, that we were allowed to play tricks on anyone who didn’t give us treats. So we spent hours plotting the best, most dastardly tricks to play on those poor fools who failed to do our will.
We carefully schemed about blood-curdling screams, soaped windows and smashed Jack O' Lanterns littering the streets, but for the most part, those plans remained just evil dreams. I, for one, knew my parents would have reacted quickly and firmly if I had behaved like anything but a green-faced gentleman while on the streets of our little, all-knowing town.  And besides, we knew all the good spots, so we always got more treats than our collective digestive tracts could possibly process. Suspecting that our parents might try to limit our intake once we got home, we would gobble down as many candy bars, taffy apples and popcorn balls as possible as we moved from porch to porch.  Finally, sadly, with sore feet and aching bellies, we would scatter towards our own warm-lit houses, while carefully dodging older brothers and other big kids who lurked, waiting to relieve us of our precious bounty.
The next day in school would reveal a roomful of mildly nauseous Halloweeners exchanging tall tales and less-favored candy bars with a reckless frenzy fueled by a potent mixture of sleep deprivation and the jittery remains of our carefully concocted sugar high.
We would brag about our booty, talk of tricks we could have played, and dream some more about the next year's night. Within a day or two, the candy would all be gone. And within that same day or two, we would be dreaming new dreams of snow and sleds and Santa Claus.
Because once Halloween is over, wintertime can't be far behind.

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