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Halloween: Some Happy Memories

By Jack Goddard

Milestones Vol 33 No. 3


Remind me again that we're progressing! Oh, sure, we have computers. Men on the moon at times. All kinds of hi-tech stuff. Shucks, before long, we'll be able to destroy the whole world just by pushing a couple of buttons.

Almost as sad, is the fact that today's youngsters will never be able to view the world the same way we did in the more innocent times. Halloween, for example, to us kids coming of age in the 1940's and 1950's, would never work the same today. It probably never will either. Something happened over the last 50 years. Folks have become more paranoid and perhaps rightly so as the nation has become more volatile and confusing. Things in some areas have turned a full 180 degrees. I'd guess traditional trick or treat night is almost fading into oblivion in some places. Yes, please remind me again that the world is better off today than a half-century ago.

This two-week long event was my personal favorite. Yes, even better than Christmas. Halloween is a blip on the radar screen in these rush-rush days. In all communities, it's regulated to two or three hours tops, usually on a school night. Kids visit, grab their treat, and, hurriedly, go next door.

One really can't blame them. After all they have to cover as much ground as they can in the time that they're allotted now. Today's world is such that their parents even have to follow for safety's sake. I recall that the only bigger dude out there back then was our older brothers. They'd be in small gangs. They'd appear, stop us, and demand a little candy. It was a small price to pay. They'd vanish back into the darkness. They'd seem to hover nearby regardless of where we were. But, we felt safer just knowing they were in the neighborhood.

They'd be doing the "trickin" part while we had the "treatin" portion covered. I guess it was a "rite of passage" since it would be our turn later to keep watch over our little brothers and sisters. It was the American way.

On the first week, a bunch of us costumed tots would trudge in masse up the country road to every house on the one side for a couple evenings. Then hit the other side the next few nights. We'd go through the same routine down the 'pike for the next three or four evenings. Even farmers who lived on back roads were targets. See, we had all the time in the world. It was a time when everyone knew the neighbors no matter the distance. We little gremlins were in the spotlight and the main show for those two weeks. Television didn't exist. Everyone in North Sewickley Township, Beaver County, was on alert these days. Even strangers were diligent.

Homemade candy in that time was looked at as "manna from heaven". Fresh fudge was a real coup. Today, they're the first items tossed out. I'll never forget the times we'd pump our little legs up this long, long hill to visit one farm house. It was like the end of the rainbow to us - a real pot of gold! The four older girls who lived there had as much fun as we did. They'd make homemade hardtack, several kinds of creamy fudge, popcorn balls, glazed and caramel candied apples.

Some larger families and farmers we "snuck up on" could hand out only apples, oranges or gum. We didn't care and happily tossed those goodies in our bag too. We had one neighbor who, year-in and year-out gave out treats that didn't really thrill us. A toothbrush and toothpaste!

This writer is mindful of one elderly and frail lady. She was a widow and lived by herself back this lonely gravel road. She'd invite us in, give us our treat, chat awhile and then offer us a bonus of Wrigley's if we sang, did a little dance to the music on her Philco radio or told a funny joke. It wasn't much. But, it was our very own "American Idol" (or at least, it gave us the same feeling). As I near her age these days, I look back now and think she just enjoyed the company. The "Idol" thing was merely her method of prolonging our stay. Really, what's more fun than a gang of kids? I feel cheated in this world.

To most of us, coming up with a costume was a big part of the fun. We'd raid the attic, Mom's closet, Dad's garb, the basement or our own toy-boxes to see what we'd pretend to be. Half the enjoyment was the challenge of seeing who could be the most creative. A lot of us would tie a red kerchief to a used mop handle, fling it over our shoulder and pretend to be a hobo.

Others would don a cowboy hat, strap on their guns and holsters, pull a red bandanna up over their nose and announce they were a stagecoach robber. They'd blend in with guys like the Lone Ranger and the Durango Kid. Another may put on Dad's good hat, tote a toy tommy gun and wear a suit coat like a gangster. Boy scouts were a hot item - especially since most of us were. If a child couldn't afford a mask, Mom would come to the rescue with an old bed sheet. I think we all stood for a few minutes while Mom marked and then cut out the eyes. Presto, a ghost was born.

This brings me to our masks. Remember those little black ones? Like the Lone Ranger wore. They were a staple in everyone's Halloween decorations. Little girls would wear them the most. Looking their cutest, they'd dress up as all kinds of professionals: Housemaids, grandmothers, spinsters, schoolmarms, nurses, and if both outgoing and brave, soiled doves. Hey, it gave them a reason to get in Mom's cosmetics.

Others carried violets or pansies and were dressed like a bride. Parents would make crowns out of cardboard, slap some gold paint on them, and Gerri was a queen or princess. Another popular dress was a star-studded horseback trick rider. And, we all remember the angel. Wearing a white dress and wings made of wire coat hangers draped with tin foil. Bums, hobos, three blind mice. Anything 'round the house was susceptible.

We'd save our home base until the second week. It was a "family thing". They were as happy to see us as we they. The treats were just a vehicle. We'd talk to one family for a half-hour. We weren't in a hurry. A standard comment went like this, "So, you're Jim and Mary's second boy. My, how you have grown from last year." A good time was had by all.

And, Beaver Countians can't forget the great Halloween parties we had. It was usually held in a black and orange decorated basement. Some of the more common games were "pin the tail on the donkey", "spin the bottle", "bobbing for apples", "apple on a string" and "Daisy Mae". Following this, we'd be seated and blindfolded. The host would tell several ghost stories and, to make them seem more real and imaginative, items would be passed around that we could feel only. Remember, we're masked. How about that peeled grape that we quickly passed on when we were told it was the eye! And, that raw liver? Did it feel like the heart or what? That gizzard. It felt so much like we thought a brain must feel..

Another thing I'll never forget are the hay wagon rides. The teams of horses would plod along slow and easy on dark back roads. We'd pass a graveyard and the driver would suddenly yell "HO". If one squinted, you could make out the tombstones under a moonlit and starry night. There weren't many cars and this was off the main road. You're all alone!

The waggoner would whisper some ghastly tales about those buried there. We'd be peering into the trees to make sure no ghost formed. Meanwhile, we wouldn't realize that the driver pulled back gently on the reins. It was now time for the horses to add another dimension and get into the act. They'd snort, whinny and prance around as if they'd seen a ghost or some other unworldly creature.

Every ride ended with a bonfire and corn roast. Never tasted better corn than that wrapped in aluminum foil and buried under the fire.

So many people have become fearful today. Maybe someone will jumps off the wagon before it stops. Injures his ankle. The parents then sue the farmer who has no insurance. The farmer loses his farm and livelihood. A kid burns himself. Same story. A child becomes dizzy so he/she trips over a chair playing "pin the tail on the donkey". Same outcome. That's only a few. I don't even hazard to guess what the game "spin the bottle" might spawn today. This is one of the reasons why many of these traditions are fading away. Fears of these outcomes have changed so many things in our lives---like Halloween. Shakespeare said it best in "Romeo and Juliet" - "Good night, Good night! Parting is such a sweet sorrow."