Monday, October 31, 2011

Horrible Hallowe'en



This holiday always reminds me of the most memorable one I ever experienced, filled with a kind of horror that is still vivid in my mind....the Hallowe'en night when I was 7.
We had moved to Hackettstown, NJ, the previous January, when I was six and a half years old, into a second-floor apartment that overlooked where four streets met at three gas stations and the Warren House Hotel, across from where the Billy Yank Civil War statue is now, the intersection narrowing into Main Street. Our new home was smaller than the New Street house in Budd Lake had been, so my crib/youth bed was in Mother and Dad’s room until Jeff moved up to the chilly independence of his own room on the third floor, and I could move into what had been his small room off the dining-room. But this story really begins a few months before we moved, on one October day when Mrs. Quinn, my first grade teacher at Budd Lake School, told us that we could each draw what we wanted to dress up as on Hallowe’en that year.

Its advent was a surprise to me, being still a bit shaky on calendar holidays, but I was very excited about it. I could remember clearly two or three years before when I was really little, being carried around the neighborhood by Daddy, and the shout of laughter from the grownups when I had demonstrated my confusion about weekdays—I had thought if that day was Tuesday, then in the dark overnight was Wednesday, and when I woke up it would be Thursday. But I had been Sleeping Beauty, and they didn’t understand that…..

Happily I began to draw with a black crayon on the big sheet of paper Mrs. Quinn had given me. I would use almost all the sheet, and take it home so Mother could make it for me.

The dream, however, did not become the reality.

I showed my picture to Mother as soon as I got off the bus in Mr. Baccagalupe’s gravel parking lot that afternoon and ran across the street and up the porch steps and inside. There was a direct conflict between who I wanted to be—Tinkerbell—and the ongoing battle Mother waged with my many colds. Tink, as depicted by the Disney animators in the Peter Pan movie we had seen, was all too scantily clad for going around in a North Jersey evening in late October. In vain I pined for having my long hair put up and the grace of gossamer wings and the hope of flitting through the crisp air. For surely they would come with pixie dust….

But no. Mother’s idea was that I would wear a white blouse and a long green skirt, the two joined by a wide black strip of cloth laced with a long shoelace (that wouldn’t stay tied) called a bodice that really looked more like a cummerbund, the whole surmounted by a long red cape with a hood, and a little basket on my arm: Little Red Riding Hood.

I had never particularly liked that folktale, and I certainly didn’t relish the possibility of meeting any wolves. I felt I knew better than to stray off any paths, and anyway Daddy would be with me. Fortunately, no one thought of getting a wolf costume for Jeff, who would dress up as a tramp again and go with Carl Tillander.

But Mother had gone ahead and already made the costume for me. Knowing how she hated to sew, Dad kept talking about what a good mommy she was to go to all that trouble, and they talked altogether too much about how cute I would look, with my long red-gold curls peeping out around my rosy face under the hood, etc., etc.

The truth is, I was a cute little girl. I'd had my cheeks pinched by relatives and neighbors and total strangers for most of my life so far, and had become an expert at sizing up which grown-up lap would be soft and comfortable, and which would be bony and knobby. I had been passed around from one grown-up to another since I was a baby, and frankly, I was sick of it. Even now, I wince at the word cute as applied to anything besides babies and kittens. Tinkerbell looked better by the minute.

In the end, I did not go as either one that year….because I had a bad cold by then. Mother used to say that I had a bad cold every year, beginning in September that lasted to May, and after I had my tonsils out, I had a succession of colds between September and May. Jeff was supposedly going to share his candy with me, but, well, you know how those things go with big brothers. He grudgingly let me have one candy bar, and that was it. I felt cheated.

One year later, there we were in Hackettstown. Mother was getting ready to go to work at the dairy in Long Valley after supper, and Jeff was putting on the caballero outfit, the last year that he would wear it. This, by the way, was by far the most successful costume we ever owned. Daddy had gotten it when he was in Mexico for the State Department, after the War, so it had the virtue of being From a Faraway Place. It also had the important virtue, from Mother’s point of view, of Being Warm. This outfit consisted of a pair of flared, suspendered black wood pants, with curly white braid down the outside of each leg; a matching vest; a matching short jacket; a brightly-striped serape to wear over one shoulder, and a big black trimmed- with-white-braid sombrero. All you needed to add was a black half-mask. This was an indestructible, warm, nice-looking, comfortable outfit, later worn by me and then in turn by all of Shirley’s four kids and then her grandchildren. Someone is probably wearing it this year. As usual, Jeff begged for the little silver spurs Daddy had brought back with it, and as usual they were not forthcoming, for fear they’d be lost.

“Am I going out trick-or-treating?” I demanded.

“Yes,” said Mother. “I have an old pillowcase for you to put your candy in—those paper bags always disintegrate. I wonder why it always rains on Hallowe’en.”

“Can I go as Tinkerbell?” I asked, eternally hopeful.

“Now, Princess, remember the nice costume Mother made for you last year?” Daddy said jovially. “Think how cute you’ll look as Little Red Riding Hood.”

“I don’t like Little Red Riding Hood,” I stated.

“She put in an awful lot of work making it for you,” Daddy said.

I felt it was unfair to bring guilt into it, but the caballero was too big for me, and I was realistic enough to know from his tone that it was the darned cape or not going and no candy at all.

“The best thing about this costume, Dick,” said my mother on her way out the door, “is you can put her jacket and slacks on underneath, so she won’t get chilled. With any luck, she may not get a cold out of this. Make sure she’s home and in bed by eight.” Bedtimes at our house were always ironclad.

Jeff ran off to meet his buddies, cautioned by Dad not to forget to keep track of the time and be home by nine. I was duly inserted into the skirt and cummerbund over my cardigan and corduroy slacks and then he buttoned up my jacket and added the cape and the basket. As we descended the back steps, I was gloomily aware of how geography and weather conditions were forcing me to deviate from artistic norms; I doubted very much that the real Little Red Riding Hood had ever worn a stupid corduroy jacket under her cape. It offended my sense of accuracy, not that any grown-up cared.

But I cheered up a bit at the thought of all that lovely sugary loot to be collected. With Daddy nearby, I was perfectly secure, but the novelty of being outside in the darkness of wind-tossed branches beyond the high streetlamps was exciting-- just the right amount of safely scariness for a seven-year-old.

We walked out to the main sidewalk in front of the Warren House, and met one of Daddy’s fellow band-members, walking his dog. “Doesn’t she look cute!” was the predictable remark. That was bad enough, along with being chucked under the chin as if I was a toddler, but what he said next was worse. “Going to the parade?”

“Parade?” echoed my father.

“Daaad-eee, Mother said I have to be in bed by eight!” I wailed.

“Sure,” the hatefully helpful neighbor said. “Every year they have a Hallowe’en parade for the kiddies. Only one for miles around. They’ll be starting up at the Acme parking lot. I wouldn’t be surprised if she won a prize in her age-group. How old is she, four?”

“Six!” I fumed. I was always being thought younger than I was, being so small, a problem that dogged me into my twenties.

“Hey, thanks for telling me. We just moved here, you know, and didn’t know about it.” Dad petted the dog and they moved away.

Looking up, I could see my doom in the competitive gleam in his blue eyes. “A parade! Isn’t that great! Lucky we found out! We’d better hustle if we don’t want to be late,” he said happily.

“I want to go trick-or-treating,” I said forlornly.

“We will, honey, I promise. But think what a nice surprise it’ll be for your mother and Jeff when they find out. You might win a prize! That would make her happy, after all the work she put in, sewing that costume.”

I didn’t think I’d win any prizes, and I was certain that Jeff would smirk over having so much more candy than I did. If I was lucky, I thought, I might never again have to wear anything hand-sewn and weighted down with guilty ingratitude but probably not until I was an old lady, too old to even go out on Hallowe’en.

I knew better than to pout out my lip, but my sense of injustice grew as he firmly piloted me the length of Main Street, past a few houses that fronted the street with their porch lights on, universal sign that they wanted little girls to come get their goodies. Daddy always had a horror of being late for anything, and was determined to get me there before it started, so we walked past the business section, crossed the railroad tracks, and hurried past Tickner’s Feed & Grain to the Acme. As I pondered the number of apples that I would probably get in lieu of goodies, he found the appropriate official to sign me up, and carefully pinned a large piece of white cardboard with big black numbers on the back on that accursed cape: A-106. That meant that I was in the youngest group and the 106th kid to be registered in it. It was also our street number, which he chose to regard as good luck.

“It’s already forming up,” Daddy said. “You’re going to march just like I do! Come out here,” as he led me into the street. “Let me put your hood up so it frames your face. Too bad I don’t have a comb in my pocket—you look beautiful!”
For the first time he saw my expression, which was not happy. “Daddy, please, trick-or-treating,” I said, trying hard not to cry with frustration.

“We will, after the parade. I promise!”

“No rain check?” That was a concept I had recently been introduced to, when he had promised to take me to the Dairy Queen for a cherry-dipped ice cream cone—and then didn’t, for some stupid grownup reason I had not understood.

He smoothed my curls. “No rain check. Do this for me, all right?”

“All right.”

“That’s my good girl!” He straightened up and started for the sidewalk... going AWAY.

I made a frenzied grab for his leg. “Daddy!”

“Honey, let go. Let go!” He pried my limpet-like fingers from his pants-leg. “This parade is for children, not parents. I’ll be right over there on the sidewalk, I’ll walk along on the sidewalk, and I’ll be right there at the end of the parade, the way you and Mom and Jeff meet me when I parade. I’ll just be over here. Now smile and be a good girl!”

But he wasn't the one being stranded in the midst of mobs of completely unknown children of all sizes and shapes, in all kinds of costumes, ranging from the standard ghost and tramps and cowboys to cute little cartoon characters and animals to the fantastic space men and objects like a newspaper and lamp to macabre monsters and fearsome green-faced witches. I had never seen any of these children in my life. I didn’t want to be there. I couldn’t see my father, who had vanished into the crowd. I was surrounded by noise and movement and glaring lights that rendered the world beyond the edge of the street a dark shifting void. With a ghastly smile plastered on my face—more a rictus of terror than anything else—I stumbled along an endless route that eventually turned off onto Church Street, then left onto Washington Street, winding its way to the elementary school playground.

In the center of it someone had erected a makeshift wooden platform from which to announce the winners. To my dazed eyes, it looked familiar, but I knew it had not been there the day before. Where had I seen it before?

Then I knew: it looked like the platform that Gabby Hayes had been led up onto, his hands bound, with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans riding up at the last minute to rescue him from being hanged dead from the gallows, on the last installment of Roy's Saturday TV show.

Mr. Hoagland stood on the platform at the microphone, which crackled and spat static for a minute. Later on he would become a dear family friend; at that time he was the Mayor. “Our first winner, for prettiest Storybook Character in the Little Ones division, which is for the ages of three to eight, is A-106. Would Little Red Riding Hood please come up here? Where is Little Red Riding Hood?”

That…that was me. I was going to be up on the gallows?

Some adult had me by the arm, and was pulling me along, boosting me up the steps onto the platform, into the glaring floodlights around it. I was too frozen with terror to cry or run. I even managed to hold onto the envelope containing a U.S. Savings Bond, that most meaningless of prizes for a little girl. Numbly, mechanically, I answered the usual banal questions that adults ask a child they don’t know: my name, my age, what grade I was in, my teacher’s name. But the kindness in Mayor Hoagland’s eyes began to revive me. Then I heard the college clock play the Westminster chimes before it struck the hour—and Cinderella never strained to hear its strokes), desperate to get away, as I did (six...seven...oh, NO...eight)—so that when he asked, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” I answered loudly and clearly,

“I want to go trick-or-treating!”

Everyone laughed and clapped. I was released, to almost fall down the steps. But Daddy was there, smiling hugely, lifting me in a big hug, and carrying me out of the maelstrom of the crowd of parents and kids on the playground. Now we would go trick-or-treating, he said, and I had been such a good girl that we’d forget about bedtime for once; I could stay up later. He was as eager as I was to get to as many houses as we could, more than ready to boast about my winning.

That year, I got almost twice as much candy as my brother did!

Happy Hallowe'en, everyone!

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