Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Things That Go Bump

Halloween in the neighborhood where I grew up was cool.

I remember dashing home from school and scurrying to the basement, where we had a storage closet under the steps. In its deep recesses was a collection of bags that housed our Halloween costume stash. This hodgepodge included castoff clothes, oddball accessories, rummage-sale leftovers, and hand-me-down-and-outs, all smelling heavily of mothballs.

I remember my mother had sent for a collection of masks that were free, in exchange for mailing in a predetermined number of Ivory soap bar wrappers. I recall this because the plastic masks each were marked on the inside with the brand name "Ivory" stamped in light blue ink. These were of nondescript characters -- a generic princess, a no-name monster, a run-of-the-mill ghoul -- probably because Ivory wasn't going to license any of the major cartoon characters of the day.

These masks, too, were part of the Halloween possibilities, stiff plastic faces held in place by white elastic bands that, if an elder brother were feeling particularly vengeful, could be pulled back, released, and allowed to snap back in place with a painful twang that always left a red mark. 

Using one of these masks and risking the sibling injury, I was  a black cat for at least two years running, probably at ages six and seven. When not trying to snap my elastic band, my older brothers teased me about repeating a costume in back-to-back Halloweens. I also remember not caring much.

Dinner on Halloween night was always a rushed affair. The entree was always -- always! -- hot dogs. Mainly for their convenience and their heft. Mom figured that if we were full up of hot dogs, that we would be less likely to munch on candy while still on the hunt.

Woe be it if our bell happened to ring with an early-bird trick-or-treater while we were still at the table: "We are going to miss Halloween!" we'd wail.

Dad always took us through the neighborhoods on Halloween, monitoring from afar as we shoof-shoof-shoofed our way through the accumulated fallen leaves.

First stop was always Mrs. Bender at the bottom of our street. Mrs. Bender lived alone -- she had probably been widowed many years before -- and other than Halloween, she was barely visible. She kept very much to herself during the year and could only occasionally be spotted in her yard, pulling weeds or watering summer flowers.

But each Halloween, she made a batch of the most delicious caramel apples I have ever had. I'm not sure at all what her secret was, whether it had to do with apple selection or caramel recipe, which, from the taste, was something homemade and not crafted out of Kraft caramel squares melted in a pot.

There were two secrets to snagging one for Halloween.

First, you had to get to her house ASAP. Mrs. Bender turned off her porch light very early Halloween evening and would not answer her bell afterward. So her treats were definitely a case of snoozing equals losing. Arrive at 7:15 or so when her door was abandoned and her stoop was dark, and you were out of luck.

Second, you had to be known to her from the neighborhood. She only made enough apples for the kids that she knew, and she required self-identification before she forked over the goods. So yes, that meant lifting your mask or pulling off your wig and letting her squint at your face in the dark.

"It's us, Mrs. Bender. The Weckerly boys from up the street. Sean, Paul, and Danny."

"Sean, Paul, and Danny," she'd repeat. "Yes, yes, yes. Here you go."

Maybe that's why today I'm not all that offended by the PA Voter ID law that has been in and out and in and out and in and out. Once you've subjected yourself to Mrs.  Bender's verification for a caramel apple, doing so to vote is no big deal.

As a teen, I remember going out with friends on Halloween. We would visit the customers on our Philadelphia Evening Bulletin paper route, benefiting from their gratitude for all the good service throughout the year.

In the pile of Halloween costumes, we had an old cutaway tuxedo coat and, of all things, a pith helmet. I supplemented the outfit with a thick, black, shoe-polish mustache and eyebrows, creating a rather convincing Groucho Marx/Captain Spaulding costume. Although few of my contemporaries knew who I was, the elderly customers on the paper route got it right away.

We trick-or-treated through the early 1970s, which meant scares about narcotics and needles being cruelly tucked inside treats. I remember the days when a Halloween haul could be taken to the local ER for a quick X-ray. We never resorted to those measures, but we did have to pass the Parental Inspection once we got home, and eating anything along the route was strictly forbidden.

Also indicative of the time were a few visits to a few homes that had a specifically hippie bent, and I remember one or two along the way with clouded air in the living room and clouded occupants partying away.

Still, the loot was always plentiful and safe.

The years passed. When I was too old to trick-or-treat, I helped Mom scare the other kids who came to our door.  We created a creepy reception: She would don a wild fright wig (again, from the costume bag); I tossed on an old, black choir robe. When the bell would ring, she opened the door slowly, and I would be seated at the organ in the living room, ominously playing a few bars from the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor.

That's all in the past now. The costume bag has disappeared to the ages, taking its moth ball perfume with it. Mrs. Bender departed this world for the next, where she's probably making caramel apples for the angels. I moved onto being the dad-walker for my own band of ghouls, but now, even those years are behind us.

So tonight, I'll answer our own bell, peeking at the parade of princesses and pirates, skeletons and monsters, and perhaps even a Honey Boo Boo or two.

But part of me will hear their squealing in the dark, the giggles and chatter, and drink in the brief scent of fallen leaves mixed with pancake makeup, and wish I were out there with them.

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