Homer’s Odyssey

As I looked at the small, green, plastic coffin in my hand, a joyous smile spread across my face. Inside were the delicious “bones” of a compresses sugar skeleton, just waiting to be pit together… and then eaten.

I hadn’t seen one of these little candy coffins since I was a very young child and holding one now brought me flying back to a mental image of the route I would take to bike to the store when I had managed to get my hands on some money and needed a sugar fix.

My childhood home was in just about the perfect place when it came to possibilities. If I went out the back door, I had only to walk to the back of a dead end road before I was looking at trees to climb, fields to cross, ancient stone walls to follow and abandoned railroad cuts to walk along as I enjoyed the birds, forest and quiet. If I went out the front door, I was in suburbia. Little developments in neat blocks with architecture that told you definitively what decade the construction took place in. It also was a rich environment to find friends in.

The neighborhoods were old enough to still have some charm and life to them. Not like the dead and sprawling house farms they’ve been making since the late eighties. Their weird, arching roads with cliché’ names taken from flowers, states of happiness or saddest of all, the farm they paved over. Here the streets ran in efficient, square blocks and were named, I’m guessing, after some of the various developers or possibly the initial inhabitants. The houses were closer than they would be if built today, but it made for a closer community as well.

What it also had was a good, old fashioned, neighborhood store of the type that is pretty much gone now. It’s name was “Stop and Shop” and as local lore had it, though the much larger grocery store chain had told them that they couldn’t use that name, our little family run corner store had been there first and had all the rights in the world to use that name. For whatever reason, that made us, as the kids of the area, stand in awe. OUR store was first! Cool!

The trip there wasn’t a very long one, unless you were reduced to walking it. On bike, it took perhaps ten minutes and the route its self was pretty enjoyable. Zigzagging though the quiet neighborhoods, it wasn’t uncommon to pick up more friends as we went until a convoy of bicycles driven by candy crazed children finally descended on Stop and Shop with coins jingling in pockets and mouths already salivating. The steps themselves up to the front door were special. The door had been installed at a forty-five degree angle on a corner of the building. The steps were made round and radiated down from the entry, like the layers of a cement wedding cake. I always noticed the steps as I padded up them and wished that my own stairs at home could be so cool.

Inside, it was exactly what you’d expect. This was before the days of scratch tickets and lotto machines and I’m reasonably sure that there were no magazines for sale either. Instead, there were the racks of potato chips, a small meat counter, milk in the back and beer down the side. You could also get ice cream from a cooler, but we had arrived with the candy display in mind and the racks and racks of it never disappointed.

The owner, a bearded and stern looking man by the name of, Homer must have made at least half his money from candy sales. Right in the front, near the register, there was a wonderland of confection. Compressed or liquefied, flavored, sugary treats were abundant in their numbers and diverse in their types.

Necco Wafers
Bottle Caps
Sweet Tarts
Wax lips
Jaw Breakers
Big League Chew
Canada mints
Tart N Tinies
Hot Balls
Gummi Bears
Juicy Fruit
Hubba Bubba Bubble Gum
Tootsie Rolls

And on, and on, and on….

Homer knew what he was doing when it came to ordering candy and he never, EVER let us down. Most of the hard candy stuff cost five cents each, though the usual candy bars and packs of gun naturally cost more. The best part was that he also kept a good supply of penny candy. That is to say, candy that actually cost one penny per piece. Some years ago I mentioned penny candy to someone a good deal younger than I only to meet with a befuddled look and the question, “What’s penny candy?”

Ok… I feel old now.

The penny candy was naturally at the bottom of the food chain, desirability wise, but still, it was nice to have to round out your pickings for the day and it filled out the little brown bags of hyper-powder that dangled from our handlebars as we zoomed home, shouting.

After paying Homer with our collection of scrounged pocket change, we’d hop back on our mighty steeds, new baseball cards firmly attached to spokes, and ride off into the sunset. Well… actually to the pond that was a little better than half way home. We’d sit in the grass, happily rotting our teeth on Twizzlers and Pixi Stix, arguing the benefits of Star Wars versus Star Trek or what ever else struck our fancy and throwing rocks at anything that disturbed the water’s surface. Hey, we were boys on a sugar high. What else would you expect?

All of this comes back to my little plastic, sugar filled coffin. I had almost forgotten about Homer but this made me recall him and realize that he had not only done a good job with the staples of a sugar addicts desires, but he had been seasonal as well. When Christmas rolled around, he got Christmas themed candy. When Easter came close, Cadbury eggs appeared at the counter. When Halloween was in the air, for one year at least, Homer bought these little coffin candies, and I had bought one.

This year, I took it upon my self to buy my Halloween candy for the night’s festivities and perusing through a catalog I came across them. They came twelve to a box and were not cheap. There was no way I would have bought them for that price when I was a kid, but I’m not a kid anymore… and I’m better at justifying dumb purchases.

I gave them away to kids whom I knew or who had really great and obviously homemade costumes. I like to reward those who put in the effort. By the end of the evening, they were all gone, except one. That one I had grabbed from the full box and set aside. Later that night, I happily put the puzzle like candy skeleton together and laid him to rest in his little coffin and there he lies, slowly loosing body parts as I pass and remember that he’s there. He’s delicious.

The Stop and Shop is gone now and I live far from there anyway. Homer was no spring chicken when I was a kid, so who knows if he’s still around either, but I’m glad for the memory. I’m also in his debt for making me a connoisseur of fine, compressed, flavored sugar, no matter what form it may take.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a grave to rob.

Trick or Beep!

So, Halloween, 2008, has come to a close.

The house is quiet, the kids have long since headed off to dreams of strange people hitting up their mom and dad for candy, and now, I’ve got to find a place to store a bulky costume that’s too good to just pitch along with the other recycling.

Another beer?
Don’t mind if I do!
*pop*, *sip*, “Ahhhhh”.

I am always grateful for good weather on Halloween. There is nothing, NOTHING, worse that having to trick or treat in a driving rain or (shudder) snow. Today, we were blessed. The temperature rose to a level just shy of t-shirt weather, the sun shone bright in a cloudless sky, and a light breeze did little more than annoy some loose leaves, lurking in the unmown grass. The day light hours of Halloween are always a bit frantic in our neck of the woods. Action Girl and I tend to scurry around, attempting to locate bits of decoration that was put, “some place safe”, the previous year and get it all installed before the lights go down and the sugar sucking monsters start to roam the streets.

As the two of us work away at making our house as spooky as possible, next-door is always a hive of activity. Our good neighbors are amazing artists and every year, a small army of other illustrators and artists descend on their house and transform it into… something amazing. It’s always amazing. Today, we could hear them laughing, hammering, constructing and generally being silly. On a few occasions Short Stack would raise a curious head over the tall grass and ask us, “What are they doing over there?” and we’d tell him that it was a surprise that he’d have to wait until tonight to find out. We put the final touches on our own decorations and after a quick photo shoot of the kids in costume while we still had daylight, we headed inside to get ready for Short Stacks first real Halloween night. As the sun finally set, we raced through dinner in an effort to be ready for the first knock at the door. We just made it.

Voices of excited children started to reverberate through the dimly lit streets and it was time to start things rolling. Action Girl shoehorned Lulu Belle into a ridiculously cute giraffe costume that was thoughtfully supplied by her folks and I fitted Short Stack with his own Halloween get up. He had picked the costume himself and there was none of that wavering that some kids show when it comes to difficult Halloween decisions. He wanted to be a monster truck. He was adamant on it and far be it from me to turn down a carefully made choice by a two year old. A monster truck, he would be!

In the end, it took a lot of cardboard, tape, paint, pipe insulation, four foil pie plates, two red L.E.D. jogging safety lights and two more self adhesive tap lights. Oh, and time. A heck of a lot of time. I took care of most of the actual construction, Action Girl and Short Stack did a bunch of the painting and then late the night before the project was due, Action Girl and I finished it in the basement, over some beers. The result… Well, here it is.

No one was happier with the finished product than Short Stack was. After an initial resistance to being wedged into the contraption, he absolutely loved the idea of BEING a monster truck. That, and all the, “Oohs!” and “Wow’s!” from anyone who happened to pass by at the time cemented his joy in the costume. With the headlights and taillights switched on, Short Stack and I set off to make his very first “Trick Or Treat” stop. Naturally, the first stop would be the neighbor’s. Dance music was thumping joyfully from their house as we walked to the darkened yard. What greeted us was a sight that stopped my little monster truck in his tracks. Not out of fear, so much out of pure mesmerization.

(Sorry for the lack of sound. my camera is quite elderly and did not record audio)

I do have to admit that not only did I know what was going to be there, but I actually did my little bit to contribute to the light show/ dance party, as well. I knew that I wouldn’t have a chance to lend a hand in any material way, what with me building a truck in my cellar at the time, but I could supply the music. I filled up my elderly iPod shuffle with a mix of fun techno, 80’s pop and some other strangeness with a good beat and lyrics that would pass the parent test. Well… most of the lyrics did. To be fair, I don’t think anyone really picked up on some of the stuff in “Blister in the Sun” by the Violent Femms. Oops! The life sized, glowing stick figures grooved the night away to the tunes and dispensed candy to those brave enough to get close. It was what I’d imagine an acid trip to be like. It was great!

After his inaugural piece of candy was stowed in the bed of his truck, we headed off to the next few houses. The best reactions to his costume came from other trick or treaters as kid after kid stopped to point out the “kid dressed as the truck!” One three year old we know even correctly identified Short Stack as a monster truck with no prompting. Short Stack was in heaven. At every stop, more candy was added to his bed until the rear wheels started to drag on the pavement behind him. It was a lot of weight for a little guy, but “determined” is not a strong enough word to describe his mindset. He was on a mission! So far as he was concerned, this was the best thing ever! We looped back to our house to unload his loot and lighten the load before continuing on. Since the house candy was almost gone, we decided to wait there a few minutes for things to wrap up. Eventually, we finally ran out and Action Girl, with our giraffe daughter strapped to her chest, switched off our porch light and joined us. My folks, as well, who also had run out of goodies at their place, showed up to see the show. Four adults and two children headed off to find more loot and entertainment as strict bedtime were tossed happily out the window. It was great fun and though we could see that Short Stack was getting tired, he steadfastly refused to be taken out of his costume in an effort to make better time to the next front door.

Our route took us to the local Lion’s Club for refreshments and a costume contest. Short Stack’s energies were momentarily revived as he mingled with friends and costumes were compared. The announcer called for kids aged one through four to make their way to the stage and Short Stack, sporting a ring of chocolate around his mouth, took second place, just edged out by Saint George, dressed in home-made tin can armor and a stuffed animal dragon. Not bad!

As we stepped out side into the very, very late night, Short Stack decided that finally, yes, he was ready to get out of his truck and, in stead, ride in the stroller that Action Girl had though to bring along. He was chipper all the way home and Lulu Belle managed to keep her good humor until it was time for jammies. Normally, getting my son to bed is not something that goes smoothly, but tonight, resistance was minimal and he was asleep in a scant few minutes.

Lulu Belle’s giraffe costume will be far to small to be used again and so will likely get handed off to some new baby, yet to be. The monster truck, though… I think we’ll hang on to that for a while. It won’t last, naturally. Eventually, it will get wet or crunched or simply fall apart, but until then I think it’s got some more good playing left in it. Besides, it’s Short Stack’s first car, and far be it from me to take that away from a guy.

Now if you will all excuse me, I believe that there is a huge demon on my roof that needs taking in for the season and a cemetery in my front yard that needs breaking down until next year.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Everyone, Hail to the Pumpkin King!

It’s coming

The trees are starting to talk with their dried out and rustling leaves. The dry air is clear and crisp giving an unfettered view of the fat moon that hangs over my house, giving off enough light to cast shadows on the porch or even read by. I’m getting excited. My favorite day is coming and the anticipation alone makes me smile while I rub my hands together.

All Hallows Eve

Halloween is, in my humble opinion, the very, very, VERY best holiday that there is. It is perfection as far as yearly celebrations go. Think about it. It involves candy, scaring the hell out of kids, fiendish decorations and relatively few family entanglements. It is easily the most egocentric holiday out there and you are allowed, nay, REQUIRED to eat an indecent quantity of mini 3 Musketeers bars.

I grew up in a house that sat on the corner of a dead end street. This little road jutted like a finger into the woodlands behind my house. If you had walked down the street and then, once it ended, had continued on, eventually you’d hit Vermont, It was a long way and deep, uninhabited woodland. In short, it was heaven for all the kids who grew up there. We lived in those woods and new much of them by heart.

Halloween was always a big deal and the woods often became a major player in the antics of the evening. At the time of my youth, the dead end street was packed with young families and we all pretty much knew each other. Inevitably, some kid or group of kids would decide that they would make a ghost tour in the woods and invite passing trick or treaters to try their luck and survivability by walking into the jaws of the set trap.

We went for it every time. How could we not!?

The path through the “haunted” woods was often marked with either ropes or old bed sheets hung from lines. There was a guide to make sure that you didn’t miss something that made you scream like a little girl and usually four or five others laying in wait for you as you stumbled over the exposed tree roots, groping in the darkness. Ripe for the spooky picking. It was always a blast and injuries were usually limited to ankles and egos.

The bottom line; it was SCARY!

It was the house down the end of the street that played the spooky music that made you pause and rethink how much you really wanted that Mars Bar. It was the guy who always dressed up as something vampireish or vaguely Frankinstiny and would whip open the door at a hundred miles an hour and scare the beejeebees out of you. It was the scarecrow in the chair next to the front door that you knew, you JUST KNEW, was actually a person but you managed to get up the nerve to and poke it with a stick only to have him jump up and send you screaming down the path and back to the road, clutching your loot bag to your chest. That is what Halloween is all about. Well, what it used to be about, anyway.

Now days, we have become obsessed with making our world as safe as possible and as laudable a goal as that is, we’ve siphoned a lot of the fun out of it in the process. Halloween has lost its punch.

Call me old fashioned, and I suppose that’s true, but I liked the old Halloween. It was dark and spooky and you felt like the whole world had become a haunted house. This brings us to our neighbors. Where we live is right next door to two of the best Halloween lovers I know. They are both commercial artist and having no kids of their own, make up for it by essentially being giant kids in their own right. Every year, a small team of friends descends on their modest house and transforms it into something… awesome.

The criterion for the theme is that it needs to be something that they feel is creepy or disturbing. That can be almost anything. The first year we saw their handiwork, they had turned their front porch into a monkey house, complete with tire swing, banana peals and four or five volunteers in monkey costumes. If you got too close, they would fling candy at you.

The next year it was the “Night Clinic”. No one likes going to the hospital, right? Theirs sported a creepy looking nurse at the check in counter, sounds of screaming from behind closed doors, bloody medical implements, a head in a jar and the “waiting room” on the front lawn, seeded with volunteers sporting interesting and unlikely maladies.

Following that was the year of the truly repulsive Good Humor Truck. They actually rented a real one for this and “redecorated” with lovely items like the “poop pop” the “Beefsicle” and the “Clam Cake”.

Next year was the Hillbilly town of “Weenholler” complete with seriously sketchy inhabitants, coached by a good friend who happens to be a native of the back hills of Tennessee.

Last year, it was the bad 1960’s Caveman movie genre with an odd night club setting, thrown in for good measure. That last one was more bizarre that scary, but the execution was amazing.

When compared to the little fake cemetery and spooky music that take over my front yard for the night, well… there just is no comparison. That’s not to say that we don’t get Trick or Treaters. Living just one house away from a draw like that insures that I’ll burn through at least thirty bucks worth of waxy American milk chocolate in about a half an hour. Once the candy is gone, we’ll turn off the porch light and the spooky music. We’ll bundle up the kids and wander over to the neighbor’s house and see what we can do to help. The party will still be rocking there and the screams won’t be silenced for at least an hour more. It’ll be great!

Short Stack is just old enough this year where he might get scared a bit but Lulu Belle will be blissfully ignorant. At least we don’t have to walk through a haunted wood to get there.

Darn it.

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