Cardboard Trees and Vampire Memories

With my favorite holiday, Halloween, coming down the pike in a little under two weeks, It’s made me reflect on my Halloween experiences from my youth. I’m a child of the Seventies, which means that I grew up during an interesting cultural transition time. Things will never be the same, naturally, but a lot of what made up the memories of my youth have not merely morphed into something else, but disappeared all together. Some for the better… some, not. The ability to sew, comes to mind.

One of my favorite family traditions took place every year, right about this time. I would have gotten into my Mom’s powder blue, 1971 Pontiac, and we would have driven to the mill store to pick out a pattern and fabric. It was time to get the costume all worked out. The two of us would find a seat in the little alcove filled with monstrously thick books and then pour over them, looking for just the right one for Trick or Treating. The only real limiting factor was that, living in northern New England, I had to be able to fit a winter parka underneath it.

Eventually, I’d pick the design and then the two of us would set off and search the piles of colorful fabric bolts, looking for the best matches. Purchases in hand, we’d go home and start putting it together. I say “we”, but in truth, it was mostly Mom who did the work. That’s not to say I wouldn’t help if I could, but like most children who offer to “help” Mom or Dad, I tended to make things go slower, rather then faster. My end of the project usually involved standing on a stool and worrying about being stuck with straight pins.

Every year, my mother would create some amazing costume out of nothing but some bundles of cloth, a tissue paper pattern and her Singer, electric sewing machine. Over the years, I had been successfully been kitted out as a ghost, a mouse, a vampire (at least twice), a shark, the Headless Horseman and no doubt a few others that escape me, but those are the fabric based costumes that I can recall.

A few costumes however, required more than ability with sewing. It required cardboard.

The first of these rigid costumes that I remember was the year I went as Pac Man. That wasn’t too hard to work out. Two large pieces of heavy yellow card stock cut into circles, minus a wedge for the mouth and attach it all at the edge. Holes for arms and a few to spy out of and there you go! Hardly the most involved costume, but hey, we’re talking Pac Man during the early eighties, here! I thought it was awesome and I was not alone.

The next idea was a lot harder and drew heavily on her bulletin board construction skills. Luckily, as a Junior High teacher, she had a lot to draw upon.

I wanted to be a tree.

A TREE! Where did I come up with these ideas? A lot of rolled cardboard, construction paper and Sharpie markers later, I was the spitting image of a maple tree in full foliage. That is, as long as all the maple trees you had seen were about five feet tall and made of cardboard and construction paper. I remember walking down the road at a tight legged shuffle, dropping leaves as I went and trying to spot them through the slot I peeked out of and skooching down to pick up my wayward, leafy appendages. Now I knew how a tree must feel as they shed their hard made mantle each autumn.

Eventually, of course, I stopped going out Trick or Treating and moved my efforts to scaring the beegeebees out of the kids who came to our house, begging for candy. Nothing too over the top… but fun. Then, like life does, things got busy and with a move to an apartment with my then girlfriend/now wife, we simply didn’t get Trick or Treaters or didn’t participate. After a few years and a succession of moves, we wound up on our little island where Halloween is once again something to revel in. All my creative costume juices, having long since dried up and turned to powder, were reconstituted by the flood of scary fun and enjoyment that is the norm out here. I was back in the scary business!

The first year, I simply dressed up as a Mad Scientist. White lab coat, spiky hair wig, goggles and high black gloves completed the look. It was believable and easy to assemble. I took on the roll with great enjoyment and did my best to scare kids a bit. Times have changed since the 70’s though, and kids simply don’t spook as easily. Next year, I’d do better. Much better. I was into this now.

The next year I threw my self into this project. With the materials and equipment at hand, I set aside the time to craft a huge skull… thing. Made out of clay, I patterned the basic shape on a horse’s skull. With the addition of sharp, tyrannosaur-like teeth and a more menacing brow, no lower jaw and a black robe that draped over the entire shebang and I had created a large and freaky looking monster wraith. I named him Tony.

I put the robed skull on two hinged, five-foot poles, one pole in front and the other in the back of the skull. What this meant was that Tony, when worn by me, could be moved like he was on a long neck. Held straight up, I was easily nine feet tall. If I wanted to go get close to someone, all that was needed was to swing Tony forward and I could be in your face in a split second. Add some glowing eyes and I had an instant kid magnet and/or repeller.

As I wandered around the neighborhood, I noticed that I was almost irresistible specifically to young boys. They were terrified of the giant monster but couldn’t resist getting a closer look. At one point, a nine-year-old pirate decided that he needed to exhibit his bravado to me and the others in the area. As I floated along down the road, he followed at what he thought was a safe distance calling, “I’m not afraid of you! You can’t scare me!”

In one fluid motion, I swung the head around and down to within a few inches of the pirate and scraped my vocal cords to emit the best, “Depth of Hell” sound I could muster. It was hard to see out from behind the black cloth that covered me but I could just make out his ragged pirate butt as he ran in full-screaming flight, down the street. On the sidewalk, now standing alone, was his father. For a brief second, I thought I was going to be in deep trouble. Then, with both hands cupped around his mouth, the man yelled to his fleeing son, “Run, Forrest! Run!” Hey, we live on an island. How far can he go?

This year, it’s Short Stacks turn to go out and collect candy. It’s his first real Halloween experience. We didn’t know if he would quite understand the idea behind a costume, but we asked him for his pick. With out hesitation, he made his pick. We’ve asked him several other times, just to be sure. He is.

He wants to be a dump truck.

It seems that so far as costume ideas go, the apple does not fall to far from the cardboard tree. At least the dump trucks don’t. Dear Lord. I better not bring up the idea of a Dump truck Tree. He’d want that instead. Now where’s my utility knife and duct tape?

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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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