Thursday, 1 November 2012

Halloween–I’m Ba-a-a-a-a-a-ck

HalloweenWell, here it is Halloween once more and memories of other Halloweens are creeping back into my memory banks.  I can remember as a small boy living with my grandparents in Medicine Hat during the war, my mother dressing me up like a clown with costumes fashioned from old drapes and painting my face with lipstick and smearing burnt cork over my cheeks.  We would trudge through the snow, my treasure bag (a flour sack) clutched in my hand, and then we would knock on the doors in our small neighbourhood in Medicine Hat.  The doors would fling open and there would be a seemingly giant but friendly person in the doorway who would drop something into my bag.  Candy was scarce in wartime and every sweet morsel was treasured.  So popcorn balls (remember those), along with bits of fruit, for example, apples, were the most common booty.  Some benefactors would drop pennies into our bags for charity.

After the war, when we moved to Bindloss, the bigger boys would take some sort of morbid delight in tipping over outhouses (outdoor toilets).  I never participated in that ritual, though I did assist in coating a toilet seat with corn syrup and the door handle with mustard one time.  In the town of Empress, east of Bindloss, the legend goes that the occupant of one of the local farms moved the outhouse three feet so that the pit was exposed.  Not detecting the trap in the dark, one of the boys fell into the pit!  He apparently ran full bore to the river and jumped into the freezing waters .  I’m not sure that he ever tried tipping an outhouse again.

One thing that was outstanding in the small towns in the country was a sense of community.  There would be weekend dances, picnics, plays and, when electricity came, movies (I particularly loved Hopalong Cassidy films).  Halloween was no exception.  Every year there would be a party in the town hall.  I remember one year participating in the event, dressed like a witch.  For some reason that I forget, I had been grounded, but there was a requirement for a witch so I was paroled long enough to wear a black costume with an ugly, smelly rubber witch mask with an enormous wart on the nose.  There were some small passages behind the walls of the town hall, allowing access to the stage and up to the projection room.  My job was to stand by a pot of cold, slimy spaghetti, cackling in my then soprano voice, tempting the passers by to submerge their hands in the pot, whereupon I would inform them that the noodles were actually intestines.  I’m not sure that anyone actually believed me but it was fun nevertheless.  Of course, for trick or treaters, the pickings were a bit slim in small towns, but we had a good time anyway, probably why some of the boys resorted to outhouse tipping (I swear that I never, ever tipped an outhouse. Honestly!).

Once we moved back to Medicine Hat, things were different.  There were many more houses to haunt and candy was not in such short supply.  I used to take a pillow case to hold my not inconsiderable booty and would have to return home at least once to drop off my loot before heading out for another mission. I can just visualize the local dentists rubbing their hands together in glee as they perused the new car brochures.
Since there is a statute of limitations on crime, I can admit the following:  One year I had made up my face with the traditional lipstick and burnt cork and had a mask as well.  That, along with turning my coat inside out, allowed me to make the rounds twice.  Sadly, some bigger boys snatched my bag and ran away so I guess that was my punishment for such a nefarious deed!  My mother’s concern was mainly for the pillow case, not for my greedy self.  The perpetrators were never apprehended as far as I know, but hopefully to this day, these miscreants may be languishing in a penitentiary somewhere, vowing never again to rob such a supposedly innocent kid!
As time passed, ever too soon I was escorting first one daughter, then two through the wintry streets of Rivers, Portage la Prairie (both military bases) and then Winnipeg, all in Manitoba.  On the bases we again encountered that spirit of community with parties for the kids and then mess functions for the adults.  We all dressed up in various costumes and were treated to fine dining and dancing and revelry.

The boys didn’t arrive until we were living in Ottawa and their first Halloween outings were, I think, in Toronto, then Montreal.  (Olaf Jr. did the rounds in Ottawa too).  By this time costumes were more sophisticated with the likes of Star Wars and Batman.  They dressed like cowboys for a while and once suffered the indignity of their mother dressing them inclown2 their sister’s clown suit (the one fashioned from draperies), but the lure of hi-tech, not surprisingly, eventually overtook them and they joined the hordes of space travellers and super heroes.
When we lived in Montreal, I decided to have some fun with the little denizens that came to our door.  Dressing in a US Army Nomex flying suit, I donned my flying helmet, having painted my face to look like a skull.  I taped a couple of red LEDs to the visor and wired them to a battery and IC chip, making them flash like red eyes. Vacuum cleaner pipes resembled some sort of a space weapon and I added sound effects to enhance the realism.  I would sit motionless near the front entrance and the kids would approach cautiously, whispering to one another, wondering if the apparition in front of them could be some sort of a fake dummy.  After they studied me for a few moments, I would suddenly move, sending the children retreating down the driveway, squealing in horror and giggling in mirth.  Working up enough nerve, they (or at least most of them) would return to collect their goodies.  My reputation as an alien being spread and soon we were almost overwhelmed by kids who came to have the livers frightened out of them.  I worry that a few of my victims, now adults, may be in therapy to this day!  Pat would also dress up in a Raggedy Ann costume so we all had fun participating in the events.

It seems that in those days, as we wondered from door to door, we were always ploughing through snow drifts into the face of freezing winds, necessitating winter parkas over the costumes.  But today in Ottawa the temperature is well above zero but with some rain from the remnants of Hurricane Sandy.  The newscasts are full of the tragic scenes from the Eastern Seaboard depicting the terrible destruction in New Jersey and New York City as well as other New England states.  We are lucky to be here with only a few brief showers to dampen our outings.  I have always declared that you shouldn’t have buildings on the waterfront (floods) or in the woods (fires).  Buffalo, Alberta looks better every day!

Nearly all of the kids on our street are grown up and have left for college or developing careers carrying on with their own lives.  After 22 years many of them probably have their own families to escort around at Halloween.  This year, there were no goblins, pirates, superheroes, witches, spacemen, wizards, or anything else arriving at the door.  Zero!  It’s a bit sad, really.  We enjoyed seeing the excited children, sometimes as many as 60 or 70, coming to the door every year holding their sacks out in front, some singing songs in order to collect their reward.

sugar-skullsA couple of years ago, Pat and I were staying in brother Graham’s condo in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.  His place is right on the waterfront and a scenic walkway, the Malecon, stretches along the beach in front.  To our surprise, Halloween gives rise to a huge celebration in PV.  There were thousands of kids (with their parents) dressed in bright costumes roaming the Malecon, holding out their sacks for goodies.  There was music and excitement in the air until about 4 o’clock in the morning.  This precedes the “Day of the Dead” which occurs on November 2nd, another huge celebration.  People build shrines to their departed loved ones and gather in the cemeteries to mingle with the spirits.  There are biscuits and candies shaped like skeletons and liquor bottles made to look like skulls as well as other special treats.  We were fortunate enough to be in San Sebastian, a 16th century silver mining town high in the Sierra mountains that day and were invited into their ancient cemetery.  The locals bring favoured gifts to the departed, including tequila and other drinks as well as special foods, and  a fiesta follows the sombre part of the celebration, consuming sprits with the spirits, as it were, turning the event into a joyous occasion!  The next day, tradition has it, mirrors are hung in the windows of their homes so that the spirits see that it is time to disappear and re-enter the nether world beyond until they can visit the next year.

Now that time has so rapidly passed, our grandchildren are donning their costumes and heading out on the streets to collect their treasures and terrorize the neighbours, at least ours in Ottawa.  I gather that Halloween is not celebrated with much vigour in New Zealand as it is not dignified to go from door to door begging for candies, but I understand that the expatriates such as our kids and grandchildren living there hold their own parties in order to carry on the tradition.  This makes me happy!

Scottish SayingFrom ghoulies and ghosties and long leggety beasties and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us!