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October 28, 2017

Growing up in Louisa... Halloween!

Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn

 In spite that our high-school colors, Scarlet & Black, were usually everywhere, including uniforms, letter-sweaters, jackets, and crepe paper that lined the bulletin boards in the classrooms and hallways of our school, there was one time of year that was an exception. That was during each respective October. The conflict between school colors and the influx of the season’s traditional Orange and Black was brought on by the annual return of what some call ‘the haunting season.’ While tales of the supernatural are common in hill-county, and stories of haunted houses, strange lights, screams, ghosts, and even the walking dead, command the attention of some, for me they were more a curiosity, or a mystery instead of something real to be feared. I was told by my elders that some of the less sophisticated populace back in the sticks were prone to buy into these stories and swear by them, but my experience relates more to the real reason for Halloween; the great hope of getting buckets of candy, apples, and other indulgences when the practice of ‘trick or treating’ made its annual return.

Again, looking briefly at the seasonal colors, one must assume that the fall’ish orange hue came from the turning of leaves, or even arguably because of the ripe pumpkins seen lying in farmer’s fields. On the other hand, black, one of the school colors, emits a feeling of dread, doom, or even death. It is a common color that is worn by the grieving after the passing of a family member or close friend. Make no mistake. Darkness is clearly a sign of the ‘underworld’ where demons play and vent their mischief. The color, or lack thereof, is seen on the witches as they are silhouetted riding their broomsticks across the lit face of the full moon. Ah, my friends, know this: October has arrived once more.    

On a recent morning, well before the break of dawn, I saw a full moon low in the western sky as I drove to work. That moon seemed larger than normal, perhaps it was a ‘harvest moon,’ well-lit and low on the horizon. It was surrounded by a fuzzy halo of clouds that were altogether inadequate to block its view. Therefore, it appeared a little spooky and was a reminder of the upcoming season. As I crossed the long bridge that I use to go to work daily the glistening moon produced a reflection across the smooth face of the James River, below. In a way, it was a comforting sight, reminding me of memories that I am but a speck on this earth and frankly have little long-term effect.

It also pulled my thoughts of that other century in which I spent my youth. I took a long breath and exhaled as I shrank beneath my seatbelt and peered over the dashboard of my SUV. I was reminded that the moon long preceded me and is certain to continue after I’m gone. Thus, feeling insignificant, my heart nonetheless filled with a satisfaction. You see, I felt grateful and blessed that I have lived this long. Like the Native American who has seen ‘many moons’ and I have memories, good and bad. These override what is a minor thought of spooks, goblins, and the ‘undead.’ The larger picture more than dismisses those fears I already knew to be false. That shining sphere in the heavens was a sign that despite the crazies in this world, mother earth and its moon continues on its celestial cycle.

I turn now to the subject I had intended to share. My thoughts as I write this is about those early days when excitement over the upcoming holiday built within me promises of sugar and fun. I saw a picture of my childhood teachers struggling to decorate each classroom on limited budgets and meager supplies. It was likely that some spent their personal funds to insure everything was done to make the season a success. I assume that most classes at the grade school were planning parties to mark the occasion. Surely all would enjoy the tri-colored candy corn, see the freshly picked gourds of color, and several bales of straw that set the scene. The teachers had every reason to hope that their young charges would bond and make memories of the season. Once those memories were made, we would retain them for generations to follow.

 I remember that my class all took turns with the decorations. No child was to be left out, and indeed, even if the artistic talent was lacking, there were other assignments to insure full participation. We colored and cut out witches and goblins, carved pumpkins, and displayed dried corn stalks. Scare crows and black cats popped up everywhere, and we pretended fright when toy spiders swung from webs made of string. Those heavy bales of straw would be set around displays and sheets of paper where placed on worktables, ready for kids to use to make invitations to the party. Everyone would join in by dressing up in homemade costumes. In those days, it was rare to find the plastic manufactured outfits, so moms would take old bedsheets, cut holes, and designed get-ups for their little muffins. The kids would soon enough help rid of any surplus candy and cookies. I remember that my mom had some tin cookie cutters shaped like stars, pumpkins, witches, witch’s hats, and other icons of the season. I put on an apron and helped her make batch after batch. It was my job to sprinkle green and red sugar (orange and black sugar wasn’t available) on top of still-hot, fresh out of the oven, sugar-cookies. Yum! Sadly, I was allowed only one since the rest were to be taken to school for my classmates.

Every year during my grade school days my Mom worked hard on my costume. I recall wearing a cowboy outfit once, and a Frankenstein monster outfit with mask on another. I loved to practice the ‘stiff-legged’ walk as I held menacing hands out before me. Younger kids would run and give out mock screams yelling that a monster was after them. What fun it was to watch them pretend to panic. We knew little of today’s movie trend to raise ‘Zombies,’ out of graves and send them into the streets. We lived in a more innocent time, I guess.

 Back in the day, store-bought masks were a relatively new thing. They were sold at the Five & Dime Store, and I think at the Corner Store that was snuggled just under the Brunswick Hotel. I’m not sure if Ed Land’s Sundry sole them, but it’s possible. An early mask I had was a painted on a stiff, molded gauze and had tiny holes for eyes. It had a single hole for the mouth. This third hole was far too small to be of use to eat or drink, as I would find out. A rubber band held the mask tight to my face, but I developed a licking habit that soon enough made the mask wetter with each passing hour. I think the final test was trying to drink through the mask while it was still affixed to my face. That was the last straw. (Should have used one.) Finally, there was nothing I could do except take the mask off and expose my ‘secret’ identity. I would soon end up throwing the mask away. Next year mom would have to buy me another. It would be a few years before rubber ‘pullover’ masks were made available.

It is likely that during the party we played games, such as musical chairs. At least once we listened to the reading of the ‘headless horseman,’ and dunked for apples in a big tub, (making a big mess on the floor). We stuffed cookies into our mouths until we could hold little more. I remember that I tried to sneak some extra sugar cookies into my pockets for later consumption, but with active play the sweet prizes soon crumbled, first into chucks and pieces, and finally into crumbs. Yep, when I fished for a cookie, I found that my pockets were full of a sand-like substance. When I cupped a pile of the stuff in my palm I discovered that I could touch them with my wet tongue and pick up some still pretty good-tasting stuff. It was then I discovered that I had some other things I left in that pocket. Yuk! I quickly found a trash can and turned my pocket inside out so that all the debris would empty out. Some went on the floor, but I don’t think the teacher knew who made the mess. What a waste of good cookies!

There’s no doubt we enjoyed the feast and all the games. The sugar from our Kool-Aid drinks and the many cookies and cupcakes sent us on a high. Coming back down from the high was the tough part. It was our poor moms that had to deal with the resultant worn-out and unhappy kids that were too sick to eat supper before going to bed. Frankly, my stomach hurt so I didn’t care about food.

 My favorite part of going trick or treating was soaping up windows. I carried a secret purloined bar of soap just for the occasion. I think some of the older kids taught me to do that, but it might have even been my mother. I do remember her telling me not to do windows at certain places, especially if they gave us a treat. I was to never soap a screened door or window. “Window screens will hold the soap and would be hard for the owners to clean later,” she said. The best place to soap were the stores that had big picture windows. They were up and down Madison and Main Cross, but a few others were spread around town here and there. I’m sure several would have to hire someone to clean those the next day, anyway. I was told not to do the post office. That would be a federal offense. Whoa!

All of this happened well before the days of real or rumored tainted candies. It was several years later when I was told that some really sick and mean people had inserted razor blades into apples, and they had put poisons, drugs, or broken glass, into candy or cookies. That’s beyond mean! We had to inspect every piece before popping them in our waiting mouths. We stopped eating popcorn balls and other ‘homemade’ treats since they could more easily hide booby traps. We also reduced the number of houses we visited and selected only those we trusted. Usually these were places where the owners had kids of their own.

I don’t recall when I got too old for ‘trick or treating,’ but I assume that that surely happened before I moved on to the seventh grade and started enjoying my ‘high school’ years. I have mentioned in prior articles, that my family actually became fearful of what might happen to our home on Halloween. My Great Aunt was a school teacher, so some older teens would do things out of spite that damaged our house or might have even hurt somebody. We figured that if we were in the way or in a place we could witness who did something we may reduce vandalism. I remember once that they threw a dead hawk or chicken on our porch and another time someone threw a metal stop sign through our living room window. That heavy sign knocked a big chip in our new TV cabinet. We were lucky because the TV continued to work. The window and its framing had to be replaced and I’m sure it cost money I doubt we had. For these reasons, my cousin and I would stay home and stand guard outside the house until late in the evening. It wasn’t that we were intimidating, but misbehaving teens didn’t want to be identified. They wouldn’t do anything with us out there. When they saw us, they acted as if nothing was afoot. It’s likely some other teacher or business suffered instead, or maybe the events of prior years were just that, and mean pranks stopped. I suspect that Sheriff Jake Jordan and policeman Bernard Nelson had their hands full with gangs of teens going around town looking for mischief.   

After becoming a grown fellow, I helped set up haunted houses, and the like for youth groups. I remember once when I had left for the Air Force I worked with a youth group to come up with a ‘controlled’ tour of this old ‘haunted’ house. We had a real casket and had someone dress up like Dracula and lay there with a light reflecting upon their powdered white face. When a kid got close, Dracula would rise up from the coffin with a menacing growl. I got a bunch of animal bones from a butcher and hung them, some with a little bloody meat still intact.  Kids going through had to bump into those to pass by to the next room or to exit. I think a high percentage of folks enjoyed the idea of ‘being scared.’ As if the theme park rides aren’t scary enough, some have designed Halloween activities, with spooks jumping out to alarm the unsuspecting attendee. I know my wife was startled at Busch Gardens, near my Virginia home, when a scarecrow on display suddenly moved toward her. They put on a Hallow-Scream Event in every October during the hours of darkness. Hmmm. Hours of darkness. Maybe that says something?

Well, anyway, this is the time of year that we turn to such thoughts, but the timid can take courage since it is also the season that preceeds the celebration of happier events. Thanksgiving and Christmas are already on the horizon. If we hold our breath during this next week, then we will have something far better to anticipate. It is good to give thanks for the family and our nation, for full moons, reflections on the water, kid’s parties, and lots of COOKIES! (What out for the crumbs)

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Comments  

-2 #1 bernard 2017-10-28 16:58
Great article Mike. Lots & lots of memories growing up, in WV, OH & KY. Most kids back then did the same things with minor differences. Just don't get into any trouble ehis year, you will have a hard time trying to prove You're a teen-ager. ha ha. Thanks for the memories.
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