Halloweens past and present

Monday, October 31, 2005

When I was a kid, Halloween came and went almost as fast as the belly-ache did.

Unless you were a rich kid, you made a costume of what you could pilfer from other family members' closets. Anyone else wear Dad's work clothes and go as a bum, but never tell him that? You went out and piled up all the candy you could in one carefully-orchestrated community canvassing, a scientific grid-based strategy that would put census-takers to shame, for a night of sheer gluttony.

And then you went home, exhausted and dragging, half frozen and shivering, bits of your carefully compiled costume hanging off you in dirty ruins, and ate until you got sick all barfed all night and got grounded for a week because you didn't listen to your mom's "one handful" order.

Yeah, it was wonderful.

Halloween these days is a month-long extravaganza. A kid needs a whole wardrobe of costumes to make it through. And they cost more than the Bob Macke gowns that the TV costuming department used to commission for Cher.

Parents need a second mortgage to purchase all the necessary decor from the eight aisles of the stuff that go on display about April or so at the Wal-Mart.

You need an appointment book to schedule Halloween for your kids.

You've got your school Halloween parties. (The one where mom finds out at 8 p.m. the night before that she has been volunteered to bake two dozen orange cookies.) You've got the Halloween parade. Various little Halloween carnivals and fairs. The costume contest at the art gallery. Costumed sleep-overs for all the friends. Spooky movie night at the theater. Spooky book night at the library. The mandatory car trips to Haunted Houses where the most frightening thing is the admission charge.

You've got downtown trick-or-treating, Faith, Hope & Charity trick-or-treating, college dorms trick-or-treating, Pistol Pete's trick-or-treating, relatives' houses trick-or-treating - followed, of course, by regular trick-or-treating night.

It's all great, but it is a lot of Halloween.

The kids must end up with more candy than Nestles has crunch. What on earth do they do with it all? Is this holiday sponsored by the Storm Lake Dentists Retirement Foundation?

I can honestly say I only learned one lesson from all of the Halloweens of my misspent youth.

Unlike all the other homes, with their porch lights and grown-ups reluctantly offering up a bowl of sugary sweets to make sure a kid didn't get more than one Twizzler, there was one house on the outskirts of my neighborhood where they simply put out a sign that said, "Help yourself."

Oho! "Help yourself!!" How those two simple words set off fireworks inside a candy-crazed kid's fevered cranium. A license to make off with all you can carry! I suppose it is the same impulse that results in looting in flooded New Orleans.

There was a big hole in the screen door at the old house, and within reach inside was a rickety table laden with tempting candy - talking full-size Baby Ruth here - nobody around to guard.

Except, unseen in the shadows, one gigantic hulking black dog of vastly uncertain breeding. Reach once, and you were fine. But try to grab for a second handful, and you would hear a deep, rumbling growl begin, as if from the very hounds of hell. A pair of red eyes would snap open, and the beast would stir to its feet and begin to purposefully walk toward the offending youth, nails clicking ominously on the wood porch, fangs flashing in the moonlight.

I learned that lesson. So did lots of my greedy little compatriots, who you would hear let out a sudden bloodcurdling yell, their bag of candy spilling through the air as they sprinted away down the sidewalk at mach 1, all the way home.

That's the first image that pops into my mind to this day when I'm tempted to get carried away and reach for more than I need and have coming.

Help yourself to a $30,000 pickup? A six-bedroom house? A designer suit? Trip to Europe? An undeserved tax deduction? A fancy-smansy career? In my mind, I hear thick claws begin to click on a wood floor...

It's true for a lot of things in life. Help yourself to those things you think you want so badly, but realize there are consequences for all you take, and they just might bite. A good lesson for some politicians, perhaps.

I got to know that dog in later years. It was big as a house but gentle as a kitten. And smart as a whip. I think it enjoyed playing the enforcer for Halloween, which it did for a good many years, scaring the dickens out of many a trick-or-treater.

Other than that one night a year, I'm sure I never heard the animal growl once, even when the neighborhood toddlers would maul it around.

Even a dog, it seems, can pretend to be something scary on that one night a year.

I believe that dog, by the way, was named Trouble. I smile at that. You don't have to go looking for trouble. When "your eyes get bigger than your stomach," as my grandmother used to say of greed, trouble will come looking for you.