I love Halloween. Okay, I lied. I actually hate Halloween. Check that. As a kid, I loved Halloween; as a parent, I hated Halloween! I understand and appreciate the latent connection between the ‘holiday’ (cue sarcasm) we call Halloween and it’s ancient predecessor, All Saints Day. For the purposes of this article, however, I will disassociate the two. In its modern iteration, I think we should be honest and call Halloween what it is: Evening Where Kids Dress up in Weird Costumes and Collect Bags of Candy from Random Strangers and Try Not to Get Beat Up by Donald Gonnerman.
During my golden age of trick-or-treating, from ages seven to 10, I lived in Luverne, Minnesota. I didn’t eat much candy because candy cost money. I didn’t have money, so you can draw the logical inference. Hence, any time candy was handed out for free, I took liberal advantage! My parents tolerated this celebration of sugar and even helped with our costumes. My mom was a creative genius and came up with some wonderful homemade outfits. I was the same character every year – a bum. Because, hey, it was easy. I dressed up in some of my dad’s ratty lawn-mowing clothes, then drew a fake beard and mustache on my face with a black marker. I topped it off with a beat up fedora. To legitimize my bum persona, I rolled up a piece of brown paper grocery bag into a fake cigar. “Did you ever light the fake cigar?” you might be wondering. Yes. It was harsh.
The last time I went trick-or-treating, I was in 5th grade. Donald Gonnerman (think Scott Farkas*) was a year ahead of me. He was slightly bigger and a lot meaner. He had already pummeled me once on the school playground. For what I don’t remember, but I must have lipped off to him. In any case, on that October 31st, he had threatened to beat me up again should he catch me out and about. Not to be deterred, my siblings and I set out with some neighborhood friends on a chilly October evening ready to scrounge for candy. With the recent threat of violence on my mind, I kept my head on a swivel. It was a glorious night. Five of us traipsed through neighborhoods near and far. Seems so simple now: knock on door, person opens door, kids shout, “Trick or treat!” Person hands out candy!
After a couple hours, we headed home, our bags pregnant with all manner of kiddie gold...Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Snickers, Milk Duds, Baby Ruths, Milky Ways, Three Musketeers, $100,000 Bars. Homemade popcorn balls or apples? We threw those in the bushes. Because, razor blades?
We were a block from home minding our own business when I heard a vehicle round the corner behind us. There were three or four kids riding in the back of a pickup truck. Out of nowhere, something hit me right in the middle of my back. The rest of the group were being pelted by a barrage of what looked like snowballs. When I looked down at the sidewalk, however, I saw fragments of egg shells and yellow yolk splattered everywhere, including my bum costume. The kids in the truck were chucking eggs at us! I didn’t get a good look at the perps, but I have a feeling it was the Gonnermans and their troublemaking sidekicks, the Harms brothers. (Think Grover Dill.*)
When we got home, we counted and categorized our loot. Not only did we have a stash of candy to eat but we also had scrip to use for barter. “Hey, I’ll give you two Reeses for a Milky Way!” I was prudent with my candy consumption as my goal was to make it last until Christmas, at which time I would get another free bag of candy at the church Christmas pageant.
Fast forward 25 years. I was teaching and coaching full time. My wife’s business was in full swing. We had three kids in school, all of whom looked forward to free candy as much as we did when we were kids. There was only one problem. Costumes. Neither one of us enjoyed conjuring up costumes for the kiddos to wear. It usually came down to the day before Halloween. Me: “Hey, did you get Halloween costumes for the kids?” Her: “No! I thought you were going to take care of that!” Me: “Shoot!”
Since neither one of us had the time nor the talent to make homemade costumes for the kids, I would run down to Mallat’s Pharmacy & Costumes on Monroe St. and pick out some cheap-o costumes in bags. The kids didn’t seem to mind. It was all about the candy. By this time, most kids were not given free rein to run around the neighborhood unsupervised. Parent’s and/or grandparents would chaperone their little ones and stand off to the side as they repeated their candy-grubbing dialogues. We would have a steady stream of customers throughout the evening and the outside lights would stay on as long as the supply of candy held out.
We lived in three different neighborhoods while our kids grew up. The last one was called Harlan Hills Estates, an upscale ‘burb outside Madison. By now, the kids had outgrown trick-or-treating, but it didn’t end for me. Each October 31st, I was shamed into going to the grocery to buy $100+ worth of candy for the hordes of kids that would descend on our neighborhood. Word must have gotten out that residents were passing out jumbo candy bars. Instead of just the local little ones out for the night, people started bussing kids from other parts of the city into our neighborhood. I’m not making this up. Once I saw a sprinter van park up the street. 20 kids piled out and made their way down the sidewalk like a swarm of locusts. I begged my wife to let me turn out the lights so everybody would think we were gone, but to no avail. “That’s not very neighborly,” she said. The final straw for me, however, was the Halloween night when a car pulled up in front of our house and four teenagers, including the driver, walked up to our door carrying pillow cases. None of them were wearing costumes. They rang the doorbell and when I opened the door, they just stood there with their pillow cases open and didn’t say a word. With a look of contempt, I said “Yeah? What do you say?”
In a deep bass voice, the driver, who had a 5:00 o’clock shadow, said, “Trick or treat.” I gave the four freeloaders the last of our candy, closed the door and said to my wife, “That’s it. Never again.” I made good on that vow and never bought candy for Halloween again.
These days, come Halloween, I hunker down in our gated condo community safe from juvenile marauders looking for a sugar high. I will admit that my cynical heart has been softened by pictures of our grandchildren in costumes ready to take their turns at trick-or-treating. I loved Halloween as a kid. I hated it as a parent. Now, as a grandpa, I’m starting to love it again! Trick or treat!
*See characters from A Christmas Story, the greatest Christmas movie ever made. Sorry, all you fans of It’s a Wonderful Life. You know I’m right.