Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Country Pumpkins

For a kid in the country, life can at times be lonely, especially at Halloween, when your lack of human contact translates directly into dismal candy poundage. Trick or treat all you want with the cows - they don't hand out tootsie rolls. Most of them don't, anyway.

The kids in town had it easy - they'd walk from door to door, scoring a Hershey bar or pixie stick every 8 seconds. They’d haul in enough sugar to last until Easter. But in the country, Halloween was, sadly, a non-profit industry. With the houses so few and far between, there was simply no way to accumulate a decent amount of candy, even with a parent driving you around. We still went through the routine, out of a ridiculous sense of ritual, although many traditions were altered a bit, for survival's sake.

The first tradition to tweak was the costume. Creativity was worthless- there was little reason to make or buy a fancy costume if you were just going to bury it under a parka anyway. We looked like lurching balls of yarn. If someone asked me what I was for Halloween, I'd reply, "I am cold!" That usually shut them up, and sometimes they'd even throw in some 'pity' candy.

Neighbor Lady: Oh, my – what are you dressed up as?

Me: I'm the tooth fairy, ok? Got any chocolate?

Neighbor Lady: Your pretty costume is all covered up by your jacket.

Me: Could we move this along, please? I’d love to stand here in the sleet and chat, but I can’t feel my toes.

The focus was instead on survival. Your costume would consist of as many layers as possible, for several reasons:

1. warmth – in upstate New York, sub-freezing temperatures in October were routine. We often had snow on the ground. Try wearing a Tinkerbell outfit and battling frostbite at the same time. My Aunt Marge did it once, but she had a huge jug of Gallo wine.

2. anonymity – with a ski cap pulled low across my brow, a scarf across my face, and a Sears polyester bubble-wrap parka pouffing out my torso like the Michelin Man, I was basically encased in an arctic burkha. No one would know it was me taking my little sister trick-or-treating, so no hassle at school for that. That wasn't me - that must've been her handler from the zoo. Humiliation could hurt as much as frostbite.

Plus, bundled up like that, I could murmur naughty invectives at people because they couldn’t tell what I was saying, my words muffled much like the linguistically challenged who burble at us via speakers at fast-food drive-throughs. Behind a Montgomery Wards ski mask and several layers of scarves, a cheery "F**k you!" was often mistaken for a "Thank you!"

3. protection - many dogs liked to play "Pull the mitten off the kid and make her drop her candy." Usually they'd settle for a glove or a hat, giving us a chance to escape. We kept extra, expendable clothes in the car to share with the next mutt we ran into.

However, nothing, nothing could deter Farmer Hornbeck’s guard goose. It was fast, loud, and frightening - honking, flapping and charging at us full throttle, wings akimbo and utterly outraged. It was quite adept at pulling off mitten after mitten, then going after your ankles. We kept candy corn in our hands to distract it, throwing the candy for it to eat in order to buy some time to reach the safety of our car. You knew if it attacked your ankles, you were going down. Then you were doomed, because no one would dare venture out of the car to save you. You had to lie still in the cold mud, hands about your face for protection, and wait for it to stop pecking at you and waddle away.

Neighbor Lady: Oh, my, look at you, all covered in mud – what are you dressed up as?

Me: The Creature from the Black Lagoon, ok? Got any chocolate?

Neighbor Lady: You should be more careful, dear. You got your pretty costume all dirty.

Me: Could we move this along, please? I’d love to stand here in the sleet and chat, but I can’t feel my freakin’ toes.

All this for a tootsie roll, or, heaven forbid, if the people were anti-sugar, a tiny bag of carrots or a toothbrush. At least Charlie Brown got rocks. You could do some damage with those.

While Mom drove us door to door, Dad stayed home and scared the living daylights out of any visitors. Actually, he did that every day, but Halloween was special.

Dad would put sheets over the small trees that lined the driveway, turning them into ghosts, but not really fooling anyone. The yard looked more like a redneck clothesline than a herd of spooky ghosts. I wanted to put a few cows in the front yard, paint them red and put duct tape on them – now that would be frightening, or at least be abstract art that could potentially win us government funding. But I guess that was tweaking tradition a bit too far, so we settled for Dad’s lame tree ghosts to spook any trick-or-treaters wandering our way.

What our Halloween visitors didn't realize was that one of the tree ghosts was actually not a tree at all, but rather my dad, under a sheet, pretending to be a tree ghost. They would drive slowly up our driveway, looking at our fierce horde of tree ghosts, exclaiming how they were soooo unscary, ha-ha, when suddenly one of the tree ghosts, usually Dad, would leap at their car. Everyone in the car would scream, wet their pants, and try not to drive off the cliff.

Did I mention the cliff? We lived on a ridge, and the driveway was shaped like a fishhook, angling across a huge front yard, the downhill side of it dropping off steeply. In daylight, the drive alone was enough to scare people away. Add darkness and a freaky dad-tree-ghost to the mix, and visitors simply never came back.

While Dad was busy 'greeting' people at home, we would trudge from farmhouse to farmhouse, braving fierce dogs, spooky cats, and creepy people, just to get a sticky, clumped popcorn ball that would immediately begin to suck lint from our clothing. My little sister often sat on hers, gluing herself to the car seat. At the next stop she'd realize she was stuck and squeal "Help meeeee!" I'd have to yank on her, hard, to release her from the firm grip of the sticky ball. Often the two of us would fly out the car door into the dirt, whatever goodies we had gathered spilling out into the darkness, our arctic padding saving us from injury. Mixed blessing actually, since I got to pull really hard on her arms, on the pretext of 'helping' her out of the car, and not get in trouble for it.

My sister once literally disappeared. She had been walking behind me, half a popcorn ball still stuck to her bottom, screeching just to keep warm, "Wait uuuuup! Wait uuuuup! Wait uuuuup!" when bloop! Gone. Nothing but serene, peaceful quiet.

Three miles down the road Mom noticed how quiet it was, realized Chatty Kathy was missing, and made me go back and find her. Turns out little sister had missed a step on a narrow walkway and had been swallowed up by a snowy ditch. The only thing that saved her from falling further into an icy crevasse was the sticky popcorn ball on her butt. It had caught in a crack and stuck, much like an ice axe would dig into the snow, saving its hiker from plummeting down Mount Everest. After sorting through her candy and discussing my fee, I pulled her out and we trudged on.

Because there were no streetlights, quite often it was incredibly dark. Pitch black, blanket-across-your-face dark. Sometimes we were lucky enough that the full moon was out, shining on the snow, so we could see our fingers shaking and be reminded how freaking cold we were.

By this
time, if we could gather enough strength, we would start fighting in the car, and, if we were lucky, Mom would 'punish' us by turning the car around and going home. Then we'd eat all the candy left over from the people who didn’t visit our house anymore because my Dad had frightened them away. Why we ever left the farm is beyond me. Tree ghosts had much more fun.

1 comment:

Kristina said...

I lived out in the country when I was growing up too, although it wasn't quite as much in the country. We'd go trick-or-treat at the neighbor's house (yes, house) (OK, there were a couple other houses within a mile of us, but they were a little far to walk to with costumes on), and then our folks would drive is into town to do a bit of trick-or-treating.

We didn't have as many animals as you did, but we did have a pony, a goat (and briefly, 2 baby goats), 3 chickens, 3 ducks (so cute!), 2 dogs, and usually around 3 cats.