It was one of those crisp fall days you read about in a Ray Bradbury book. The sidewalks were littered with leaves of all colors, which we kicked with our scuffed Keds on the way to school. For the past three weeks we’d done little besides think about Halloween, and it was finally here. I walked down to the corner and waited for Ann at the telephone pole, idly peeling off a glob of soft tar with my fingers until she hurried across the intersection.
“Hi Debbie! Did you and your brothers get to carve your pumpkin last night? We couldn’t do ours because my dad got home late. Can you come over tonight to have dinner and dress up at my house? My mom said Bruce will take us trick-or-treating.” Ann paused to take a breath. Her cheeks were rosy from the cool morning walk. My best friend was the prettiest girl in fourth grade.
I grinned. “Fred did our jack o’ lantern and it looks great. I probably can come tonight. He’ll be happy to not take me around this year.” We skipped into our classroom together as the bell rang. It had been a smart idea on Mr. Patton’s part not to seat us next to each other, or we’d have talked constantly.
The room looked particularly festive decorated with the construction paper pumpkins, witches, and black cats we’d been making for the last three weeks. Everyone was excited and noisy as we settled at our desks. We all wanted to talk about our costumes, last weekend’s school carnival, and how late we might get to stay out tonight.
Mr. Patton clapped his hands after we did the Pledge. He had an evil grin on his face. “Class, get out a sheet of paper and your pencils. Multiplication quiz!” I groaned quietly. I was out sick for a few days right after school started when we were learning the times tables. I was still trying to catch up, going over flash cards every night with my mom. The elevens and twelves were just impossible.
Maybe because we’d been anticipating this day for so long, it seemed to fly by. After the quiz we had music, then we got to burn off some energy at recess. We girls always jumped rope or played four square while the boys ran around and played basketball. The morning passed uneventfully with California History (we were all assigned one of the California Missions and we were studying them in detail with plans to build miniature ones in the spring.)
After lunch we had Spanish and then Mr. Patton finished reading The Legend of Sleepy Hollow to us. Headless Horsemen! As if something like that could really exist! Most of us laughed and shrugged off the story. The day finally ended when Nancy Fisher’s mom, one of our Girl Scout leaders and our class Room Mother brought in Halloween cupcakes. I got a chocolate one with a tiny plastic black cat stuck in the vanilla frosting. I stuck the little black cat in my dress pocket.
I ran across the playground to take the shortcut home through the school side gate. I hoped I could go trick-or-treating with Ann instead of my brother tonight! I even had a new costume instead of that dumb old Casper one I wore for three years. This year I picked it out myself. I was going as a skeleton. I loved the silky feel of the black costume and how the white painted-on bones seemed to glisten in the dark. And the mask, with the thin elastic cord to go around my head, had eye and nose holes just the right size for me.
“Mom! Mom! Where are you?” I ran inside our apartment, noticing the enormous black bowl of miniature candy on a table by the door, waiting for tonight.
“I’m upstairs putting laundry away, Deb.” I ran up, dumping my school bag in my bedroom. She smiled at me. “How was your day?”
I hugged her. “We had a multiplication test. Mrs. Fisher brought cupcakes. I’m glad it’s over! Ann invited me to have dinner and go trick-or-treating with her. Can I go, please?”
“Yes, her mother phoned. You can go if you’re home by your bedtime. It won’t be the same without my girl here to hand out candy though!”
“Oh Mom, that’s for babies! I’m old enough to go out with just Ann now. Please?”
“I said okay. I remember what it’s like. Now do your homework and get your things together. I’ll drop you off with the car in an hour. You’ll be doing enough walking later.”
I raced to my room and pulled the costume box from my closet. I took down my big plastic orange jack o’ lantern candy container and a sweatshirt and put everything in a brown paper sack. I sat down on the floor and tried to concentrate on practicing my multiplication, but my mind kept drifting. I thought about that story Mr. Patton read to us. Poor Ichabod Crane. Could he actually have been murdered by a headless horseman? Do such things as spooks and ghosts exist, or do people only imagine they do? On TV once Fred and I saw a show that said all the witches and undead souls come to life on Halloween night. Only they called it “All Hallows’ Eve,” which sort of sounds scarier, somehow. I tried to erase what was obviously a wrong answer to 11×8. The paper started to tear a little. I sighed and gave up, closing the book for now.
I glanced out the window. A small breeze was blowing the scattered leaves down the street where Lisa lived. I shivered a little, in anticipation. It was going to be a perfect night.
“Now be sure you thank Mrs. Wagner for dinner. Be polite and say please and thank you. Don’t go to any house without a porch light on. Don’t go inside anyone’s house if we don’t know them! Be sure to say “trick-or-treat” and “thank you” to everyone. And don’t eat anything you get until the Wagner’s or Dad and I go through your candy. Okay?” My mom parked right in front of Ann’s house.
“Yes, Mom. Yes, Mom. Yes, Mom. Thanks, Mom! I love you! See you later!”
“Alright, have fun! I love you too, bye!”
Ann’s mom greeted me at the door. “Hi honey, go on up, Ann is upstairs changing.” I hurried up not even taking time as I usually did to admire the Wagner’s beautiful home. Ann was dressing as Claudia from The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, one of our favorite books. It wasn’t much of a costume, I had to admit, being one of her school skirts and jackets, her sister Beth’s violin in its case, and a knapsack from Girl Scout camp. Even if it didn’t look great, I had to admit it was really creative. It was a shame she didn’t have a younger brother to use as Jamie.
She turned and said I could get changed in her walk-in closet. We were still modest around each other. I shuffled out of my school clothes and into the thin costume. I decided to put my sweatshirt on underneath. It was getting cool out. We stood admiring ourselves in front of her mirror and planning which street we’d go to first. Her father called from downstairs.
“Ann, come down for dinner. You’ll need to leave soon before it gets too dark.” The Wagner’s had a fun tradition at Halloween. They always had hot dogs and doughnuts for dinner. I had never eaten doughnuts except for breakfast. I could hardly even eat my hot dog, I was too excited! Ann’s little sister Beth was pouting and mad she wasn’t allowed to go trick-or-treating with us, and her older brother Bruce looked bored at the aspect of escorting us around.
Her parents repeated what my mom said: be careful, don’t go inside unless we know the people, no unlit houses, don’t eat a thing, etc. We had an hour and a half. Her dad handed each of us a flashlight. “Use these. I don’t want you tripping over a curb or something in the dark. If you get tired, come back. We have candy and apple cider here. Bruce, you stay with them.”
We were off! Why did it seem so different outside on Halloween? Was it just the costumed kids running around? Was it because we rarely even went out at night? The air smelled good – earthy, damp, as if someone in the distance had lit a fire in their fireplace. As we approached the first house, I could smell the aroma of singed pumpkin from the candle in the jack o’ lantern by the door. Bruce wasn’t wearing a costume or carrying a bag for candy and Ann asked him to wait on the sidewalk.
We eagerly called out “trick or treat” and held out our plastic pumpkins as the door opened. “Well, aren’t you cute! What are you supposed to be, little girl? Did you forget your costume? Oh, that’s okay, you can have a treat anyway. Here you go! Happy Halloween!”
“Thank you! Thank you!” we called as the door closed. “Gee Ann, did she really think you forgot your costume? That’s terrible!” I patted her arm in consolation.
“I don’t care,” she replied. “I like my costume. Come on, there’s another group of kids coming behind us, let’s hurry.” At nearly every house we went to, the people who opened the door remarked about Ann’s lack of a costume. I felt bad for her. It was as if she should have pinned a sign on her jacket, “I’m Claudia from The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.”
To take her mind off the subject, I made up a game of trying to guess what type of candy we would get at each house. We both loved the little rolls of Smarties and disliked hard candies, toffee, and chewing gum. Some folks gave money such as a few cents. Others gave apples, which was just about the worst, because everyone had heard the stories of poison and razor blades being found in apples. Some well-meaning moms made beautiful cookies or cupcakes, and we both knew they would be going right in the trash. Who trusts baked goods from someone you don’t know?
We were starting to get tired and my pumpkin and Ann’s knapsack were getting heavy. We approached Ann’s street. Bruce looked at us. “Hey, this is our street. You know where you are, Ann. It won’t take you more than fifteen minutes to do this street. I’m going home and if you’re not back by then I’m coming looking for you.” He left us standing at the corner.
We stared at each other with wide eyes. We were alone, outside on Halloween night! A thrill went through me as we walked slowly up the street. Our time was nearly up and almost all the little kids had gone home. The street was fairly empty. My imagination was running wild. There, behind that tree… was someone lurking there, about to throw eggs at us? Ann grabbed my arm. “Do you see that house over there?”
I swallowed the lump in my throat. “Which one, the one with the ivy-covered walls and the little dim light on the front porch?”
She nodded. “Yes, that one. That’s where the bird man lives. Do you hear the birds calling?” We stopped near a tall wall covered with trailing ivy vines and I turned to listen. I did hear some unusual sounds coming from behind the wall. I wasn’t at all sure it sounded like birds though.
“I – I don’t know if it’s a good idea to go there. It looks kind of dark. Do you know him?”
“No. I just heard he keeps all kinds of birds and you can hear them whenever you walk by here. People make fun of him and think he’s strange,” Ann said.
“Well it is kind of odd to keep wild birds in your backyard, don’t you think? I don’t mind going, if you will.” The night seemed darker as we headed up the narrow dimly-lit front path. Something nearby screeched and we both jumped. As we approached the home, we could see it was really a beautiful old mansion. I rang the doorbell, even though the little dim porch light appeared to be the only one lit in the entire house as far as we could tell. We waited for what seemed like several minutes.
“Maybe we should go. I don’t think anyone’s here,” I ventured, just as the door slowly opened with a soft creaking sound.
We were both too surprised even to say “trick-or-treat.” The door was opened by a formally-dressed elderly butler who greeted us as if we were visiting royalty.
“Good evening, young ladies, and Happy Halloween to you. Hardly anyone’s bothered to come tonight. Won’t you come in? The master will want to have a look at you.”
It was as if all rational thought had completely left us. We both walked right in without even thinking we were warned not to go in a stranger’s house. The butler ushered us down a hallway into a beautiful warm den where another old man sat in a wingback chair watching television.
“Sir, two young ladies to see you.” The old man turned and smiled.
“Trick-or-treating, eh? Oh, how wonderful you both look! Now you must come over here and tell me about your costumes and how you came to choose them.” Ann and I spent a few minutes telling him why I liked skeletons, and how she decided to be Claudia. He told her he would go to the bookstore to find the book, and thought she was very clever to pick a character from a novel. He was very kind, just the way a grandfather should be.
“Thank you for stopping by. Now Hastings, see to it they get their treats on the way out!”
We finally remembered our manners and thanked him. Mr. Hastings led us back to the entryway, where he presented us with a large silver tray of full-size candy bars before we left. “Help yourselves, young ladies, there won’t be many more coming. We enjoyed seeing you.”
As we skipped down the path, I realized we still didn’t know the old man’s name. We ran the rest of the way back to Ann’s house. When we arrived, her dad went through our loot. All the cookies, suspicious-looking candy, and the apples were thrown out. We decided to not tell about going to the bird man’s house. Somehow, we didn’t think our parents would approve of us going inside someone’s home, and might not believe the tale of the butler, either. My dad came to pick me up, and Halloween was officially over. I knew Ann and I would spend many happy hours talking about our first grown-up trick-or-treating.
This is a (mostly) true story. Everything happened exactly as I described for the most part. Ann is still my best friend, and we were in Mr. Patton’s fourth grade class at Roosevelt School. We did go trick-or-treating that Halloween together, and actually, our parents allowed us to go alone!
Times were simpler then. I wish it were so today, because children will never have the same sense of awe, adventure, and spookiness which we had growing up. The things we were scared of: someone chasing us and throwing eggs at us, poison candy which would (at worst) make us sick, mean kids from our school pushing us down and ruining our costumes… these are all so ridiculous and simple! Today no sane parent would let a fourth grader out alone at night.
Our school (and almost all schools) did have a Halloween carnival which was so much fun. All the parents helped man the booths. There was pizza and hot dogs and all sorts of silly games to play and it was not called a politically correct Fall Festival for fear of offending someone.
The part about the bird man is completely true, even down to the butler and the silver tray of full-size candy bars. I suspect this man must have been a naturalist or retired professor who studied birds and loved them. How I wish I knew more about him. We never ever went back to visit him during the day or another Halloween night, sad to say.
This is how it was when I was a little girl nearly half a century ago! As I write this, I can’t believe I’m this age, because I still feel only about twenty-five or thirty years old! It makes me sad to know that such a fun, exciting, awesome, spooky and fascinating holiday has turned into something tame, commercial, and in fact, safe and boring. I don’t mean to imply anything dangerous should happen to any children; that’s not what I mean. Just as in my story when I wondered about spooks and ghosts roaming the earth, it was the feeling that strange and eerie things could possibly happen on Halloween. It is that sense of mystery which I miss most of all. Do you miss it too?