News From Terre Haute, Indiana

October 31, 2011

MIKE LUNSFORD: The lizard wore long johns, and other Halloween tales

Mike Lunsford
The Tribune-Star

---- — We stocked our house with a supply of Halloween candy last week; Joanie and I stopped into the new dollar store in town and filled a grocery cart with Butterfingers and Baby Ruths and Three Musketeers bars. Every aromatic bit of it has been calling to me from the orange-and-black baskets we keep on a living room trunk ever since.

As she went for a gallon of milk and a bag of pretzels, she told me to pick out what our visitors might like, and, by coincidence, I figured the little ghouls shared a taste for chocolate and caramel and peanuts with me, and if they don’t, I imagine I can find a home for it all. I tossed a bag of Tootsie Pops into the mix, too, quietly hoping that no one but me would like them. As a matter of fact, that bag of goodies hasn’t gotten off my desk yet and, unfortunately, it developed a nasty tear that allowed my favorite flavors — cherry and orange — to spill out.

Halloween has become a quieter affair for us over the past few years. My kids aren’t kids anymore, at least in a physical sense, so we’re no longer loading them into the car and hauling them around in the dark to extort treats from neighbors and friends and family. No Batman capes hanging on the closet door knobs, no Teenage Mutant Turtle masks or face paint to buy anymore, either. We just flip on a porch light and wait for our great nephews and nieces to show up at the door, all still young enough to be holding their parents’ hands in silence. I’m sure they’ll get the hang of it soon.

I recently read that Americans spend more money celebrating Halloween than any other occasion except Christmas and possibly Super Bowl Sunday.

According to a recent Newsweek magazine article, when it is all said and done, we will spend nearly $7 billion in this country on Halloween — more than $2 billion of it on costumes and masks alone. The vast majority of the 1.1 billion tons of pumpkins produced in America is sold for Halloween festivities, and the sales rake in another $150 million. 

My brother and sister and I loved Halloween. We come from a long line of strange relatives, and since we were brought up in the tradition of Lon Chaney’s “Wolfman” and Boris Karloff’s “Frankenstein,” we developed a taste for an amalgam of horror and sugar like any other all-American kid. My mother, who had an almost zero-tolerance policy toward junk television, inexplicably allowed us to stay up late on weekend nights to watch “Sammy Terry” and his creaking coffin lid on WTTV, Channel 4 out of Bloomington. I suppose it was because the station had a limited budget, but Terry had to make do with a rubber spider, a fog machine, and a pair of black double-knit slacks with a matching turtleneck, along with his purple cape, of course.

I enjoyed the spider, by the way, because my Great-Grandmother Clara used to carry one in her purse, just to entertain us kids. I told you I had a strange family…

Celebrating Halloween in our clan did not require deep pockets. Since we lived too far out of town for any of our school friends to come by our place to trick-or-treat, we usually saw only our cousins come to the door. Their costumes were, most often, the ones that we had worn the year before, or that we would wear the year after, because my grandmother, aunt and mom all got together to mend and patch the outfits from our family pool of hole-filled hats, well-worn masks and seedy sports jackets. Much of it was stored in a musty trunk in my grandpa’s garage with my great uncle’s World War II bayonet and duffle bag.

Our costumes never really ran to the dark side either — no vampires, no ax-wielding psychopaths. On more than one occasion, I was a lizard … yes, I did say a lizard. My Grandma Blanche owned an old gargoyle mask, and coordinated with a dyed-green union suit — a tail was sewn to the backside trapdoor — I struck terror into the hearts of neighbors when I leapt through their front doors, a most unimaginative but open brown paper sack in my hands.

My grandmother, who was a deeply spiritual person, still enjoyed Halloween, herself, and saw no devilish connotations to it. She and my mom often donned the rags of hobos, and both wore opaque plastic masks with darkened eyebrows and ruby red lips, their hair tucked under old fedoras. Actually, I found the pair rather creepy.

Our taste for Halloween once led us kids to beg our grandparents into using their coal room — an airless, dank, dungeon of a place in their basement — as a “House of Horrors.” Already a grim-looking, Edgar Allan Poe-kind of recess, my sister, Lora, and cousin, Renee, were put in charge of collecting the massive revenue we expected to rake in when the crowds queued in the stairwell to tour it; they never got the memo. “We asked Mom if she would cook spaghetti so we could use it for intestines,” my sister recalled, “but she said she needed it for supper.”

My sister also reminded me of one of our favorite Halloween haunts: the tiny farm home of the Stahls, who lived up a narrow country lane to our north. They were an old and friendly and wrinkled couple who kept their house somewhere between blast furnace and rocket engine hot, but they actually came across with the goods: chocolate bars and gum, instead of homemade popcorn balls and fruit.

My sister recalled one particular evening when she snagged a Reese’s Cup at the Stahls’ house. “I couldn’t wait to get out of there so I could sink my teeth into that peanut butter and chocolate,” she said. “Coming from a poor kid with a bag full of apples, banana moon pies (I still detest those things) and greasy lunch sacks of popcorn, it was a fleeting taste of Heaven.”

I think she could be a writer, too.

Obviously, I prefer the Halloweens I had as a kid to the ones I see now. We had to be creative — that happens when you have no money — and there were really no tricks in any of us, regardless of what we were given, even rock candy, which then was sold by the train car load. Sis also remembered a time when we all stood in the rain on one particularly cheap neighbor’s doorstep, and only after we were thoroughly soaked were we rewarded with a shiny new dime… 

We didn’t “corn” cars, never ran toilet paper through our neighbors’ trees — even our 10-cent friends — and we never tried to give a local octogenarian a coronary, either. It sounds boring today, I suppose, but despite not having Freddy and Jason, and all of the other mayhem-making creeps to petrify us, we loved it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a Tootsie Pop to finish.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at hickory913@aol.com or c/o The Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. His third collection of stories, “A Place Near Home,” is available through his website and in local stores now. He will be signing at Kadel’s Hallmark from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, at the Clinton Public Library from 4 to 6 p.m. Sunday, and at the Paris, Ill., Public Library from 6 to 8 p.m. (CST) Nov. 10. Visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com or more information.