In late August of 1962, the year I was 11, singer Bobby “Boris” Pickett, an aspiring actor and lead singer for a vocal group called “The Cordials”, recorded and released a tune called The Monster Mash ; it came out on Garpax records and was a variation on the “Mashed Potato” dance craze that was sweeping America at the time. The song went on to be one of the most-played Halloween tunes in history, which I think says a lot about popular culture in this country.
1962 was also the year that Old Man Adams scared the living shit out of my buddy Dan Haley and I on Halloween. (FYI, “Dan Haley” is a pseudonym…the names have been changed to confuse the illiterate.)
Halloween is a contraction of the more formal name “All Hallows Eve”, a reference to the fact that it’s the day before November 1st, which is the feast of All Saints Day in the Roman Catholic liturgy, a time of remembrance of all those who have gone before us, i.e., dead folks. Given its connection to the “dearly departed”, a number of traditions have sprung up over the years, traditions that were linked to ghouls, ghosts, witches, dumbfucks and Republicans. (Oh, sorry, I guess those last two were redundant.)
Celebrations included such activities as the carving of “jack o’ lanterns”, which interestingly were originally made from turnips rather than pumpkins (the story of “Stingy Jack” comes from Ireland and is way too long to get into here) and “belsnickeling”, a German-American tradition where neighborhood children would dress in costumes and go from house to house, asking the residents to guess who they were. If the adults were unable to identify the masked little ones, then the kids would go and attempt to find colored eggs and chocolate bunnies with the ears bitten off that had been hidden all around the yard of the home…wait, that’s Easter, sorry. (No, I did not make up the word “belsnickeling”.)
There was also the playing of pranks, good-natured mischief in olden days, morphing to such activities as dumping people’s carved pumpkins from their front porches, “tee-peeing” peoples yards and trees and the old stand-by, “soaping” the windows on people’s houses. Of course, as a kid, I never engaged in any of these childish stunts. (Pinocchio nose, Pinocchio nose.)
Which leads me to Old Man Adams and my friend Dan…
My parents moved us to a brand-new subdivision out on what was then the far west side of Turdtown IL (remember the “names have been changed” thingie above…yeah.) It took me several weeks to find where they had moved, but I eventually did, and we settled into our brand new home in an area that was a bastion of middle-class families with obnoxious kids. Just about every house in the development, built right smack dab in the middle of what was once a huge corn-field, had a working Dad, a stay-at-home Mom and 2.3 children of various genders.
Block after block, street after street, house after house, we all had a Chevy in every pot and two chickens in every driveway, or whatever the hell it was that Herbert Hoover said.
All except Mr. and Mrs. Adams.
In the midst of all this “working class hero” shtick, surrounded by kids and baseballs and plastic pools and bicycles, napalm, hopscotch markings on the sidewalks, copper mines and basketball hoops on the garages, there sat the home of Old Man Adams and his wife, right on the corner just two houses down from ours. They were in their late 50s, reclusive, childless and unfriendly and frankly, they hated kids. (Living in that neighborhood and not liking children was like living on an island in the middle of the ocean and hating water.)
Adult nor child dare touch the precious grass of their lawn with a foot, you never knocked on their door to sell school raffle tickets or magazine subscriptions and under no circumstances could you run up in their yard and retrieve an errant ball. If a ball went into Old Man Adams’ yard, he came out and confiscated it, and then one of the parents had to go and ask him for it. (I thought Dan’s dad, a big burly Irish guy who drove a truck, was going to level Adams one time when he went up to the front door to ask for Dan’s baseball when it had gotten past me and rolled onto the Elysian Fields.) And the house was always dark on All Hallows Eve. He was roundly disliked by the adults and hated by the kids.
So Danny and I decided that Mr. Adams was going to get a surprise visit from us on Halloween night.
The Adams house faced Camford Street, my street, and their garage sat behind the house, around the corner so to speak, facing Fairway Drive, and there was a space of yard between the garage and the next house, so you could walk along the side of the garage, turn behind it and approach the back of their house, which Dan and I, both equipped with candle stubs, were in the process of doing that night, under the cover of darkness. (FYI, “soaping “ a window was no big deal…it came right off with a good soaking from a garden hose; candle wax required a WHOLE lot more work to remove.)
Crouched over and tip-toeing, trying not to giggle, with me in the lead, we crept along the side of the garage. I had just turned to Dan to shush him once more, and as I came around the corner of the garage, head down, I ran smack into Mr. Adams in the dark; he had apparently been hiding behind the house, anticipating such a prank from the hated neighbor kids.
I let out a terrified scream, turned and began to run, yelling for Dan to do the same; we didn’t stop running for about fifty-eight blocks. Old Man Adams had scared the living shit out both of us.
So since the “shit” was out (you’ll see where I’m going with this in a moment), we got even several evenings later.
After dark that night, Dan and I went back behind his garage and, sorry for the indelicacy, literally crapped in a paper shopping bag. We took said bag, which was decidedly odoriferous, snuck up to the Adams’ front stoop, put the bag down and set it on fire, then rang the doorbell and ran like hell down a few houses and hid in some bushes where we could see the Adams’ front door. And sure enough, the outside light came on and there was Old Man Adams, who opens the door, sees the conflagration, steps out, looks around, stamps on the fiery bag angrily with his foot and then, lifting his shoe up where he could see it, realizes what he has just stepped in.
To paraphrase what the great comedian Richard Pryor once said about retribution, we wasn’t mad no more either.
Given all the mystery and strange tradition surrounding the Halloween holiday, every year I receive a number of letters, emails, texts, etc., asking questions about this most scary of nights. I thought I would share a few of the more inane, excuse me, interesting of these with you, my loyal readers.
“Dear Cap’n John:
Is it true that “name-brand” bar soaps like Dove and Irish Spring work much better for “cleaning” windows (wink, wink) than the more inferior “store brands”, such as Publix’ “Scrubba Dubba” or the Walmart brand “Soap”? Asking for a friend.
I Only Do Windows Once A Year Wendy”
That’s absolutely true, and here’s a tip…you can enhance the cleaning power of these products by writing “Fuck you, Adams” in large letters on each window with a Big Dipper Pure Beeswax candle before applying the soap.
“Dear Cap’n John:
My husband was carving festive Jack o’ Lanterns last year for our children when he had an unfortunate accident with his Husqvarna 36-volt chain saw and is now called “Stubby” by our friends. Can you suggest a fun (and safe) Halloween activity that we can share with our kids that doesn’t require sharp implements?
Lefty’s Wife Laura”
Well, you could thrill the kiddies and create all kinds of new and interesting decorative motifs in your home by playing the delightful game “Bobbing For Hand Grenades”, or possibly settle down in front of the big-screen with the little ones and a big bowl of popcorn to watch the video “Slasher John From Peoria: Buckets of Blood Part III”.
“Dear Cap’n John:
We were wondering if there is any truth to the rumor that you can reanimate a dead body, assuming you’ve removed it from its grave within 24 hours of burial, using a combination of ZEP Wax Stripper, a tampon, two horned scullies, an artichoke and a 12-volt DieHard® battery?
Dr. Frank and Igor”
Dear “Frank and Ernest (sorry, Igor)”:
Yes, that combo will work, but only if the ingredients have been blessed by a priest of the Roving Spastic Church (a small fee is involved) and is done on a cloud-covered night with a full moon intermittently moving in and out from behind the clouds; there should be a giant rabid wolf howling in the far-off background as well. You might also want add a sprig of hemlock for flavor.
“Dear Cap’n John:
I’ve been invited to a Halloween costume party and I’m having some trouble deciding on “who to be”…I thought about going as President Trump, but I didn’t want to use six pounds of orange makeup and an IQ reducer. Then I thought about dressing as a moron, but I didn’t want to use six pounds of orange makeup and an IQ reducer. I could probably put together a pretty decent “Wicked Witch of the East” costume but I’m concerned about falling houses. Any ideas for me?
Costume-Challenged Connie From Cleveland”
Did you know that besides being the armpit of North America, Cleveland is also the home of Chef Boyardee, the canned spaghetti king? And that Cleveland celebrates “Dyngus Day” on the Monday after Easter, which includes the crowning of “Ms. Dyngus”, every year?
Okay, by show of hands, how many of you thought “belsnickeling” was something dirty and disgusting? (And were looking forward to trying it, first chance?)
Love and black cats,