Halloween 1959: Childhood Adventures in a Different Time, Different America
It is finally here — Friday, October 30th — the day of our Halloween party at school.
[None of us in Mrs.Young’s first grade class knows that two days ago John F. Kennedy officially began planning his presidential campaign at his brother Bobby’s house, or that this week Lee Harvey Oswald fled to the Soviet Union to renounce his U.S. citizenship. Maybe that means it’s not fair to write it here, 50 years later, but that’s the fun of writing a blog in first-person tense with the abandon of a kid. I can if I wanna.]
My grandmother (“Nana”) says she is afraid of a man called Fidel Castro. She says she thinks he is secretly a communist. I know communists are Bad Guys Who Want to Hurt Us. Nana says we should worry because he’s in Cuba and that is by Florida. I live on Wheeler Street in Macomb, Illinois, in the United States of America. That is not by Florida, Mom says. Mom says if I want to go somewhere, she will take me to China to see the children who are starving because I don’t eat liver.
I know Russia is a bad place to want to go. We watch the sky for Russian planes. The teacher showed us pictures of them and the flags painted on them. When she blows a special horn, we have to hide under our school desks. We have to stay there for two minutes until she says it’s safe to come out. Jim picks off gum and eats it under there.
We are not in a war yet in Macomb but our country is in a Cold War and we could get bombed. My brother is only four and he doesn’t know anything. I told him that our soldiers are fighting Russian soldiers, maybe in places like Alaska, which I know is the coldest state, and the war might come to us in Illinois, maybe when the snow comes this winter and it gets cold enough.
We are ready, if the Commies come to Macomb. During recess, the older boys play baseball and the older girls do double-dutch jump rope, but us younger kids line up outside on the playground in two lines, like for Red Rover, only we don’t play that anymore. The first six girls on the field get to be nurses, three on each side. We used to play Red Light, Green Light or Red Rover or Boing Boing (you just bounce into people and say “boing boing” and knock them down), but we now we play War. It started with a group of about 10 of us, but now there are a lot of classes who play with our class.
The lines run at each other yelling like we do for Cowboys and Indians because in War, you get excited and you have to scare people. Teachers say we can’t tackle each other anymore, and no more bloody noses, so now we kill each other with tag. When a bad guy soldier pushes you (Teacher says “touches you”), you have to fall down. That’s how he shoots you and you have bullets in your body and you are dead. You can only get alive again if a nurse touches you. I am a nurse when I can get outside first.
Sandy, who is my best friend, likes to be a soldier more than a nurse. She’s a tomboy and she can fight good. She gave Leigh a bloody nose and it was funny because he was picking on my brother and he made Bobby cry and he said, “Look at the Monkey Boy cryyyyy.” I yelled at him to stop it, but Sandy went right up to him and punched him in the face. He cried himself then and she said, “Now you look like a Monkey Boy, Monkey Boy.” He didn’t tell anybody because he would get hit by the other boys if a girl beat him up.
Sandy’s dad changed a root cellar in their backyard into a bomb shelter. It used to have concord grape vines all around it on a trellis, and Sandy’s mom let my mom pick the grapes because my mom makes everybody jelly. Mom also gives them potatoes, snap peas, and pole beans from our back yard. She trades for some meat from their killed cow. We only have a dirt cellar, so we have to visit the butcher the day we want to eat it, or ask Nana to keep it in her refrigerator for a little while.
A couple days ago, Mr. Lewis cut down the grape vines to hide the bomb shelter. He built a shed around it to keep it a secret so not everybody in town would want to hide there if we are bombed. My mother told Nana he hides everything. She said he hides more food in that stink hole (he put up tarpaper to keep rain and worms out and it stinks) than she has ever seen in one place. I said what about the A&P store and my mom said, “Little pitchers have big ears. Scoot, Missy.”
She calls me “Missy” when she’s mad at me and “Sissy” when she most loves me.
Sandy showed me the inside. Mr. Lewis tunneled all the way to the chicken house, where he has an escape hatch covered with some shingles on the dirt floor of the coop to hide it. This way he can still get fresh eggs, I guess. He has a kerosene light and a deer rifle and other neat things in the shelter, too.
My mom said to my Nana that Sandy’s dad is crazy: it smells like a tar pit now, and that food is going to rot down there. Mom called him a knucklehead to cut down the grape vines and lose all that jelly for everybody. She says maybe she won’t give him any canned tomatoes this winter.
Sandy says my mom will be sorry when she’s killed by a bomb. Sandy says I’ll have to leave my dog Bullet at home and bring my own blanket and pillow if I want to stay with her and be safe. Sandy says that once you go in, you can’t go back out for a long time, maybe a year.
I wonder how we will go to the bathroom if we can’t leave to get to the outhouse? Ours is out back by the alley, at the very edge of our property, like his. Will Mr. Lewis tunnel to his outhouse? Sandy doesn’t have an answer for that.
Will Mr. Lewis put his new calf down there?
Sandy and I hid a cigarette pack filled with little twig cigarettes in there, so if we get stuck there, we can still play Queen for a Day. She always wants to be the Queen. I like to be Loretta Young anyway, so that’s okay. I watch her on Nana’s TV sometimes because it is my Nana’s favorite show. My Nana blows perfect smoke rings at the TV while she watches it. I tap my cheek and pretend I’m making perfect little O’s when we play The Queen & Loretta. Sandy says she can see the smoke rings when I do it. She says she can see them REALLY and I believe her. I see them, too.
I told my brother he better be extra nice to Sandy and maybe be her slave for a while or she won’t let him come, too, and Bobby cried like a baby. Mamma took a switch to me for telling him she would die from a bomb. She yelled at Sandy, too, and said she’d tell her daddy if she ever scared Bobby like that again.
Sandy was mad at me for two whole days because of Bobby — her having hit Leigh and everything for him — but now we both feel sorry for him because he has the mumps and he’s going to miss Halloween. His neck and cheeks are all swollen and he cries a lot. He can’t eat. Anybody would feel sorry for him.
I had the measles at Easter so we’re even for missing fun things. I stayed with Nana and she closed all the curtains and kept me in the dark for a week so I wouldn’t go blind, but I still saw germs on my bed making an airport on the blanket. They were all over my fingers and it scared me to think I was breathing them into my nose. My mom said I imagined it because of my fever, but I know what germs look like now — little wormy teeny tiny dots that come together and make things that look like little planes.
Sandy is going to be Sleeping Beauty for Halloween. We both want to see the picture show Sleeping Beauty when it comes back to the Lark Theater. We didn’t have enough money the first time it was here. I’ve never been inside the theater, but I’ve walked past it with Nana, going to the Maid-Rite restaurant where Mom works.
I’ll have to take Bobby, too, or I know Mom won’t let me go, so I have to get two quarters. I tried selling Kleenex to the neighbors for a penny apiece, but no one bought one except old lady Mrs. Shryack, and then she told my mom. I got spanked. I told Mom I wasn’t cheating people like she thought I was; I was selling them the only thing we had we didn’t really need. But my mom didn’t see it that way.
Jim Lambert says there are some pop bottles in the tall grass by the railroad tracks. I’m going to go look tomorrow, and if I find any, I’m going to turn them in to Mr. Wilson’s store for 2 cents apiece. Sandy thinks her dad has some dimes hidden in the bomb shelter. She could pay him back if I give her the dime I am supposed to put in the collection plate at Sunday school. She’s got ideas how to pay that back, too, but that takes too much explaining right now. I’ve got to get ready for Halloween Day at School.
Mom rips a hole into the sleeve of granddad’s painting shirt to make it more hobo-like. It stinks like moth balls from being in his closet. I’m already getting a headache from it, but I know better than to complain. Halloween means Christmas is coming. While Mom fusses with the shirt, I remind her that there is only one thing I want from Santa.
“Yeah, yeah,” she mumbles, bobby pins between her lips. Now Mom wraps long strands of my blonde hair around her finger and pins the tight curls close to my scalp. I’m going to wear granddad’s old felt hat and she doesn’t want my hair to show. On the table next to us are a few pieces of coal and a burnt cork; she’s going to rub fake whiskers onto my face like the Red Skelton hobo has.
“I know what you want for Christmas, Sissy,” she says, “but if you had a bicycle, you’d just wish that much harder for a horse. And if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Santa’s not giving away a bag of bikes this year.”
Mom never says we can’t afford something or that Santa can’t afford it. She just says we don’t need it.
At school, no one sits in an assigned seat. An outer space creature (a big aluminum foil-wrapped box with a couple of straw antennas taped to the top) swallows its own skinny legs as it settles on the floor by a row of seats. There are two small eyeholes cut into the box and I wish I could see who is hiding inside so I could announce it to the class and move a little closer to the “best costume” prize. It’s a girl for certain because the legs are covered by black tights, not pants. She hid her shoes somewhere, which was smart. We all know who wears what shoes.
I’ve been thinking a lot about space creatures myself, since hearing that the Twilight Zone showed a real one on TV. I’ve already seen witches flying around, and not just in my imagination, but with my eyes. Nana says there is a new moon tomorrow night, which means it will be creepy dark, and she said to tell the babysitter, who has to go with me because Mom has to stay home with Bobby. She says we won’t be able to see the big boys throwing eggs or trying to get our candy, so we have to run fast between houses and try to stay in porch light.
Sandy is going with us so I’m not afraid of big boys. I sort of promised Sandy that maybe in the dark we’ll see a real flying saucer ring lit up and go inside and talk to a real space creature. I’ve tried hard to imagine that because if you can imagine it, you can do it — that’s what my Nana says. I’m going to imagine it until it happens, and Sandy is imagining it, too. That’s why she’s going trick-or-treating with me, even though we are both hobos this year and people don’t like it much when two come to knock on their door and they are the same. “Oh, you’re the same,” they say, disappointed.
A kid in class is wrapped in pieces of sheet like a mummy. I can only see its eyes, nose, and mouth. Three boys in the back of the room are all dressed up like Draculas and they are playing bull fights and yelling “Here, bully, bully” and swishing their capes and trying to hit the girls with them.
That makes me mad. Mrs. Rittenhouse has pig shelters in her back yard; Sandy and I have talked about starting an I Hate Boys Club and inviting some girls in our class to meet in one of the little houses where no boys could find us. But not Margaret.
I wish I had a cape. Leigh’s hair is flat with Vaseline. His sister probably used her makeup pencil to make the V on his forehead, and he has on red lipstick like my mom wears. I’m going to call him “Monkey Boy with Lipstick On” after school if Sandy will walk me home.
Billy wears the only store-bought costume; it’s his Lone Ranger outfit with chaps and we all know he got it for his birthday. He holds a cap gun way up high in one hand and runs wild around the room with a hobby horse between his legs. He is yelling “Yeehaw!” He shoots a couple caps and the air stinks. That’s a boy for you: Stinky. Mrs. Young puts a quick stop to his shenanigans when she walks into the room. She yells “ORDER IN THIS CLASSROOM” and makes everybody sit down.
Paul is dressed up like The Rifleman and he holds a long-barreled popgun. If he shot that, another boy likely would grab the cork at the end of the string and pull it off.
Three kids are dressed in sheets to be ghosts this year. Greg was a sheet ghost last year because he is the only Negro in the class and everyone would know who he was if they could see his skin. I can’t tell which one is him. Why didn’t I do that this year? The longer you can keep people guessing, the closer you get to an orange. Everybody gets an iced orange pumpkin sugar cookie and Kool-Aid today, but only one gets a fruit orange. That lucky kid also gets a big sticker that says “Best Costume.” There are no stickers for trying to win. There is one winner and 22 losers.
The teacher walks up and down the aisle, inspecting us like she does every morning, as we stand with our hands on our hearts reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Then we sing “My Country Tis of Thee.” As she passes me, Mrs. Young reaches out and touches my forehead, feeling for fever. She has made a big deal out of calling me up to the front of the class every morning to feel my head to make sure I’m not “coming down” with Bobby’s mumps. She doesn’t want the whole class to get it and she says I could be “a carrier.”
My teacher just ruined Costume Day. I am out of the game. Sandy shakes her head and puts it down on the desk on her arms. That means she feels sorry for me.
But I still have to play, even though I won’t win. When we finish our song, Mrs. Young points and says, “You first, Indian girl.” We can all see it is Margaret. One by one, we are called to the front of the class, and two people (from all the hands raised in the air) are picked to guess. If one of them is right, you are out of the game. If not, you take your space at the back of the room for the second guesses.
When all of the second guessing is done, only one person is still in the game, which means it’s over. We all look around the room but cannot figure out who it is. But there, behind us at the back of the room, remains the space creature. It was not Sally, my guess. I hold my breath with the others, waiting to see who it is.
“Okay, it’s now time to reveal our winner,” Mrs. Young says. She sounds like Loretta Young, and this is the first time I realize they have the same name! I wonder if she is Loretta’s mother?
The teacher lifts the box up and off the student. We all, even the teacher, stare, amazed, and for a second, there is not even one teeny sound in the room because no one ever thought a boy would wear tights. He has on his white starched and ironed shirt under the box, and shorts, and tights. Greg was not a sheet ghost this year!
Nobody even calls him one name for dressing like a girl. Instead, we all clap loudly at what a great joke Greg pulled off. He’s a quiet kid but he gives us a wide smile as the teacher places his sticker on the front of his creature box and hands him an orange.
At 8:30 sharp (“Look where the little hand is and the big hand — what time is it, children?”) we line up for the Halloween parade. Sandy and I manage to get next to one another and jump up and down, excited about the parade, hugging until the teacher makes us stop it and face forward. “Act like little ladies,” she admonishes, and Sandy rolls her eyes like she always does when people tell her to act like a lady. She’s a soldier.
We first march around the sidewalk all around the schoolyard. Sandy and I don’t actually “march” as ordered, though. I dance around in a kind of shuffling hobo kind of way. Sandy tries to walk like Red Skelton, too, because we have to give hints. It’s hard to figure out who we’re supposed to be when we are wearing old guys pants and shirts and our wool coats, but not big shoes, because the only shoes we own are black-and-white oxfords.
We then snake (500-plus costumed kids in single file, classroom by classroom) into our community for a four-block performance. A crowd of mothers, grandmothers, toddlers, farmers, and third-shift fathers part as we approach, crunching new-fallen leaves as they yield the sidewalk to us. Everyone applauds as we pass, waving and calling out names. I see my Nana (Mom has to stay home with Bobby) and I raise granddaddy’s hat in a salute to her. She taps me out a smoke ring and waves.
Halloween is my second favorite holiday. My only regret is that Bobby is home in bed with a really sore throat — which means I’ll have to tote along an extra pillowcase and convince neighbors to give me an extra popcorn ball or apple for him. Otherwise my mother will make me split my candy into two piles and save one for him later.
If that happens, I’ll have less to sell to the neighbors for movie picture money. The Commies might be coming to town, but so is Sleeping Beauty, and if the movie comes to Macomb before the bombs, I’d like to be sitting in a front seat with Sandy … and Bobby, of course.
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