Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A yin and yang of Halloween


After woeful decline, it looks as if this Halloween will be one of celebration resurrection. It's about time. They were more creative back in the 20th century, especially the year sand was hauled in and spread ankle-deep across the main intersection in Ketchum and an all-night beach party starring lounging beach bums slathering sunscreen on their goose-bumps while cheering on the near-naked volleyball teams.

But I want to retell one that unfolded back in the time of a still young Mr. Rogers, back when The Cat in the Hat was too new to be a classic. This one featured the youngest of the Bell clan, Bridget, then 5 or 6, and her father, Ned, but think of them simply as father and daughter.

It's early morning on Oct. 30 when the two throw kisses as they back from the driveway and head for York, Nebraska, the father's hometown. The plan calls for their arrival in York late in the afternoon on Halloween, but it's a plan doomed from the start. The father is a friendly, outgoing man who engages nearly everyone he meets in conversations never cut short—it would be impossible for him to drive all the way to York without exchanging pleasantries at every stop—with the lad at the gas station counting out his seven dollars to fill the tank, and with the corn-fed waitress at the first cafe who says, "Sure, honey, I can make you a peanut butter and jelly," and with the old gentleman at the desk of the Family Motel where a look-just-married couple are checking in as well. For everyone ... everyone ... the father has hellos and more.

It's no surprise that early evening on Halloween finds the two journeyers in a small town in Nebraska still a couple of towns shy of York. It seems certain the daughter will miss the important event.

As dusk falls, already groups of small goblins shuffle through the leaves of red and gold fallen from the canopies so prevalent in Midwestern towns. If you've ever been a goblin, you know that scuffling through crackling leaves and past smoldering mounds loosing lovely autumn incense in the air is, or was, the very essence of Halloween.

As the two journeyers drive slowly through quiet streets, and pass by one and then another group of goblins with their winking lanterns, the daughter presses her nose to the window to watch, and when she turns back to the father she has such a wistful look that the father is seized by a bear-hug of dismay. But then, with sudden wisdom, he knows exactly what to do.

On Main Street, on a corner, there's a town drug store still lit, and he pulls to the curb and takes the daughter by the hand and leads her inside where there's still a picked-over assortment of Halloween necessities. Together they choose a goblin mask and a jack o' lantern and a bag for treats. When they pay for their purchases, the father and the druggist-owner-milk-shake-maker have already been talking with one another long enough to become new friends. And the druggist-owner-milkshake-maker, himself a father, helps to set the lantern winking and is the first to put a prized penny candy, a Tootsie Roll, in the daughter's bag.

The two set out then. Hand in hand they scuff through whispering leaves, and at first one place and then another, the father waits by the curb while the daughter walks toward the warmth of the lighted house and rings the bell.

Small-town folks know nearly all of their goblins, and always when they open the door there's surprise followed by curiosity.

"Who are you?" they ask the little goblin, and when her name touches no chord, "Where do you live?" "Idaho," our daughter tells them. And there's laughter then, and the daughter's father enters the circle of light and all shake hands, and more often than not the two journeyers are invited inside, and more often than not the father accepts the offer of a festive beverage, and before each leave-taking family histories have been exchanged and something in common has been found to share.

By the time the trick-or-treat bag is filled and the journeyers have returned to their car and arrived in York at last, it is late indeed. On the front seat the small goblin is curled asleep, and when the father carries her in and relieved grandparents hug them both, she hardly stirs. Perhaps the next morning the daughter wonders if that Halloween was real or she'd only dreamed it.

The father has passed away, but the mother verifies that Halloween to be perhaps the real-est one ever.

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