Every Halloween night, Pistol River School was turned into a carnival. The school was decorated with carved pumpkins and paper skeletons. We drank punch and consumed pie. Orange and black crepe hung like spider webs from the corners of our school. Sometimes, the kids spent weeks decorating our school and preparing for the day our families would visit.
Pistol River was a spread-out place. If I wanted to visit 20 homes for trick-or-treating, I would need to coax my mom into a couple hours of driving. Or, maybe we could go into Gold Beach and go house to house with the town kids in their store-bought costumes. That wouldn’t be very much fun. We wouldn’t see any of our friends and share in our loot. Our parents would just stand outside the car, arms crossed, and wait for us to finish, kind of like letting a dog do his business during a walk in the park, only with costumes.
So Pistol River, instead of sending the kids door-to-door, had a Carnival, where they gathered the kids, and the parents, and the candy, all in one place.
Halloween night was always infused with the smell of excited sweat of dozens of kids. We dressed in our best Halloween costumes. We were cowboys. We were robots and and clowns. Nobody could really afford store-bought costumes, even though they could be purchased at McKay’s or Sentry in town if you really begged your parent. Every once in awhile a kid would have a Superman costume or something, but it never really looked that cool. Just because you had a coonskin cap, nobody ever supposed for a single moment that you actually were Davy Crockett.
There was always a panel of judges, and the kids were lined up for a costume contest.
My sister dressed as Carol-Burnett-as-a-maid. We didn’t know who Carol Burnett was, except she had her own show, where, like a television Amelia Bedelia, she played a funny maid. My mom put Lori in a stiff pink dress, and wrapped her in an apron, put her hair in a kerchief, and she carried a mop around.
I dressed as a hobo, wearing my worst pair of jeans and an oversized pair of boots. I wore my dad’s floppy felt hat. I tied a canvas bandana to a stick I’d whittled just for the occasion, and filled it with crumpled newspaper to make it lighter than a hobo’s. It was the best hobo prop ever. My mom used black makeup to mark my face with grease pencil stubble: instant beard!
My cousin Troy had recently fallen out of the rafters of his grandma’s barn and bruised his eye sockets magnificently. He lost an upper front tooth. He could have died, we all knew. This landed him in the hospital for a few days, but his reward was that he got to dress as the world’s ugliest cheerleader, with self-made green eye shadow and a missing front tooth. He won the contest. Not only was it hilarious and self-deprecating, I think everyone was just glad to see him back. Better an ugly cheerleader than a real ghost.
And there were games. We had a ring toss, and a beanbag toss. There was bobbing for apples, where you could dunk your head in a tub full of water and apples, and try to trap an apple in your mouth using nothing but your face. There was a big plastic mat with colored dots for people to play Twister. There was a fishing game for the smallest kids, where they tried to hook a prize in a pool with a small plastic fishing rod and a clothespin dangling to it. Really, it was just an adult clothes-pinning bags of candy for the littlest kids.
Each time you won a game, you got tickets, and with enough tickets, you could buy trinkets from the prize stand. Everything was donated or homemade. Plastic soldiers, and popcorn balls, and ceramic knick knacks, and salt and pepper shakers, and small paper bags of candy. And also more candy.
The bigger kids made a “haunted house” from the upstairs classrooms. They papered over everything in black and dressed themselves in ghoulish costumes, and jumped out at the little kids. There was a mazelike path that wound through the desks. We had pay for the pleasure to be not-really-scared out of their wits. The Emergency Exit sign at the end of the hall was papered over. We could still see the bright white and red letters shouting “Exit”, which kind of ruined the older kids’ attempts to set a frightening mood. Besides, we knew who each of the monsters was. Maybe it scared the little kids. So, despite their best efforts, the monsters and ghouls just sat around and shot the breeze, and waited for anyone to come upstairs to see what they made.
The entire gymnasium floor was taken up with paper squares for the cake walk. It was all a cornucopia, and a chance for the families to get together.
Everyone stuffed their faces with Rose Walker’s apple pie, and my mother’s lemon pie, and dozens of pumpkin pies made dozens of mothers and grandmothers. And of course, white dollops of cool whip. I couldn’t get enough of that stuff.
Charlie Collins’s Mexican mother made an caustic orange punch with whole cloves stabbed into floating halves of orange. It made the oranges look like little spiders running around on the fruit. Nobody drank it, except for a single courtesy cup. When she tried to tell my mother how she made it, Mrs. Collins’s accent overwhelmed her explanation. Nobody was sure what it was: the next closest thing to a Witch’s Brew, I guess.
Then the hall quieted. The teachers would say a few words, and the kids would always have a little program, where we would sing a couple Halloween songs. “H. A. Double-L O. W. Double E N. spells Halloween!” The program was never long. It was a Carnival, not a theater production.
Stern, balding Bill Crook was the father of James and David. They were our closest neighbors with kids our age, and lived in an old white ranch house the other side of Burnt Hill, a mile or so away. That night, he told me to hold up my pinkie for him. I did. He grasped my hand in both his own, and stuck my littlest finger into my ear. Then he said “There. Now clean that out. You aren’t a real hobo. You could grow potatoes in there.” He watched me with a frown until I scraped enough earwax out for his satisfaction, then turned away, his neighborly duties complete.
That’s just a single example of how close our community was: the chief of the school board might ask you, at any moment, to pick the wax out of your ear.
At the end of the night, everything had to come down. It was dark outside but the older kids had to stack the folding chairs into the little room in the basement, and wipe down the cafeteria tables. We had to take down the paper skeletons, and the orange-and-black crepe. We had to dismantle the booths, box the prizes, put away the prize table. We had to pick up the cake walk’s paper squares. With a few dozen kids, it never took long.
Then the clowns and hoboes, the robots and maids, even the cheerleaders, all went home to eat their candy. Because when it comes down to it, that’s really all Halloween was: a chance to have fun, and share special treats, and to get your ears forcibly cleaned, and to smile when your head is intentionally soaked in a bucket of apples. But mostly, and always, Halloween was a time to enjoy the glow of extended family. Halloween, after all, only comes once a year.