A Halloween Soldier

Kinder feiern Halloween - 2004
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Clothes make a statement.  Costumes tell a story.  ~Mason Cooley

In a time before litigation and neighborhood watch programs conspired to elevate Halloween mischief into misdemeanors, All Hallows Night stirred the delinquent within every kid.  What is now called vandalism was once labeled “rascalism.”  October 31st marked the first pearl in a delicious string of holidays – spaced gratefully over two months – allowing just enough time for a kid to recover from overindulgence or regain privileges that were perhaps lost for some silly misunderstanding such as hitting a public bus with an egg. It was a night fueled by sugar and poor judgment.

I had declared Halloween costumes as “stupid” at the sage age of eleven opting instead to don my father’s oversized, olive-green army jacket with its deep pockets and durable, double stitched woolen lining.  The coat was a talisman of good fortune having missed the Korean War, endured two years of officer candidate school and survived one angry gunnery NCO from Alabama who hated ROTC-trained second lieutenants.  It was warm, twilight camouflage when one needed to elude a parent, patrol car or older kid with dark intentions. Best of all, it carried my surname, “TURPIN”, tattooed in indelible military font on its white lapel.  My father considered me as I prepared to go out into the night, “That’s not much of a costume! You need some fake blood and bullet holes.” I rolled my eyes.  Parents were such losers.

My friends and I would begin discussing Halloween plans in September.  We were filled with bravado as we meticulously planned a mission whose success would be measured in pounds of candy, shattered pumpkins and ounces of shaving cream released on unwitting victims. To venture into a Halloween night in the 1970s was a risky business.  You must be armed and ready to rumble at a moment’s notice.

The standard issue weapon of choice for an All Hallows infantryman was shaving cream. We started by purchasing several cans of highly pressurized Gillette’s “The Hot One” self heating shaving cream.  It was the closest thing one could get to canned napalm. Many of us modified our weapons, creatively improving their accuracy and reach by inserting a sewing needle into the inch high nozzle.  We would melt plastic around the pin, waiting to remove the pin once the nozzle’s tip had cooled. The result was a microscopic hole from which the shaving cream would release – producing a highly pressurized stream of heated cream that could reach as far as ten feet.

When one was doused with The Hot One, one would experience a gradual burning sensation as the cream began to rise in temperature.  The Hot One was your pepper spray of choice – and the only weapon in your arsenal designed to discourage the local wildlife. If all went well, your larger assailant intent on stealing your booty would be writhing on the ground while you made good your escape into the suburban midnight

I was determined this year to prove myself as the most reckless of pranksters – – the stupid guy willing to throw the smoke bomb into the police station or pump three eggs into the side of a bus.  Yet, I was all bravado and no bite – a brash paper tiger that was more afraid of my father’s belt than peer humiliation.  Like the soldier in Red Badge of Courage, I wondered what I would do when faced with the elephant of combat, would I run or man up and emerge the hero.  Perhaps my coat would give me the courage that I suspected that I lacked.

The early part of that Halloween evening fell into cool, purple twilight.  The heat of the Indian summer day was receding and pockets of autumn air rushed down the residential streets. Daylights savings had run its course.  The early evening was the safest time to move openly from house to house.  We were typical smartalecks and often grabbed handfuls of tiny Tootsie rolls as the nice elderly lady urged us to just take one piece to leave some for the other children.  Behind her, her curmudgeonly husband would scowl.  He was most likely a WWII veteran and was disgusted that I was defiling an US Army officer’s coat.  “So, what are you?  A Soldier?“ he asked sarcastically. “ No, he’s a bee keeper” quipped one of my more disrespectful friends. (Laughter)  The older man shook his head as he confronted the decline of America’s youth and returned to Walter Cronkite.

As youth filled twilight yielded to a more adult sinister night, Jack-o-lantern candles dimmed and the manicured lawns and sidewalks emptied of all but a few shadowy stragglers rushing toward a warm fire and a candied feeding frenzy. We now moved into deeper waters of consequence – a submarine wolf pack in search of a bloated merchant Cadillac or a defenseless gas guzzling station wagon.

A van pulsing with loud music suddenly broke the silence, skirting around a corner and splashing us with an uneven jerk of halogen headlights.  Gratefully, the suspicious vehicle raced past us, revving its 300 hp, eight-cylinder engines. Someone inside the van yelled something incomprehensible at us. What is it with boys that the smallest kid in your group always feels compelled to throw the first punch or in this case, return the presumed insult?

It is hard to describe the terror a kid feels when a van packed with older teens suddenly hits its demon red brake lights and makes a U-Turn.   My friend and I had the good fortune of being next to a long private driveway and retreated into the dark while the rest of our group scattered in a flowering burst of panic.  The van sped past us chasing two of the more slovenly members of our group.  The doors and windows of the car were now open and we could see teens hanging out manically whooping like wild Indians.  No where in our meticulous planning had we made provisions for this Little Big Horn.  I suddenly remembered my own eggs resting like pinned grenades in my coat. I turned to my accomplice. He nodded, somehow reading my mind that this hiding place gave us perfect cover and that a direct hit with the eggs might distract the van long enough to allow our friends to make their escape.

In rapid fire succession, we launched five eggs – two of which thumped against the back of the van – causing it to slam on its brakes.  There was a moment of confused debate.  The van was a raging bull uncertain where to charge.  As we hesitated and ducked behind the safety of a high wall, a pair of flood lights flashed on from an adjacent garage.  Our hiding place had been revealed.

We bolted out on to the asphalt road where the van began to give chase.  We stopped, heaving for air and stood perfectly still inside a tangled juniper bush.  The van slowly moved down the street and  idled like a Tiger tank.  We could overhear arguing inside the vehicle.  It suddenly peeled off into the night.  My thoroughly shaken partner offered to have his parents drive me home.  I declined – figuring if someone’s parents drove me home that my mother would suspect that I had thrown eggs at cars – which I had.

As my buddy melted into the darkness, I smiled triumphantly and moved up the street, keeping to the shadows.  As I prepared to cross our town’s main drive, the van from hell suddenly reappeared.  I heard someone yell, “Get that kid!”

I sprinted across light traffic and made it to the south side of the street.  As I wheeled around the corner and across the lawn of neighbor, I had forgotten about a stiff wire that had been anchored to brace an ancient live oak tree.  The wire rose out of the ground at a 45 degree angle and reached ten feet up to the middle trunk of the oak.  Another wire braced it from the side of the house.  The rigid wire was exactly the height of my face and as I turned the corner to sprint across the wet grass, the ½” thick wire struck me directly in the face.

It must have looked as if I had been shot by a high-powered rifle as my legs carried in front of me and my head flew backwards.  I was completely horizontal when I hit the grass.  I lay motionless.  The van pulled up and I could hear the teens inside talking in low tones.  I heard, “dude, I think he’s dead.” As was, and still is the case with most teens when confronted with a sudden need to think clearly, they panicked and drove off.

The bridge of my nose was now bleeding and I had a diagonal bruise across my nose and forehead.  I staggered home the two final blocks not caring if I was caught out in the open.  I was finished with being the troublemaker.  It was hazardous duty. I would have preferred to have been home, eating my little brother’s candy and watching “It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.”

I walked in the door and my dad, working in his study, glanced up at me.  Outside, a van rumbled slowly past our house like a Vietnam Delta patrol boat. He took one look  – bloody face, mud stained army jacket and massive diagonal welt.  He smiled, “Now that’s a costume!”