A Halloween Soldier

Kinder feiern Halloween - 2004
Image via Wikipedia

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!”

Summers With Lampwick

Disney's Electrical Parade: Lampwick and Pinocchio
Image by armadillo444 via Flickr

“Juvenile delinquency is a modern term for what we did when we were kids” -Anon

My mother called them, “Lampwicks”.

She ascribed this sobriquet to any of our friends who exhibited anti-social tendencies.  She seemed to have a sixth sense about boys and almost mystically understood which kid would be most likely to become Chief Justice or a ward of the criminal justice system. “Lampwick” was the name of the truant, ne’er-do-well, delinquent kid who befriended Pinocchio as the two “boys” were swept off by the dark shadows of temptation to a seeming adolescent paradise called, “Pleasure Island.”

In this land of youthful hedonism, there were no adults and a cornocopia of self indulgent choices – – shooting pool, staying out past curfew, smoking cigars, damaging public property, eating candy and exhibiting limited common sense.  Lampwick was Disney’s and every suburban picket fence parent’s poster child for the “wrong” kind of companion.

Each town had its Lampwicks – the habitual class clowns, east parking lot smokers and reckless free spirits who were on a first name basis with every vice principal and cop in town.  While some parents were not up to speed on kids and their transgressions, my mother knew every kid’s rap sheet. She knew that people judged a kid by the company he kept.  Shady companions could lead you down dark alleys and get you into trouble. It was, after all, out of the sight of parents where bad judgment could take root and blossom into highly regrettable mistakes.  The simple act of “borrowing” another kid’s bike for a joyride could eventually lead an adolescent to commit mass murder in Kansas for no apparent reason.

Like most matriarchs, she deployed a powerful BS meter that included a lie detector system more sensitive than a Cal Tech seismograph. She could easily distinguish the earnest kid from the obsequious trouble maker. Over time, she simply defaulted to the code word, “Lampwick”, as a terminal judgment – forever branding any undesirable acquaintance that we might try to insinuate into our circle of friends.

Summer was her greatest challenge as we were rudderless ships – – unable to navigate a day pregnant with possibility because we lacked imagination and our closest friends who had left town for family vacations and sleep away camps.  With the loss of our approved social circle, we went in search of new confederates.  Summer was a season for exploration, experimentation and rite of passage “firsts”.  July and August meant hot sidewalk days that simmered slowly and dissolved into heavy, woolen nights that would cloak our illicit activities. The grass stayed dry under your bare feet as the evening could never quite reach down enough to find its dew point.

The child of the 70’s was not oversubscribed.   Summer’s primary focus was to find a source of income.  To a kid, a job meant financial freedom and spending money.  To a parent, work meant less potential idle time for trouble.  Inevitably, most kids ended up partially employed and filled long open afternoons in search of water, dangerous liaisons and forbidden things.

Summer meant new things – the kid who just moved to town and did not know a soul, a day camp or a summer school class.  Invariably, one would make new “friends”. In our house, it might start with an innocent request to spend the night at “James” house. Having never met James, his parents or not knowing whether James was real or on a work furlough program from the California Youth Authority, my mom would insist on meeting and interrogating my new companion. If he passed this simple litmus test, the sleep-over might be redirected to our home where she could carefully size up the child as well as discern the level of engagement from his parents. She would look for signs of absentee parenting – did they call to speak with her about the alleged sleepover? Did the father even bother to slow down the car when he dropped James off? My mother considered the “drop-off” a leading indicator of how active a parent was in managing their child’s activities.

Mom understood that the mistral winds of July and August carried on them lost souls and latch-key kids whose absence of supervision was only eclipsed by their complete lack of judgment.  They were sirens calling to us with promises of throwing jack knives, shop-lifting from one eyed store owners and staying out all night. They were Lampwicks offering us the chance to bite from a tree laden with forbidden fruit.  After all, no one was ever home or sober at Lampwick’s house.

My mother’s finely tuned antenna could detect any criminal in waiting: the arsonist, extortionist, the joy rider, the daredevil, the school yard bully, the BB gun freak, or the demolition expert. Her thinly veiled, sodium pentothal questioning could disarm any kid into revealing a personality profile that would reliably indicate the probability for a restful summer or a summer full of arrests.

I was in the throes of begging to spend the night at the broken home of a boy I had just met at the community pool.  Within a span of 2 hours she had gleaned through her phone tree of friends and a few select questions the fact that the boy’s brother was a suspected drug dealer, the house was teeming with teens that had no supervision because the Mom was holding down two jobs while the stay at home grandmother was motionless in the den watching “As The World Turns” in a semi stupor.

How the heck she could gather this much intel in such a short period of time was beyond my comprehension. In a time before police blotters, she always seemed to know before I did which of my friends had broken his arm trying to jump his moto-cross bike off the roof of the school. She knew who had been arrested for shop lifting and who had been disarmed after shooting their Daisy BB gun at cars.  As a red-blooded child of adventure, I was starved for the adrenalin rush that only came from being chased or at risk of physical injury.  This led to a succession of alliances with boys who my mother had blacklisted for their ingenious ability to break the law and whose parents seemed impotent to stop them.

Through my arsonist friend, Ed, I developed a profound fascination with fire.  My budding pyromania and Ed’s engineering prowess teamed us up to create the first tennis ball cannon. The device was constructed by hollowing out three metal Wilson tennis ball cans, taping them together and puncturing the base of the bottom can with a ballpoint pen.  We would spray copious amounts of lighter fluid into the sides of the three-foot mortar and then shake the lighter fluid to even distribution.  We would load the device with a tennis ball soaked in gasoline, leveling the improvised weapon at a predetermined target. A match would be placed against the small pen hole at the base of the bottom can. With an oxygen sucking “whoosh!,” a flaming tennis ball would be propelled 500 feet through the silky morning sky.

As the incendiary bomb landed on the neighbor’s roof igniting dry leaves, we panicked – scrambling up a trellis in an effort to extinguish the blaze. The home’s elderly occupant was suddenly concerned at the sound of reindeer on her roof as she was certain that Christmas was not for several more weeks. A phone call, sirens, an ill-timed leap into another neighbor’s garden led to our subsequent “arrest”. Hours later, the verdict was delivered – – Ed was given the death sentence of Lampwick.

Despite my mother’s best efforts to steer us along a straight path, we could not help but test the boundaries of our suburban cocoon. We once built an elaborate mannequin out of street clothes and dropped it off a bridge into the path of an oncoming car.  The horrified driver stopped and took our dummy resulting in the loss of clothing and a visit from the police when my friend, Mike realized that his mother had written his name in an indelible marker on his shirt collar and pants.

We pretended to foist an invisible rope that caused cars to screech to a halt. Using surgical tubing and a plastic funnel, we fired water balloons, oranges and eggs with pin-point accuracy at buses, trucks and bicyclists without regard to the damage or risks that would ensue. We once tried to ride our bicycles twenty miles through fenced off sewage culverts.

Invariably, we were ratted out, eye-witnessed, caught, injured, or incapable of out-peddling a police car on our bikes – and subsequently incarcerated. Each kid’s parent would inventory the circumstances and promulgate punishments and tighter controls to prevent their child from becoming labeled “delinquent” in our small town.

After my new friend Scott and I got caught stealing bottles from the back of a store so we could turn them to the same store for recycling refunds, my mother had declared enough and forbid me from seeing my friend. I had to call him and share the bad news that he had made the dubious Lampwick list.

As I was preparing to dial his home, the phone rang.  It was Scotty.  “Mike, my parents won’t let me come over to your house any more.  They say you are a bad influence. “

He was suggesting that I was Lampwick.

I shivered at the thought.  Every kid knew that Lampwick eventually turned into a donkey and was dragged off into the salt mines of Pleasure Island to labor forever as a beast of burden – a high price to pay for making bad choices. Upset at the tables being turned, I sought out my mother for advice.  She smiled as if she had been waiting for this opportunity. “You remember what happened to Pinocchio? He almost turned into a donkey as well. Just be careful…“

At 12 years old, I did not buy into the whole Disney Pinocchio parable.  But just in case, I went in to use the bathroom and studied the mirror.

Were my ears getting bigger?