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!”

How To Make An Italian Chef Smile

How To Make An Italian Chef Smile

 

It had been a rough first six months since our move to England. Each child was showing the strain of change and unfamiliar circumstances.  I arrived home one evening from a business trip to find my wife striking the washing machine in complete frustration. 

“This stupid thing is so small I can only wash one sheet at a time.”  It seemed as though it would never stop raining. The fickle sun would appear at odd and inconvenient times like an unreliable friend.  While intellectually invigorated by our European move, we underestimated the emotional trauma of being cast adrift from friends, family and the familiar rhythm of our Northern California lifestyle.

 

My parents had joined us in London for the children’s October break and like most Brits, we immediately fled the damp emerald isle for the warmer embrace of Southern Italy.   We landed in Rome and were immediately serenaded by the whimsical strings of a city wired on life and caffeine.  Rome was a marching band with no conductor.  Every Italian seemed to move without regard for traffic lanes, lights or legal parking.  The classically laissez faire Italian police were more intent on staking out single women than suspicious characters. Vespas buzzed like mosquitoes while autumn starlings banked and rose in an aerial ballet. With each hour, we regained our warm weather equilibrium and sense of adventure.  After three days of fountains, forums and fusilli, we escaped north to explore Florence and the surrounding ancient hill towns of Tuscany resting like unsteady siena crowns on the crests of hills forested with beech, oak and chestnut trees. 

 

We arrived at our hotel, Villa La Massa, on October 31st. The chrome morning mist rose slowly, taking its time to shake off low gray clouds.  A wet chill loitered in the ravines and hollows and in between the villa’s main house and the guesthouses that peered over the southern banks above the Arno. There were no black cats, pumpkins or dark effigies of witches and goblins.  The long, pebbled driveway guarded by columned cypress trees and an ancient wrought iron gate, showed no signs of imminent pagan celebrations.  Our children, ages 7, 4 and 2, were only mildly interested that it was All Hallows Eve.  Back in America, giggling adrenaline-fueled goblins would be racing in and out of the shadows and light cast by houses a thousand grinning jack-o-lanterns.  It would be a night of sugar, ghouls and mayhem.  I sighed.  At our old home, we would be wandering our neighborhood – – faceless flashlights inching along dark streets and cul de sacs greeting the silhouettes and voices of our friends. Halloween was America and an essential milestone in the life of a young family and we were missing it.   

 

On this warm, windy day, I volunteered to take the children to the Etruscan hill town of Fiesole while my parents and wife wandered the back alleys of Florence. We spent a glorious morning chasing and playing among the ancient amphitheatres, roman baths and ruins.  A local restaurant owner adopted us, treating us to lunch at his local café where we were overwhelmed with freshly baked foccacia, homemade pastas and pizza. As the sun’s arc dropped toward the West, we descended into the valley of the Arno, navigating a patchwork quilt of vineyards and farms.  As we followed the narrow road back to our hotel, I could see the Duomo and the medieval skyline of the city that was once the cradle of the Italian city-states.  For all the enthusiasm I felt for being in this special place, I was suffering from a parochial melancholy wondering whether my decision to work overseas had been a mistake.  Was I denying my children a quintessentially American childhood?  Would they one day ask me, “Dad, what’s Halloween?”

 

European interest in the celebration of Halloween was mixed.  Given the more reverent traditions surrounding festivals like The Day of The Dead, Italians resisted the secular commercialism of monsters and Milky Ways.  Yet, there were signs of Catholic unrest.  In Milan, Halloween festivities were held by American schools and often spilled over into local communities.  In Bologna, the Miss Strega” (Miss Witch) beauty contest was held to identify the most enchanting sorceress.  A few Roman novelty shops had displayed masks, monster memorabilia and treats.  Yet, the Villa La Massa showed no signs of western infestation. It was just another sleepy Tuesday.

 

Unbeknownst to me, my clever spouse had packed a Donald Duck mask, a spider man outfit and all the accessories that a Hawaiian dancer would ever require.  Prior to departing that day for Florence, she had approached the charming concierge, Sylvia, explaining that the children were far from home and missing an important holiday; would she allow them to come down to the foyer that evening to trick or treat – knocking on the office and storage room doors of the sparsely occupied hotel where we might give them candy?  She left uncertain if our polished patron understood her request.

 

Once home, my wife whipped the kids into a happy lather explaining the significance of Halloween, their apparel and trick or treating.  Dusk brought frenetic preparation and squealing enthusiasm as the children donned their costumes.  I walked down the narrow hallway where a sinister suit of armor looked disapprovingly on my waddling two year old Donald Duck who would not stop making sounds like a dying Merganser.  A serious super hero and a seven-year-old hula girl bolted past the wobbly toddler.   We fell down the elegant staircase like a spilled bucket of tennis balls, crashing across the cobblestone breezeway toward the main house.  There were signs of movement inside the lobby as shadows darted across the row of equal-sized, closely placed windows. Soft light spilled out into the courtyard from the prominent portico.

 

Sylvia gasped with sheer delight as my youngest child quacked, announcing his arrival.  To my surprise, the entire hotel staff lined the foyer like an honor guard.  Each employee – waiters, maids, porters, groundskeepers and drivers – was holding a basket filled with homemade Italian treats.  Throughout the day, the Italians had baked and wrapped homemade cookies and chocolates.  The children were instructed to close their eyes as their hosts darted off to the first floor rooms. As each child approached a guest room door, it would swing open with an Italian feigning surprise and raising their hands in disbelief.  Sylvia suddenly had an idea and motioned us to follow her toward the restaurant kitchen.  She was explaining in broken English that she wanted to have the children trick or treat the head chef.  This spontaneous suggestion elicited disapproving looks from several of her male colleagues.  As a gourmet hotel, the chef was the mercurial lord of the manor.  Yet, Sylvia seemed determined to enter Hell’s kitchen.  My older children sensed the reticence of the staff and held back while our youngest recklessly burst through the cucina’s swinging doors clucking like a hen heavy with eggs.  There was silence, followed by a sudden burst of baritone laughter. The doorway suddenly filled with a large, handle bar mustached Italian chef holding my son and pinching his cheeks. The staff applauded.  Sylvia leaned in victorious and whispered, “they are terrified of him.  They have never seen him smile.”  We lingered in the hotel for some time forging a primitive bridge out of ragged Italian and English words as the children unwrapped candies and explored the living room.

 

We later walked slowly across the empty grounds and into the guesthouse, climbing past a not so malevolent suit of armor to our rooms. My anxiety had melted away.  It was clear that I had been wrong.  We were not missing anything back in America.  Our best Halloween will forever be remembered as a magical blend of cypress trees, ancient ruins, laughing chefs and doting Italians.

 

Meraviglioso!