244. Walking by Night

outhouseHere in California, Halloween doesn’t look like itself any more. I suspect the same metamorphosis is taking place across the country. Images from the Mexican Day of the Dead are everywhere, competing with Anglo witches, ghosts, goblins, and jack-o-lanterns.

It’s no surprise, really, since Halloween has become a $econd Chri$tmas, in terms of commerce. I have no trouble understanding why retailers are producing big-eyed, flower painted skulls for sale. I have some trouble understanding why anyone is buying them.

As a matter of full disclosure, I don’t care for Halloween, and at both ends of my life I have had little to do with it. In the middle, when I lived in cities, I hosted the trick-or-treaters who came to my door, just like everyone else. I admit the mid-level kids were fun and putting up with a little pleasant extortion was just being a good grown-up. I wasn’t much impressed by the adults with infants in arms, or the overaged teenagers who grunted and threatened like gang bangers. But many Americans have no sense of age appropriateness, so they were no surprise.

Anyway, I would be a hypocrite if I hated trick-or-treaters after all my praise of Christmas last year. After all, trick-or-treat and wassailing are the same ritual.

I haven’t had a trick-or-treater at my door since I retired to the foothills, and that brings me full circle. When I was young – during the fifties in very rural Oklahoma –  we didn’t trick-or-treat. We were simply too spread out. It would have been impossible to walk to anyone’s house, and in those days parents weren’t about to drive their children all over the county just for their amusement.

Instead, the local tradition was ritualized vandalism by teenagers. That was the night outhouses got turned over – and yes, people still used them. Windows got egged, toilet paper got tossed, there was even some graffiti. In Oologah, the next town south, I saw a business sign which had been tagged with Oologah hoars. Vandals couldn’t spell back then either.

As October rolled around, all the adults started telling outhouse stories from their misspent youths, and current youths started planning. I took no part in any of it, but I heard it all, and one story in particular caught my fancy. I think it was true; at least I knew the old lady in question.

She lived in a little house in town, with no plumbing and an outhouse out back. Every year somebody turned it over on Halloween, and she was tired of it. This year, she went out when it was still light and settled in to wait with a shotgun across her knees. Eventually it got dark, and eventually she heard whispers and the first creak as the local teenagers got a grip the outhouse. She threw the door open, leaped out and gave a mighty scream, and fired both barrels into the air. When the echoes cleared, there was no sound but retreating footsteps.

The old woman went to bed with a smile on her face. The would-be vandals, once they recovered from their fright, had the memory of a priceless adrenaline rush and a story to tell for the rest of their lives.

I love it when everybody wins.


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