Halloween was a special time in my neighborhood of East San Diego when I was a child. I grew up there in the 1950’s and 1960’s when things were more simple, in my world at least. These were the times when the elementary schools would have halloween carnivals in the evening at which one could fish for prizes from a tank, throw bean bags through a hole to win tickets redeemable for prizes, or win a cake on the cakewalk. I will never forget how excited I was one time when the music stopped on the cakewalk and the paper plate upon which I was standing contained the winning number and some big, pink, three layer cake was mine. And I didn’t even like cake!
Also missing in halloween these days is the homemade and natural goodies that we once filled our pillowcases with; brownies, fudge, apples and oranges and my all-time favorite, popcorn balls. We knew most of the neighbors who were giving us these home concocted treats and the thought of them inserting something dangerous or gross into our treats never entered either our minds or theirs. I really do miss the popcorn balls.
There is no doubt that I enjoyed the treats greatly, but I must confess that I really loved the tricks too. Most people only said “Trick or treat” as a formality, but my brother Brad and I took that formula very seriously. Our tricks originally were short on imagination. Soaping windows, burning paper bags filled with doggie doo on the front porch and the like were our stock in trade at first. As we grew a little older however the quality of our work was honed to a sharper edge. My all-time second favorite prank was Halloween related, and was as follows.
Sometime right around 1960 Brad and I decided to make a dummy to hang from a branch of the pine tree which grew in the front yard of our house. The branches spread out over the sidewalk and anyone walking up that sidewalk, and there would be hoards of people out trick-or-treating in those days, would have to walk under that pine tree. We found an old pair of my jeans and stuffed the legs full of crumpled up newspapers, pine needles, dried weeds from a burn pile in our back yard, and dirty rags. Brad then pulled an old shirt out of the rag bag in the garage and attached it to the jeans with safety pins. The shirt was then similarly filled and a cotton rope attached to the collar with more safety pins. We then glued a paper lunch sack into the collar opening of the shirt which represented a head and in the dark it made a pretty good likeness of a person hanging from a limb.
Our results were mixed. It was Halloween after all, and people were expecting such props. Some of the younger kids were a little bit spooked by our dummy but they were calmed down by their older escorts and not much came of it, so Brad and I decided to take the prank to the next level. We tied one end of a string to a leg of the dummy and then climbed up into the tree, using the string to pull the dummy up into the tree with us. Now we were able to wait for our victims to come walking up the sidewalk and let the dummy come swinging down right in front of them.
The effect was electric and hugely satisfying. The first group gave out a shriek, and when they assessed the nature of the joke tore our dummy down and spread it all over the sidewalk. After they walked on we repaired our masterpiece and regained our perch in the tree to wait for new victims. The wait was not long and soon our dummy, now just a bit the worse for wear, went swinging back out of the tree. The effect was identical, but this time we hoisted the dummy back up into the tree before our marks could recover from their fright and inflict punishment on the dummy like their predecessors had. We received a few threats and verbal chastisements from our thoroughly punked victims but we stayed silent and mostly invisible in the dark recesses of the pine branches, neither moving nor even giggling until the party had moved on. We then waited for the next party to stroll along, and the whole thing began all over again.
This prank generated a lot of laughs but eventually grew stale. We climbed down from the tree after a while and removed our dummy from his branch over the sidewalk. Several ideas were kicked around and we finally agreed to take the dummy a couple of blocks away where we would hide between two parked cars, wait for a car to come along, pitch the dummy in front of the car and then run out and snatch it up before the presumably startled drivers could react. It seemed like a good plan, so we gathered up our dummy and walked to Chamoune Avenue two blocks distant from where we were.
When we arrived at Chamoune Ave, two blocks east and one block north of our pine tree, we found a pair of cars parked very close to one another and hunkered down to await the arrival of a passing car. We didn’t have to wait long. A car driving west on Wightman Street turned right onto Chamoune and began rolling slowly towards where we lay in wait. When the car was very nearly even with our location Brad heaved the dummy out in front of the advancing car.
The driver hit the brakes and the car came to a screeching halt, but not until after it had rolled over our dummy. The driver, an elderly man, emerged from his car and hobbled around the front to the passenger side. While he was doing this Brad and I retreated to a row of shrubs, behind which we hid. It turned out that we had no time to leap out, grab our dummy, and make our getaway. The old boy quickly assessed the nature of what he had just run over and gave vent to a string of curses such as he had probably not used since he stood in the trenches of France in World War I. He grabbed the dummy and threw it towards the sidewalk, yelled something about our mother, and then reentered his car and continued on his way northbound on Chamoune.
Brad and I howled with delight at the quality of our prank and recovered our dummy. We replaced some of its stuffing with some of a newspaper that we had brought with us from home (it was a Thursday paper, and they were really thick with lots of pages), put a few new safety pins into it to keep pants and shirt together, completely discarded the paper bag which we had used for a head, and prepared for our next victim. Again, we didn’t have to wait for long.
In the distance two headlights appeared and they kept coming toward us. As the car passed Wightman we knew that they would be the next to suffer from our clever ruse. We knew that we would toss out the dummy and go straight to our hiding place behind the shrubs this time, making no attempt to bolt out of our covert and flee with the dummy. Worked last time didn’t it? What could go wrong?
The car approached and once again Brad tossed the dummy in front of it. The result was initially the same; screeching tires, grinding halt, dummy under the car. That’s where the similarity ended. Out of the four doors of the car boiled four large teenagers, easily Brad’s age or older, which meant a good deal older than me. The four teens were not amused and we slunk back deeper into the darkened yard, trying to stay out of sight. The attempt was a failure. The four angry teens saw our movement and came after us with shouts and threats.
We retreated at a run into the alley and then followed it up to Wightman, then up that street and into the alley between Chamoune and 45th Street with the four teens closing the gap between us. This alley was closer to our home however, and we knew that Mr. and Mrs. Larson had a big and intimidating dog that they kept in their back yard. Brad decided to take our chances with the dog and hollered for me to stay close to him. When we arrived at the Larson’s back fence we jumped up onto a wooden box-like structure where Mr. Larson put his trash cans and leaped from there over the fence, running for the fence on the front side of the yard like the devil himself was on our heals.
And the devil WAS on our heals. Duke, the German shepherd, was taking his ease in his doghouse in the back corner of the yard when we exploded into his domain. The dog was caught by surprise by two figures racing silently through the yard and did not get a good jump on us, and that was the break that we were hoping for. Brad flew like an eagle over the fence on the other side of the yard and I made it most of the way before Duke clamped his teeth onto the heel of my U.S. Ked. I lunged forward as Duke lunged back, and we traded my freedom from a mauling or a beating or both for my left shoe, and I considered it a bargain.
The four teens had no intention of entering a yard occupied by a full grown and thoroughly pissed-off German shepherd, and Brad and I flew through a passage which we knew of between two houses that led between 45th Street and the alley which ran between 45th and Highland Avenue. We crept queitly through another passage and soon we were standing on Highland Avenue, close to our house. Once on Highland I kicked off my other shoe and hid it in a bush, put my socks into my pocket, and we ran the rest of the way home.
Upon arriving at home we entered the house gasping and laughing, with me barefoot. Our mother was not curious about this as we were in San Diego after all, and I was barefoot most of the time anyway. We pretended to be stopping in to eat some of the candy that Mom was handing out to trick-or-treaters, but in fact we were waiting to be sure that the angry teens had given up the hunt.
After a while we ventured back outside and returned to the scene of our triumph by a roundabout way. When we arrived we discovered that our dummy was nowhere to be found. Not even pieces were seen in the street or in nearby yards. It appeared that the teens had thrown the dummy into their car and drove away with it, probably to reproduce our joke somewhere else. Brad and I returned to the Larson’s yard where he posted me in the alley while he went around to the front. On Brad’s signal I began to make noise and distract the dog while Brad jumped over the fence and recovered my shoe. Duke never saw him. Mr. Larson raced out of the back door of his house just as Brad cleared the fence on this return trip. I fled from my post at that moment and ran around to the front of the Larson house. Brad was waiting with my shoe and we retraced our steps to the bush on Highland Avenue where we recovered my other shoe from its hiding place.
We walked home with me fully shod, enjoying a good laugh and only one old pair of jeans lost for our efforts. We get a good laugh to this day every time we get together and tell the story for the umpteenth time.