It’s October 31st, and I offer for a treat my Halloween story, the only Halloween I remember from start to finish, a small disaster of a Halloween in the least likely of places.
What we were doing in the Virgin Islands, I have no idea. My stepfather was working as a psychologist in the mental health field, and we would move many times in the years to come, but no place would be as near to paradise as St. Thomas in 1957. Here’s a snapshot:
A marvelous white tropical house out in the country at the foot of the island’s highest mountain. An open-air living room with a fish pond in the corner, screened-in bedrooms and kitchen. No phone, no TV, and little money--nothing to do but swim at the beach every day, or explore the woods surrounding our house, woods filled with strange plants, trees, tropical birds, insects, and the rustling sounds of hermit crabs or the occasional mongoose.
Our Sunday treat was a routine that never varied: a trip to the tiny airport, where we’d watch the steel drum band play and where we three kids (stepbrother Ralph, 8, sister Babe, 5, and me, 7) would each get precisely one comic book and one piece of chocolate candy shaped like a coin and wrapped in gold foil. My anticipation for the next chocolate coin started the moment the present one melted on my tongue like a communion wafer. Chocolate occupied a large part of my daily thoughts, so when Ralph casually reminded Babe and me that Halloween –just a few weeks away-- would provide us each with “sacks full” of chocolate, we were giddy with anticipation.
Finally, the big day came. It’s a measure of time and place that we set out at dusk with no adults: Ralph the pirate, me the generic monster (both lavishly decorated with assorted potions from our Mom’s makeup box) and Babe the standard issue bedsheet-with-eyeholes ghost. As we walked down the sandy road to the nearest house nearly a mile away (no streetlights, just our one flashlight), Ralph began telling ghost stories, most involving missing body parts and zombies “still wandering the island.” Our possible encounter with these ghouls was, he said, penance for the unlimited candy we were to receive.
By the time we arrived at the first house, we were primed with fear, and the polite-but-enthusiastic “trick or treat” we had rehearsed changed instead into an unearthly shriek, directed at the unfortunate island woman who opened the door. She screamed back and slammed it in our faces. We waited patiently for perhaps a minute, holding out our pillowcases for our treasure. Babe began to sniffle.
Ralph, ever the optimist, said the woman’s candy was probably awful anyway, so we set out for the next house. We knocked, the door opened, and an older woman smiled down at us. “Trick or treat?” we said, more a question than a demand.
“My, what love-ly costumes!” she said in a strange accent that I now recognize as probably British. “Trick or treat!” Babe demanded. The woman’s husband appeared at the door, and they both invited us in. We glanced at each other. What the heck, I thought, chocolate lust overwhelming all the parental lectures I’d ever had about strangers.
As we sat politely on their ancient sofa and they asked us questions about our costumes and the phrase “trick or treat,” it dawned on us: they didn’t know what Halloween was! Neither had the first house. We may just as well have been on another planet.
“You’re supposed to give us candy!” Babe said. Her face was turning red, not a good sign.
“Oh my. We have no candy,” the woman said. Ralph rolled his eyes at me. “How about some fresh fruit?” This, on St. Thomas, had the same appeal as offering squash to a kid during a Carolina summer. Too embarrassed to protest, we opened our pillowcases and accepted the gifts, thanked them, and left for home, three dejected kids dragging sacks of fruit in the sand.
This was my first big lesson in anticipation and disappointment, which is why I remember it so well, I suppose. So much has changed since then, including Halloween.
Poor Halloween. It has been pummeled by fundamentalist Christians, who have found yet another product of human imagination not to their liking. It’s ironic that the very things they fear and detest, Halloween’s pagan and supernatural roots, have been bleached out long ago by the entertainment industry, which treats the entire month of October as a movie-licensing vehicle. Once a fearsome hobgoblin, Halloween is now a toothless, timid old man, festooned with ragged bits of cartoon costumes—a Spiderman® boot, a Buzz Lightyear® helmet, a Little Mermaid® belt.
Fear has changed too; it’s no longer the delicious prick of ghosts and monsters, but rather the dull scrape of ISIS, homemade bombs, and poisoned Halloween candy.
The only thing that hasn’t changed is chocolate. I have come full circle on chocolate; when we got back to the mainland and normal Halloweens, I of course gorged myself every year. Now, chocolate is once more one of life’s pleasures heightened by its deliberately occasional nature. A piece of nice, Belgian chocolate awaits me as a reward for this column, and the few kids who come by tonight will get not fruit, not squash, but chocolate.