A Philadelphia-Style Halloween
October always brought change and much anticipation. By the middle of the month in 1955 in Glenside, a suburb of Philadelphia, the maple trees that lined our street and arched over it had dropped their red and orange leaves. My friends and I had spent hours jumping in leaf piles as high as my shoulder and hiding in leaf forts on our front lawns. When all the leaves from the maples, dogwoods, and copper beeches had fallen, my parents and I raked them into burn piles in the street and set them ablaze. I loved the smell of burning leaves. My job was to push more leaves into the fire, tend to fire and beat down any errant sparks. Soon after, rain and showers washed the grey ashes down Twickenham Road and into a creek at the end of the street.
With the leaves disposed either on the street or wheel-barrowed into a compost pile at the rear of our two-acre property, my parents concentrated on winterizing our house – another indication that Halloween was nearing. The nights had dropped to the low 40’s where I could see my breath in the air and our daytime highs were warm enough that a light jacket kept me comfortable. My father hosed off the summer screens and replaced them with heavy storm sash. Our lawn furniture was carried into the cellar where the oil burner had been cleaned and filled. A cord of apple wood was delivered, stacked on the porch and covered with grey canvas. I didn’t help with these tasks because, as a twelve year old, I was busy playing football with the neighborhood kids.
Inside our house, my father rolled up the summer rugs and waxed the hardwood floors. I loved the hum of the buffer and the smell of Butchers Wax. The winter rug was rolled out and our living room furniture was rearranged to face the fireplace. My mother dusted the venetian blinds and hung the heavy duty, double layered maroon drapes. She washed all the walls with Spic and Span to remove a brown tar and nicotine film from hundreds of cigarettes smoked by my parents.
I noted these October changes and began planning for Halloween and what mischief I could get into on the three nights preceding Halloween – Chalk Night, Soap Night, and Mischief Night.
To be out on these free-for-all nights, my four girlfriends and I had to convince our parents to let us go out after dark. We told them we were going to each others’ homes to do homework. But after the adults had had their cocktails, they didn’t question us leaving the house dressed in dungarees, sneakers and a dark jacket – carrying no notebooks or books!
These nights leading up to Halloween were a big deal for us. We were typical ’50s suburban kids, respectful of the Township laws as well as our neighbors. Our predictable pranks were more a product of tradition than any kind of malicious intent. We girls felt bold and brave and clever roaming dark streets, sneaking up on houses and scurrying away. For me, I felt like an unleashed puppy – away from my parents’ strict control. For these four nights, I didn’t have to be a sweet, quiet daughter. We were the only “girl gang” in the neighborhood. Yes, we were tomboys and held our own with the boys our age. Most of the year all of us played together, but on these special October nights, we divided into boys and girls groups.
The sky was clear as darkness crept through the neighborhood. On Chalk Night, we loaded our pockets with pieces of white chalk. Because Twickenham Road was lit only by a lamppost at the end of each long driveway, we felt invisible as the five of us gathered near Diane’s house and plotted which house to chalk first. Our plan was to chalk the homes of older people without kids and we knew who they were. Our street had about 30 homes and we knew all the neighbors by name – Mr. and Mrs. Coale, Mr. and Mrs. Fitzpatrick, the Helwigs and so on. The adults knew each of us by name too.
To heighten the excitement, each of us wore a disguise of sorts.
“Don’t we look great! Nobody will recognize us.”
Diane wore her Phillies baseball cap – red with a large white “P” on the front. Sue covered her blond hair with a scarf tied under her chin. Gay had her Cisco Kid cowboy hat. Ricky pinned her long pigtails on her head like a crown. I wore my father’s WWI Army hat with a brown brim. I had to stuff the inside rim with toilet paper to keep the hat from falling over my eyes.
At each house we scribbled all over the asphalt driveway and on the concrete walkway up to the front door. In big letters we wrote words like “BOO,” “SHIT,” and “DAM” (without the “n”). We drew jack-o-lanterns with crossed eyes, ghosts and cats with arched backs. Diane was like an artist – her drawings were recognizable while mine looked geometric. Each driveway was like an endless blackboard with NO borders and NO rules and NO teachers looking over our shoulders. We silently ran from house to house leaving our mark. When our chalk was worn to a nub, we split up and walked home.
Unfortunately when Diane and I went to her house after school the next day, old lady Becker had complained to Diane’s mother that we had defaced her front walk. With water in a metal pail and a scrub brush in hand, we knocked on the battle-axe’s door and offered to clean up our art work. She gave us a tongue-lashing while, on hands and knees, we cleaned her entire walk. That was okay with us because we planned to soap her windows that evening. Mrs. Becker was a crab.
The night air chilled my face and hands but not cold enough for gloves. The moon was bright, almost full. Soap Night had the same arrangements as the night before. We met again each wearing the same disguise. Instead of pocketing chalk, we cut off chunks of Ivory Soap from the large white cake sitting by the sink that everyone had at home. Each of us had at least half a cake in our pockets, The purpose of Soap Night was to scribble soap on glass. It was a pain in the neck for a grown up to scrape the soap off glass with a razorblade and wash the glass. We were on the prowl for garage windows at our eye level. Front storm doors, living room and dining room windows were also targeted. The most fun on Soap Night was to scribble on car windows parked in a driveway. Men would have to wash their cars before leaving for work. And if a lamppost had not been turned on, we easily scribbled on the panes. With five of us girls in action, it took only a minute or so to leave our signature on each house, not only on Twickenham Road but also on neighboring streets.
As we walked up Fox Road, I noticed a front door that still had its screen door on. “Look at that screen door just waiting for soap. I spotted it first, so this one is all mine.” Without a sound, I approached the door, whipped out a big chunk of soap and zigzagged all over the screen. Little bits stuck in the screen and other bits fell to the door stoop like grated cheese. I was delighted thinking how hard it would be to clean up.
Mischief Night was the most thrilling night leading up to Halloween. We were free to run through the streets and to misbehave without consequences (hopefully). If adults had forgotten about Chalk Night and Soap Night, they were well aware of Mischief Night. Our parents gave us permission to go out in exchange for the promise that we would not “attack” our own homes. “Don’t be bad and be home by 9” were our instructions.
This night, again dressed in our disguise, we five girls were armed with bags of dry white rice, a roll of twine and kitchen scissors. Nothing too dangerous. We had heard about throwing raw eggs at cars, putting dog dirt (aka dog shit) in a paper bag and setting it on fire, and peeing in a milk bottle and leaning it against the front door. These were destructive actions we left for bad boys in the city, nothing we’d ever do. (But sometimes I wished I had the guts to be really bad).
It appeared to us that more inside and outside lights had been turned on at dusk and every car that could squeeze into a garage had done so. With an almost-full moon and additional house lights, we were challenged to sneak between bushes and bend low as we approached a house.
Our plan for Mischief Night was to annoy as many adults as we could. We accomplished this in several ways. First, we rang doorbells and slammed door-knockers a dozen or more times. If someone were stupid enough to come to the door, we fled. Second, if drapes or blinds had not been drawn and we could see people in the living room or dining room, we threw handfuls of rice at the glass. When they heard the clatter and looked toward the window, we ducked and ran, leaving a mess for them to clean up.
The Helwig’s house had two gigantic bay windows – just waiting for a “rice shower.” We dashed across the lawn, dug our hands into our bags of rice and raised our arms on the count of three to pelt the window. But before we could toss the rice, we were sprayed with water followed by “You boys go home. No mischief. Go home” shouted with a heavy German accent. We high-tailed it across his lawn and down the street.
“Where did he come from?”
“He was waiting for us with a hose near his garage.”
“He scared the pants off me.”
Our jackets and dungarees were wet in spots but our spirits hadn’t been dampened.
Our most detailed and exciting prank involved using twine and scissors. If a storm door had not been locked, we opened it just enough to reach for the door handle of the house. We tied twine to the handle, then closed the storm door, oh so quietly, and tied the other end of the twine to the exterior handle of the storm door. Neither door could be opened. Sometimes we crept back into the night and imagined the people’s frustration when they tried to go get their morning newspaper. Other times after doing all the tying we rang the doorbell and hid in the bushes to see what happened.
“Harry, I can’t open the front door!”
“I can’t either. What have those damned kids done?
“Well, do something!”
“I’ll go out the kitchen door and see what’s wrong. Get me a flashlight. Those damned kids.”
We took off squealing with delight.
Often as the five of us roamed the streets, we’d meet up with groups of boys. We’d quickly exchange tales of what pranks we had committed and which adults were out to haul us by our ear back home. With new information we’d reconnoiter where we would go next and which houses needed a little more annoying.
My father, whose birthday always fell on Mischief Night, skipped eating his birthday cake in order to stand in our driveway to “protect” the property. At that time, he had a dark green Philadelphia Electric Company car parked in our driveway. No way did he want the air let out of the tires, or the wiper blades twisted or the windows soaped. With his tan jacket zipped to his chin and the collar turned up, he and our fat Irish Terrier paced the driveway until 10pm when all hooligans, including me, were home and safely in bed.
Halloween Night took much more preparation than the previous nights. In 1955 we assembled our costumes by rummaging through closets and swapping items with neighbors. Pre-made costumes had not been invented although paper false faces (now called masks) could be purchased at the 5&10. Diane and I had decided we would be fishermen and go trick or treating together. We got boys’ yellow slickers with the matching hat with a brim and long side pieces that came to our shoulders. Black men’s galoshes covered out feet and legs. We carried fishing poles and wicker picnic baskets to hold our treats. We drew black mustaches on each other using an eyebrow pencil. The best part of our get-up was “smoking” a corncob pipe filled with cinnamon. We could puff out a little smoke to show how grown up we were.
At 6:30pm I hurried down the street to Diane’s house where we planned to begin our trick or treating. The stars were dimmed by the full moon hovering over us. It was a Blue Moon in 1955 and ripe with intrigue on this Halloween night. With a little imagination, we could see witches on brooms swooping in front of the golden globe. None of us needed flashlights to locate the houses that gave out the finest treats.
We ran to the first house decorated with glowing jack-o-lanterns on either side of the walkway. A paper skeleton hung on the door daring us to enter. We rang the bell, just once. Mrs. Becker opened the door and the storm door.
“Trick or treat!” Diane and I yelled in unison.
“Come in and let me see your costumes.” Her tone no longer showed her anger from two days before when we were on our knees scrubbing off chalk. We entered her living room and stood silently while she looked us up and down.
“Your fishermen costumes are good and I like your pipes. Turn
around and let me guess who you are.” With great anticipation, we did as she said.
“Let’s see, one of you is a lot taller. I wonder if you are brothers.” We giggled. “Or maybe you are girls, it’s hard to tell.” She paused. “Could you be Diane? And Marsha?”
“Yes, that’s us,” we laughed and lifted up our yellow hats revealing more of our faces.
“I have treats for you, rice crispy squares that I made today. I’ve wrapped them in waxed paper so they won’t get sticky in your basket.” We opened our picnic baskets and she placed one treat in each.
“Thank you, Mrs. Becker,” we said as we hurried out her door
“You be good girls and have fun tonight,” she said as we disappeared down the street.
Each neighbor welcomed their costumed guests into their dining room or living room. Before we were offered any food, the adults had to guess our name. We laughed with glee at our mistaken identities and loved when we had tricked them. Diane and I joined our friends off and on during the evening presenting ourselves en mass to eager and overwhelmed couples.
After revealing our identity, we stood around the dining table filled with treats. There were paper cups filled with apple cider, plates of apples, candied apples, caramel apples, popcorn balls and freshly baked ginger cookies. Some families offered us a cup of hot chocolate topped with a marshmallow. Each homemade goodie was neatly wrapped in waxed paper; some were tied with black or orange ribbon. Others offered us store-bought candy – Dubble Bubble gum, a yellow box of Chiclets, Hershey bars, Life Savers, Cracker Jacks, Tootsie Rolls, and licorice. Once in a while an adult would drop a nickel into our baskets.
The very best house to go to belonged to the Romig family whose property adjoined ours at the back part of our two acres. (The Romigs had a tennis court and the only swimming pool in town. We played baseball and football on their grassy acre without ever being told to skedaddle.) Diane and I hustled up the winding street to reach their house at the top of the hill. The dark wood front door stood open and Jerry, the older son, greeted us as we exclaimed “Trick or Treat.” The house was enormous like an English Tudor but we were more interested in the treats that covered the dining room table and sideboard.
We were never disappointed at the Romig’s. They served us a cup of punch with ice cream floating on top. After licking our lips and handing back the glass cup, we were invited to take any two store-bought treats. This year we had a choice of Mars Bars, Hershey Bars, Turkish Taffy (strawberry, chocolate, banana or vanilla), Tootsie Rolls, or a box of M&Ms.
“Did you hear her say we could choose two?” I whispered to Diane. “I like all of it. This is hard to do.”
“I’m taking a Mars Bar and a banana Turkish taffy. This is neat!” She placed her selections in her almost-filled basket. Being a chocolate lover, I finally decided on the Hershey Bar and the M&Ms. With many sincere thank you’s, we left the Romigs and canvassed our way down the hill.
“This was the best Halloween ever. Everyone loved our fisherman costumes.”
Diane and I parted company at the bottom of the road after agreeing to sort and exchange candy tomorrow after school. The full moon had risen over the arched limbs of the maple trees creating eerie shadows on Twickenham Road. As I walked home lugging a full basket of candy, I felt elated but I also like I could throw up from all the sweet treats I had eaten and from the cinnamon in my corncob pipe.
That night I lay in bed reviewing the thrill of roaming the neighborhood for four October nights without adult supervision. I loved being bad – it brought the devil out in me, the risk-taker, the free spirit. I was unleashed, powerful, clever, and brave. The remainder of the year I was disguised as a sweet, well-behaved girl. I snickered, hugged my teddy bear, closed my eyes, and drifted off in sweet sleep.
Marsha A. Ross