It Was No Vandals. It Was Jim And Me.
Those of us who do a little writing are starved for feedback, and welcome it even when it’s a long time in coming. Forty-four years ago the Los Angeles Times printed a piece I wrote about Halloween. The feedback came a few days ago.
First the essay, which carried the headline above, then the feedback.
Running was what Halloween was all about when I was a kid. Almost a quarter of a century has gone by since then, but I’ve never found anything that matches the gasping, gurgling joy of running away from something you shouldn’t have done: “sticking” a car horn, soaping a store window, slinging a garbage can lid on a neighbor’s front porch. Nowadays many kids don’t know what walking is, let alone running, and I suspect they have a lot less fun than I and my buddies did back in the 50s in Indiana.
Halloween of 1952 stands out in my memory as the best of all. The morning afterwards there was a brief story on the front page of the local newspaper under the headline “Vandals Let Down Streetlights.” It wasn’t no vandals. It was Jim Painter and me.
The two of us had nothing in common except an around-the-clock devotion to horseplay. Jim was two years younger, five inches shorter, 15 pounds heavier, and a good half-inch thicker across the eyes which from time to time were shielded by the worst-fitting pair of glasses ever made. Alone, we were both reasonably intelligent. Together, we had a collective IQ of six. Six-tenths.
While the report in the Frankfort Morning Times was factually correct about the streetlights being messed with, it captured none of the excitement of the deed. What we called a streetlight in those days was just a light bulb at the top of a wooden pole with a metal replica of Buster Keaton’s hat as a shade. If the bulb burned out, the street department came along, lowered the light and screwed in a new one. It was easy. A chain running up to the shade was held in place at about chest level from the ground by a ring which hooked into a catch device.
It doesn’t really matter who let the first one go — although I have always thought it was Jim — what’s important is the wonderful sensation it created. The light came plunging down, and we ran like hell, convinced it was going to be smashed to pieces. We didn’t know that the city fathers had planned it so there was less chain than pole. The light bounced and jangled to a halt about three feet above the pavement. Even without eyes in the backs of our fleeing heads we realized we had discovered a great sport, and we scampered across the south side of town, letting down every second or third streetlight. We didn’t hurt anyone. We didn’t break anything, and frankly it was two of the most exhilarating hours of my life.
A year later Jim and I were back in action. By this time we were hanging around with guys who had wheels. Three carloads of us had set out from the drug store for a bit of cruising. Our usual tour — from the Square to Art’s Drive-in and back — took us through a residential area loaded with jack-o’-lanterns on the doorsteps. Someone dared someone else to run up and steal one, so he did and then we all did and then we drove around some more — 11 jackasses in three cars full of jack-o’-lanterns and no one with the foggiest notion of what to do with them.
Jim Painter to the rescue. “Let’s dump’em on Old Howard Crouse’s porch,” he said. A sensible suggestion unless you were aware that Old Howard Crouse was our high school principal. Sensible or not, it was an idea, something we were always short of. Mr. Crouse may have had the status and money to afford a house in one of the nicer neighborhoods, but he had an awfully small front porch to handle 70 to 80 pounds of crushed pumpkin gracefully.
Of the 11 Future Failures of America who participated in the night’s festivities, I was the only one who got a view of the carnage in broad daylight. Unbeknownst to the staff of the Frankfort Morning Times, one of the new members of their paper boy tribe had been attacked on the front page a year before as a “vandal.” I had a good arm and prided myself on getting the paper on the porch for all my customers — a category which included Mr. Howard Crouse. This was not the morning for exceptions or anything suspicious. Catfish Hunter never fired a harder one than I did into that orange goo. I’m sure Mr. Crouse didn’t bother to try to extract the paper from the pumpkin or vice versa.
My Halloweening career ended the following October in complete disaster. Before Jim Painter and I had a chance to combine our talents, I went out with my brother looking for what most of us in the 50s thought was “action.” About six blocks away from home, I grabbed a garbage can and was about to heave it and its contents against the front of a house when the door opened. There stood Mrs. Gray, a dignified, charming widow with a 20-year-old son in college. She was marvelous. She ignored the garbage can in my hands and casually asked if we would like to come in for a glass of cider.
We must have been inside for an hour and a half. I can’t remember what we talked about, but I do know it was all so very pleasant and civilized. After the cider and conversation, my brother and I walked straight home, not saying a word. I think we were both depressed that someone had finally assumed we were big enough to be treated like young men and not boys. I went to bed that night reminiscing about the fun and glory of my youth and wondering where it had all gone. I was 16.
The other night while watching the Yankees lose to Tampa Bay I checked my email, and there was a note from a woman who wrote: “I’m Old Howard Crouse’s daughter. My parents and I enjoyed your story for many years. I just found several copies of it after going through Dad’s things. He passed away in 2013 but he loved telling your story. Hope this finds you well and not out smashing pumpkins on someone’s porch this Halloween. 😂👻🎃”
Cathy Crouse was three years old in 1952. I sent her a thank you note and assured her I was trying to behave this Halloween. If my math is correct, “Old Howard Crouse” was in his early 30s when crushed pumpkin appeared on his porch.
Author’s note: It was my older brother Jim I was with on the night of the encounter with Mrs. Gray. Why I didn’t give his name in the essay is a mystery.