Memories and Mischief from October Country

Like many nostalgics, autumn is by far my favorite time of year. The county fair season of late summer and Labor Day is coming to an end and the afternoon sun’s ferocity burns less and less each day until you hear the skitter of the first dried up brown leaf skipping across the sidewalk and you’re wearing your fall jacket (finally!) and wondering where you can curl up with a mug of hot cider by a window somewhere to take in the kaleidoscope of colors in the treeline horizon. I swear I’ve seen everything from yellow to purple in those trees, and with the anticipatory thrill of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and eventually Christmas whirling around inside, I can’t think of a better time of year than right here and now.

So much of my memory of past Octobers has to do with that anticipation, with the hope of things to come. The decision about what to be for Halloween was more important to me as a child than prom was in high school or even my college graduation, if I’m going to be honest. More often than not, we made our own costumes, sometimes accented with a purchased mask or hat, a bag or makeup. I recall being a pirate, a scarecrow, a hobo (surprised?), Robin Hood, a rubber-masked monster, a ghost, and a superhero of my own creation who was a stick of dynamite with Batman-like skills and tools. That one won me an award at the little town hall Halloween parties they held, with judges, punch, music, candy, food, games, prizes, and so on. I still remember the musty smell of the town hall, the single-file parade of costumed kids, the pumpkin piñata and the sound of candy falling to the floor as we scrambled to grab it.

And trick or treating, my god. I preferred to begin just as the sun was setting behind the trees—not too late, not too soon. I wanted that warm buttery glow to cast the yellows and reds of the trees across the sidewalks as darkness reached across the sky and brought down its black curtains, leaving us running from lamppost to lamppost. I lived in a secluded, rural community of about 80 or so homes surrounded by farm fields and forests, and if felt absolutely perfect: safe enough to roam without parents, and populated enough to score a nice haul of candy. People often drove to our neighborhood to allow their kids to go door to door, which added a nice element of the unknown. In small groups we’d roam the night, down walkways and through shortcuts in the woods. We marveled at decorations and each others’ costumes, and some houses played those scary sound effects through boom boxes placed behind windows or bushes. And we'd always return in time for one Halloween special or another on TV. It was like a Halloween fantasy land for a handful of hours.

But, as all things do, the nights came to an end too soon. The next day everything returned to a boring tedium of November and school life. I think that shift was more significant and sudden than the one after Christmas because after Christmas we’re left with the gifts and the cold, a week before New Years, a tree to take down, etc. But after Halloween, there’s just…nothing. The whole magical spell disappears. I learned to try to cherish that feeling in October more and more, knowing that November 1st would feel so hollow. 

I recall in fourth grade spending a lot of time in late September working on a homemade Halloween activity book that I hoped my teacher would make copies of and share with the class. I made up “spooky” word searches, clever little puzzles, connect the dot images for things like jack-o-lanterns and Frankenstein’s Monster. I was immensely proud, but the teacher didn’t seem interested and eventually took the book away. I never saw it again, and I often wondered if other kids would have enjoyed it. Maybe, maybe not. Either way, I enjoyed making the book more than anything, so I didn’t hold a grudge.

Autumn festivals dot my memories of October. One took place on a farm somewhere in Columbia County, upstate New York. My grandparents drove me and my sister, and I recall fields of pumpkins on the vine in the moonlight with a farmer taking groups around on his tractor. Music and lights played along the front of the house where they sold apples, cider, donuts, and gifts. A large hill behind the house led to a barn where they had set up a hay maze full of other kids scurrying through the darkness with the scent of warm hay in our noses. It felt like a place like that didn’t exist outside of October, as if on November 1st the farm would fade into an empty field for the next eleven months.

Another place in the countryside northwest of Albany sold pumpkins, endless pumpkins, and the family had constructed an elaborate “haunted tunnel” across their property, complete with mist machines, caves, bridges over bubbling swamps, spooky sound effects, a fake cemetery, and a vast array of tricks and traps to scare people coming around corners. For two or three years the tunnel was so elaborate it took ten or more minutes to go through and we’d spend hours running from the exit to the entrance to do it again and again while our parents waited. We were scared, entranced, overjoyed…what other holiday contained these emotions all wrapped into one? None of them, and we knew it.

But we grew older, we moved away, and I think we forgot how important that month felt. Nowadays, a family October outing consist of a quick drive to an apple orchard where we climb out of the car, mill around in the stands of apples, syrups, pies, and gourds, buy a dozen donuts, get in the car, and drive off again. I know the magic often disappears once you grow up, but does it have to? Must we strap ourselves to the utilitarian aspect of life every single day? I hope not, and I hope to use some of this year’s October to seek out the aesthetic, hold on to the chilling feeling of moonlight on an orchard, of the wind rattling through a twisted pumpkin patch, of costumes and music, candy and cider, feel the squishy innards of a pumpkin in my hand as I carve scary faces and set the candle inside.

So here’s October again, and I implore you to get out there and embrace it. Carve a pumpkin and take an hour in the darkness to pick the right one! Read a children's Halloween book and feel like a six-year old again. (I added a picture of one of my favorites above!) Dress up! Eat candy! It’s important to hold on to a part of that, to re-live it each year. We only get so many Octobers in a lifetime. I hope I’ll see some of you out there. You can tell me about yours and I’ll tell you about mine, and maybe that way we can make the magic hold out a little longer.