Today is Halloween, and if there's any storied yarn that accompanies the holiday, at least in ye olden days, it's the famous tipped outhouse, a single story festooned with countless inelegant variations, like the farmer who moved his six feet back and thereby caught the prankster, knee deep in doo.
But it's the outdoor loo that I think of this morning, because even though I'm not old enough to have attempted such havoc with the neighbor's facility, I remember a completely different Halloween, a time when darkness spread its wings over the small Dutch town where I grew up, erasing the shadows of those downtown church spires, it seemed, a time when the tightly religious village in which I grew up evolved into some entry-level demonic chaos that was otherwise totally unknown.
I remember dressing in black to take my place with other young males on the streets of the town. I remember wandering in gangs, looking through gardens to find pumpkins or tomatos or whatever else was still clinging desperately to thin October vines, then flinging the bounty at no particular targe--just flinging them because, after all, it was Halloween and the mission of young men was to be. . .to be what? to be, well mischevious, to be naughty, to pull pranks, to upend outdoor johns, to move farm machinery into the middle of the road, to block traffic, to mess gardens, to dirty the streets. It was obligation of youth, a ritual, a test of manhood, like climbing the watertower.
When I was even younger, I remember waking up on November 1 and being anxious to look around town to see if I could still read the public record of the hijinks created by all those naughty boys. I remember the myths: "Twenty years ago, Fred Inglesma disassembled Turkey Vander Tuin's wagon and then put the whole blasted thing together on his barn roof." We'd all marvel at the epics, wishing we had time and guts to get our own best shots up there on the mythic leader-board. Closest my culture ever came to a real live oral tradition. Nobody wrote those stories down. They were passed along on October 31.
When I was younger, we'd go door-to-door begging for sweets. Never once donned a costume that I can remember, but where we didn't get what we'd want, we'd soap windows. I remember that too. That was part of Halloween. Teachers regularly got blasted on October 31. Seems to me that I remember many of them standing vigil, late.
When I was 18, I moved to another small Dutch town 500 miles west, in Iowa, where, on this night, I still donned dark clothes and wandered uptown to observe the goings on, to watch roving bands of men--some of them married even, some of them mythic themselves--roaving about, set on mischief.
Nothing of that darkness exists anymore. I don't want to sound as if I'm given to incurable bouts of nostalgia either--things happened that shouldn't have. I'm sure there are folks here who remember their loos being dumped, but some of the old guys probably remember fires that shouldn't have been lit, cattle that shouldn't have been unpenned. Halloween pranks weren't always just cute.
But that those pranks could go too far was part of the mystique. All those darkly-clad young Calvinists were thrilled to live life on the edge for one night, me too. On just one night of the year we could forget the catechism and dance over there on the moonlit wildside. It was the closest Oostburg, Wisconsin, and Sioux Center, Iowa, ever came to Bacchanalia--even though I don't remember a bottle anywhere in sight. And I honestly don't remember young women being a part of things--the gender lines were that clearly drawn in those days. If there had been women around, I'd say Halloween was the closest I ever came, in my teen years, to a Calvinist Carnival. Of course, this was Oostburg, not Rio.
Some claim we all need the Carnivals, our Mardi Gras, our spring break flings, our excesses. Lent has more meaning when Fat Tuesday goes wild. Fasting demands more spiritual oomph from people who can wear only XXL.
And all of this excess I remember, this naughtiness, this ritual sin was assigned the very date (it is said) Martin Luther broke with the Roman Catholic Church, the official birthday of the Reformation. All that Calvinist sin on the Day of Reformation. Go figure.
Something in me just can't help loving life--it's such a wonderful nest of hooks, as we all are.
Still, there's something about all of that nasty naughtiness I just like. Call it nostalgia. Tell me I'm an old man whose glory has long ago departed, a man whose only great joy can be trying to call it back by telling stories.
And, after all, it was a young man's sport and we do have an old two-holer out back, and even though no one could tip it, attached as it is to the barn, if Sioux Center, Iowa's young males still don black and roam dangerously through this town's backyards, this old guy, to be sure, would be on edge.
Tonight my grandchildren, like hundreds of others, will go to a huge church party, where they'll be given all sorts of treats and sweets and party favors, I'm sure. Maybe they'll sing "A Mighty Fortress"--I don't know. I know they won't go door-to-door, begging for Snickers, but I'm quite sure they'll get 'em. I dare bet there won't be a single kid dressed in black looking to walk on the wild side. Not one.
It just ain't right. Who knows where this could lead? You wonder sometimes about where all this will end, don't you? Geesh--could be the end of the world.
Postscript: After writing all of this, I walked out to the barn, only to find our garbage can upturned. I'm not kidding. Could be those endless prairie winds. Then again, the ghost of Halloween's past. 'Tis that very day :).