Childhood Halloweens are pretty well etched into my memory, but the one that stands out in my mind is the year that my brother Mike dressed as a pig farmer and took us trick or treating. That was the infamous year of the Skeletor and Cactus Incident.
Normally, Mom drove us on a long winding loop “around the block,” about ten miles looping around to our neighbors out in the country. We spent most of the time in the car and made less stops in our night of trick or treating than kids living in town, but most neighbors loaded us with a treat bag, so we always hauled home heavy bags of candy by the end of the night. Just the same, every year we wondered if maybe kids in town were collecting more than us, and every year, Mom assured us that they indeed were not.
That particular year, I remember standing in the kitchen ready to go, probably waiting for Mom who was trying to get a few more things done. I’m guessing I was decked out in some combination of a costume and a winter coat, like most Minnesotan kids trick or treating.
Just off of the kitchen was our utility room, where everyone came in and out when doing chores. While I was impatiently waiting to go trick or treating, my brother Mike came in from doing chores in the hog barn. I think he was about a junior in high school at the time.
I don’t remember the particular conversation between Mike and Mom, but looking back, I’m guessing I was impatiently waiting in the kitchen to go trick or treating, and Mom had baby Victoria and about ten kids at home and a million things on her plate and didn’t know how to make it all happen. Mike offered to take us younger kids trick or treating.
I’m sure Mom was relieved, but to me, this immediately was a problem.
Mom ALWAYS took us trick or treating. How could Mike possibly do it the exact same right way that Mom did it? And what was his costume? Halloween only came once a year, this had to be done right.
Mike smiled and told me, “I’m going to be a pig farmer!”
He definitely looked every bit like a pig farmer. Mike, fresh from the hog barn, still had coveralls on and his olive green chore boots, commonly known as “shoot kickers,” well, something close to “shoot,” anyway. To keep warm, he might have thrown on top a green Pioneer Seed Corn hooded sweatshirt, full of holes and covered in grease.
Then he reached up above the cereal cupboard to the cabinet where we kept the garbage bags. He pulled out a gigantic black garbage sack, and said he was all ready to go and fill it up.
That’s when I began to protest. I was young, but old enough to know something embarrassing when I saw it.
“Oh no, Mike, you can’t wear that. It’s not a REAL costume. And you can’t take a garbage bag. That’s not a real trick or treating bag.” Halloween has to have a certain mystique, and that wasn’t what I had in mind.
Acceptable costumes came from our big cardboard box in the attic of musty-smelling costumes. Like the Gene Simmons Kiss mask that repeatedly tormented grandkids in later years (sorry, Jason). Or the homemade Indian costume made from a sheet. Or the stained ghost costume made from some other sheet. Or maybe one of Mom’s rumpled wigs from the era when wigs were the thing for a while.
Even one of those creepy masks that was supposed to look like a little kid or the disturbing red-nosed clown would be ok. Also acceptable was a vinyl store bought costume from Henry’s Variety, like my awesome Tweety Bird costume in kindergarten.
Now, those were REAL costumes. That’s how it was supposed to work.
My protests were fruitless. Mike knew he was a farmer, and that was that. Off we went, three young kids and our pig farmer big brother, off for a night of trick or treating in Mom’s Bonneville. In hindsight, my embarrassment about Mike’s chore clothes “costume” seems pretty pointless, considering almost every stop was at a neighboring farm.
Our first stop without exception was Grandma’s house, right next door. Grandma Kramer always had a beautiful yellow banana ready for every trick or treater that stopped by. Unfortunately, Grandma’s bananas often looked a little worse for the wear after getting banged around, scrunched, smushed during the night of trick or treating.
After Grandma’s, we made our way around the neighborhood. Mike stopped at all of our usual stops, and added in a few extras, too. Mike was a talker, and he was more than happy to spend an evening making little social calls at all the neighbors in the name of taking younger siblings trick or treating.
I remember being impressed by how easily he talked to everyone. As I kid I felt shy every time the door opened and I had to talk to a someone that I only saw a few times a year, but Mike loved every minute. Our routine that night became saying “trick or treat,” collecting candy, saying “thank you,” and then waiting, and waiting just a little bit more while Mike talked to the neighbors.
At Jerry and Mary Connelly’s house, we stopped in and collected our candy, said thanks, and then stood around and waited while Mike talked and talked. Which brings me, then, to the Skeletor and Cactus Incident.
That was the era when He-Man and Masters of the Universe were very cool, so my younger brother, Matthew, was dressed up as Skeletor, He Man’s evil nemesis. That Skeletor costume was one of those vinyl ones, the kind that made loud noises when you moved and often ripped by the end of the night.
Matthew was maybe just four or five at the time, but he faithfully wore the cheap yellow Skeletor mask for hours. You can imagine the type of mask, it’s the kind that they now recommend you avoid because it impairs your vision.
Well, little Skeletor, standing there at Connellys and waiting quietly while Mike talked, shuffled and stumbled backwards, and landed right in Mary Connelly’s cactus plant collection. Real live fully intact cacti. Feeling shy and embarassed, he got up quickly and didn’t say a word about it, and probably worried that he wrecked one of the plants. And then we all waited a little longer while Mike talked a little more to our neighbors.
When we got back into Mom’s car and started to head back out onto the gravel road, Matthew finally shared his predicament: the poor kid had cactus spines stuck in his back side. He had stoically stood there the whole time, and never said a word about it.
I clearly remember sitting in the dark night on the gravel road with just the dome light of the Bonneville for light. With a cumbersome shuffling of costumes and candy bags and coats, Mike laid Matthew across his lap and opened up the Skeletor costume. He then plucked the cactus spines out of Matthew’s poor little “biscuits,” as Mike called them. I felt so bad for Matthew. Cactus spines are tricky things, tiny and hard to see in low light, so it took a bit of doing for Mike to make Skeletor ready for more trick or treating again.
Cactus free, we rounded out the night. Just before heading up the hill back to our house, we made a stop at our aunt and uncle’s house, where Donna always had the cutest little paper Halloween bags ready for us, and always made us feel special. The last stop of the Halloween night was always Elsadie Hansgen, then we headed home.
I’m sure we ran into the house and gave Mom the full report of the highlights of the evening, while dumping out our candy into cake pans so we could see it better and sort through it all. Then came a little giddy gorging followed by hiding the cake pans of candy in our bedrooms so nobody else would steal the precious loot.
All in all, it was a fine Halloween.
Lessons learned? Never under estimate the pain tolerance of a little boy dressed as an action figure. And sometimes, the real super heroes come dressed in s*** kickers.