The great elm trees lined our street like guardians, their magnificent umbrella-shaped canopies shielding us from summer sun. We took comfort in their shade.
But come late October, with their leaves milling about in un-raked lawns, the elms changed. As we moved underfoot into stocking-cap weather, the elms turned sinister, what with their long bare branches gnarled like the fingers of Dorothy’s Wicked Witch.
Nights were particularly daunting as those gloomy limbs weaved uneasy shadows into the fertile imagination of my youth. Danger lurked. You could just feel it. So I learned to run everywhere. Fast.
But there was no fear on Halloween. Even in the chilled darkness, we found fortitude in numbers and the promise of grocery bags full of trick-or-treat candy.
And so we exploded out of neighborhood houses, bold bandits unencumbered by parental supervision, let loose into the night in plastic masks and heavy coats.
I was a pirate. It was the only mask I ever owned. I swashbuckled through every kid Halloween in that pirate mask – unable to see, hardly able to breath and barely able to mumble-shout TRICK OR TREAT!
No matter, I knew, like any great pirate worth his salt knows, the bounty was worth the hardship.
And what treasure it was. Neighborhood moms and dads dropped a cornucopia of sweets into our bags. There was candy corn and homemade popcorn balls and Saf-T-Pop suckers in red, yellow and green flavors. There were Red Hots and Jawbreakers and Lemonheads – just the name makes my mouth pucker in sour admiration.
Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit Chewing Gum was a popular if not somewhat disappointing treat. The flavor of Juicy Fruit was supposed to last. It said so right on the yellow wrapper. It did not. After a few minutes of fast-chewing action, the taste was gone, like the hope my parents had that I would somehow fall asleep that night.
Every once in awhile a parent would drop a couple of pennies into our trick-or-treat bags. Cold Hard Cash. It was intoxicating. Money didn’t grow on trees, my dad would lecture me. And yet on Halloween there were parents tossing it willy-nilly into my bag. No strings attached. Halloween, thy name is good fortune!
So we blanketed the town, darting like bats through the night air from one house to the next. It was manic and magnificent.
And then, suddenly, it wasn’t.
Elm trees have large roots. It was not uncommon for those roots to entangle sewer lines or even lift up sidewalks. The problem is, a kid doesn’t think about roots. He should.
While racing home one particular fruitful Halloween to unload a bag of candy and zip back out again – not unlike a NASCAR pit stop – I tripped over an uprooted sidewalk slab. SPLATT! I face-planted on the sidewalk. Worse yet, my candy flew free into that unforgiving night. My hands, scuffed raw from my landing, recovered mostly grass and a few Tootsie Rolls. I was too shocked to cry.
Dutch Elm Disease ravaged the elms that lined our street. Isolated elms survived, lonesome reminders of a time when Halloween was not for the faint of heart – or the clumsy.