As a young boy I was taught to spell the holiday celebrated each Oct. 31 as Hallowe’en, since the origin was Hallow Even. The spelling placed the apostrophe in place of the ‘v’ the meaning being, Hallow (Holy/Saint) Eve, the day before All Hallows Day, now All Saints Day.
Of course, as a young boy what it really meant was dressing up in some kind of costume and making as big a haul as possible on freely distributed candy and treats.
Junior high started for me in grade seven, which happened to be October 1978. At 12, and now out of elementary school, I was suddenly too cool to do house-to-house Trick-or-Treating and would not have been caught dead even considering it.
It also meant the onset years of testosterone, equating to a sewing of oats and general mischief, and Hallowe’en was as good a time to act out as any.
That meant joining up with my hoodlum buddies, many two or three grades ahead of me, and dressing darkly to better blend in with the unlighted alleys. Running along the gravel and dumping over the metal 30-gallon trash cans then in use was great fun, we thought.
So was a tradition I have since (sadly) come to understand was popular only in central Illinois, though a friend in southern Indiana admitted it happened there as well: Corning.
The minor “vandalism” began with a trip to some farmer’s field, where each guy would harvest perhaps a dozen or more ears of corn. These were then stripped down into bags until each of the erstwhile altar boys and fine young men had a substantial supply of rock-hard pebbles of maize.
The key thing when it came to targeting was that, by unspoken rule, the victim had to either be the home of a friend or someone you despised — random attacks were strictly forbidden.
So, bags in hand, three or four shadowy figures would, in primetime darkness, creep to within 10 yards or so of a home — numerous front-facing windows and aluminum siding being major factors in choosing a target — and, on cue, hurl a handful on corn at the house.
The resulting explosion of noise would startle the inhabitants off their couches and could, in the silence, be heard a block away. If you were inside a home that was chosen for assault, the unexpected explosion of hard, pebbled kernels impacting glass and siding sounded like all hell breaking loose.
You could hear if a neighbor was pelted, and might say, “Ha ha! Stevens’ just got corned!” and you knew you were safe, for it was far too risky to nail more than one home on a block on a given night, although some other random group of thugs driving around and parking two blocks over might do it without knowing they were under surveillance.
I never heard of anyone getting caught, but I do know angry dads might be waiting, ready to lunge out of a front door with invectives aimed at your fleeing backsides.
It must be stressed that no true damage was done to any home — the corn makes one hell of a racket, but even several simultaneous handfuls are not heavy enough to scratch a window or dent siding. And since many homes had open porches, the corn was simply swept up in the morning and then sprinkled around the bottom of the trees in the yard, fattening the grateful squirrels.
The house I grew up in had a rather large, rectangular, open porch, setting chest-high up a flight of steps leading to the paved stretch that then led to the sidewalk. As such, we were a prime target, and for the last week or so of every October could expect at least one nightly attack.
And what about smashing pumpkins? I never partook, nor did any guys I knew. It was too easy, too expected, and made kids cry. We remembered crying ourselves if it happened to us as little ones, and so it was seen as uncool, and you dare not risk being caught doing something not cool.
I remember dressing up as a pirate, a caveman, as Frankenstein and as a colonial minuteman. Most were homemade creations, some the dime-store el cheapo get-ups my generation will remember — you know, with the plastic mask, thin breathing slit, easily broken elastic band, etc.
In the past 20 years or so, the holiday has exploded in popularity among adults. I remember dressing once as the Monopoly property deed for Illinois Avenue and as the engineer from Conjunction Junction (pulling little boxcars colored, and reading, AND, BUT and OR).
As for candy and treats? My own tastes have not changed since my boyhood.
Reese’s and Snickers still top the lists, but nothing beat receiving a caramel apple or popcorn ball. Sweet Tarts and Smarties were prized, as well, among many others.
I am not among the legions of candy corn haters, though it is not high on my table of desirables. That said, Indian corn is on the no-no list, as is/was black licorice and Whoppers/malted milk balls.
Nov. 1 is All Saints Day, the often overlooked origin for all the shenanigans and fun. We are all called to be saints, and it is my prayer that my eventual petition, and yours, to join the procession will not be corned upon.
Jeff: a great story reminiscent of Jean Shepherd and his works, most notably, “A Christmas Story” and “Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories.” –Mike Kelley