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Luke 21:11, 25
Most of us grew up knowing that we all would someday be called to task for our misdeeds. In our teen years, though, it was generally understood that this was a future event and by the time it actually happened, we would be too old to have any fun anyway. Such was the reasoning that justified Mischief Night in our young minds.
It appears that Mischief Night never caught on around here as well as it did in the mid-Atlantic states and New England. Anyway, Mischief Night was celebrated the night before Halloween (no trick-or-treaters and their parents in the way) by those who had passed the age of trick-or-treating but still wanted to perpetrate the trick.
Small groups of boys moved stealthily in the darkness about the roads and fields of our rural communities. We might soap windows, throw toilet paper into trees, egg mailboxes and so on. Being the 6th-grade surrealist that I was, my favorite trick was less traditional and more subtle; I would leave a lighted candle in the middle of the road and watch the fun from a distance.
Surprisingly, no one ever simply ran the candle over and went on. Some cars stopped and blew their horns then carefully drove around it. On occasion the driver would stop, get out, look around then hurriedly get back in the car and speed away as if they feared a Mafia hit or UFO abduction. But, after the fun, we would eventually get down to business — smashing pumpkins.
Thinking back, it seems that the local folks outsmarted us to a degree by leaving whole, defective pumpkins on their porches for Mischief Night, then bringing out the carved jack-o-lanterns to guide trick-or-treaters to their door.
Anyway, there was the quiet arrival of the pumpkin smasher, then the charge to the porch, grab the pumpkin run out to the road, smash it there and run — victory! The real victory, though, was when we would pass the scenes of our crimes the next day and claim our kills from the school bus.
No one was going to get one over on Cousin Elbert. Rather than going out to smash pumpkins himself, he was going to booby-trap his family’s pumpkin and catch the perpetrators. What he intended to do after that was unclear.
Remember flower boxes? I’m not referring to the wooden variety but rather the masonry structures that were a common feature of postwar brick homes. These enclosures were filled with topsoil and planted in flowers for a very pleasing effect. Of course, as these families grew and responsibilities mounted, these plantings were often neglected. Cats would eventually take over the flower boxes until they were filled in with stone or concrete, planted in shrubs or otherwise rendered obsolete by the Baby Boom.
It was in the unturned soil of his family’s flower box that Elbert set up his pumpkin trap. Elbert was a clever inventor; though, he often demonstrated questionable judgment as to how his talents might best be employed. A fire siren and a vacuum cleaner motor are very similar in design. Taken out of its housing, vacuum cleaner motors can actually be pretty noisy. Elbert rigged one of these motors onto the roof of the porch and wired a flood light into the circuit as well.
Wires ran down to a refrigerator light switch under the pumpkin so that both the light and the “siren” would be activated when the pumpkin was lifted. Night fell and Elbert waited. Apparently, no one tried to remove the pumpkin. But somehow, the secret had been leaked. The following day, Elbert found that his clever alarm system had been defeated by someone using a strip of shingle and a rock. The pumpkin lay smashed in the road. It was always fun seeing Elbert get beaten at his own game. His eyes bug out, his nose gets pointy and his voice gets screechy as he rails against the unseen perpetrators. He’s probably moved on to motion sensors and surveillance cameras — but nothing stops a determined pumpkin smasher.
But back to our Mischief Night antics in the field and how “fearful signs” in the sky made us quit — briefly. Upscale subdivisions would eventually cover the farm fields, but on this Mischief Night of 1966, there was only one in convenient walking distance.
The posh subdivision’s roads were paved and featured concrete curbs and cast iron storm drains. My friend, Rocco, and I had previously discovered the large galvanized steel discharge pipe. After some experimentation using large firecrackers, we learned that any sound produced in this pipe would be heard at the stormwater grates throughout this small neighborhood.
For Mischief Night, we were going to sacrifice a battery transistor radio by turning it on full volume and pushing it deep into the pipe. Thus, until the batteries ran down, the subdivision would be haunted by mysterious music and voices. However, we were having some difficulty tuning in a station that would pick up a signal inside the pipe. WOR, a New York talk station with an especially strong low-frequency signal, seemed the only candidate. Still, we tried to tune in a rock station.
Remember that in the outset I mentioned that we were aware that someday we would be called onto the carpet for our crimes. We also understood that this would be accompanied by unprecedented celestial phenomena. We were thus more than a little concerned when the sky lit up above us and blossomed into various colors. “Not, now,” I whimpered. Rocco crossed himself and we scurried to my house — it being the closest — partly as a demonstration of repentance.
Arriving there, we found my entire family in the front yard observing the spectacle. My father explained that, according to the evening news, the lights in the sky were from a weather experiment. Rockets had been launched from Virginia, which spread colored dust into the upper atmosphere. Being outside the shadow of the Earth, sunlight did the rest while scientists studied the movements of high-altitude winds.
Trick-or-treaters would be out the following night. Since we had been granted this reprieve, Mischief Night would have to extend into November.