Bobby, Leah, and I had coordinated our Halloween costumes to a certain degree. Bobby and I were both going out dressed as pirates. Leah would be dressed as an Indian princess, or Native-American female royalty, as they would say in the politically correct parlance of the twenty-first century. (Leah’s costume would be controversial today; but it wasn’t in 1980.)
In past years my costumes had covered all manner of Halloween themes, a few of which made my twelve-year-old self cringe: At eight I had been Casper the Friendly Ghost. Then the inevitable Star Wars stormtrooper and Darth Vader.
My pirate costume struck me as a fitting choice for a twelve-year-old boy who was embarking on his last Halloween outing. It wasn’t much of a costume at all, in the technical sense: I’d located a buccaneer hat, an oversized belt with a fake gold buckle, and a plastic sword and scabbard at K-Mart. I’d also wear a white shirt and a pair of funky baggy pants that were already part of my normal wardrobe. Had I known about the future Johnny Depp movie, I would have considered my costume to be very Pirates of the Caribbean-esque.
My father was of a different mindset. To him, all this Halloween foolishness was something that I should have left behind with true childhood—at the age of nine or ten, perhaps.
He happened to walk by my room that night after dinner, as I was trying on my costume before the mirror, checking how I would look on Halloween night. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have cared so much. But I would be spending the evening with Leah. I didn’t want to look like a total dweeb.
“My son the pirate,” he said, stepping into my room.
The remark hadn’t been delivered with any degree of harshness. My father seldom raised his voice. At the age of twelve, I could recall being spanked only a handful of times—and by now most of those memories were distant. Spanking and yelling weren’t my father’s style. He had more subtle ways of expressing his disapproval. And I never failed to respond to it.
“This’ll be the last year,” I said. As I may have mentioned, we had had versions of this conversation before.
My father nodded. “My last Beggars’ Night was in nineteen forty-seven. I was nine years old. It was also only my third Beggars Night, you know, because they suspended the practice during the war. No one had time or resources for trick-or-treating during the war.”
There he went, talking about his childhood during World War II as if it were only yesterday. The year I turned twelve, my father was already forty-two, making him about a decade older than the fathers of most of my classmates.
I loved my dad, but at times he seemed more like a grandfather than a father, a visitor from another time and place.
Not only did he talk endlessly about distant events that had no relevance to my life, he also used unnecessarily antiquated language when the mood struck him. “Beggars’ Night” was an old timer’s word, more or less peculiar to Ohio, for what everyone else referred to as Halloween or trick-or-treat. Hello, Dad, it’s 1980, I felt like saying—but didn’t.
“Have you given any more thought to my suggestion?” he asked.
His suggestion, of course, had been more than a suggestion—it had been a subtle form of pressure. This year my sister, Carrie, turned seven—an age my father believed to be far more appropriate for trick-or-treating. Since October 1st Carrie had been breathlessly enthusiastic about the prospect of trick-or-treat, marking off the days on our kitchen calendar. But at seven she was too young to go out trick-or-treating alone. Even in 1980.
Under ordinary circumstances, the task would have fallen to one, or both, of my parents. But of course, this wasn’t an ordinary year. My mother was recovering from a sprained ankle. One morning in September she had gone out to prune her knockout roses in preparation for the autumn, when she’d slipped on the front step and taken a nasty fall. A neighbor had found her lying on the front walkway and called an ambulance. Mom turned out to be all right (minus the sprained ankle) but walking long distances would be out of the question for her for the foreseeable future. She was still hobbling around the house on crutches.
“I wouldn’t mind taking your sister out,” Dad said. “But several of our big clients have their fiscal year closings on October 31st. You know what that means.”
Of course I knew what that meant. My father was a mid-level accountant at a Cincinnati accountancy office. “Closing” meant a final tally and accounting of the year’s books for each of the firm’s corporate clients.
That usually meant a week of brutally late nights for my dad and his colleagues, right up to and including the night of the closing itself.
“And I wouldn’t mind taking her out, either,” I countered as tactfully as I could. “But Bobby and Leah and I have been planning this for weeks now. It’s our last Halloween.”
The truth—which I could never have confided to my father—was that I wouldn’t have minded skipping the outing with Leah and Bobby, and accompanying my sister instead. Then I imagined Bobby and Leah out at night, walking the streets. It would be almost like a date, wouldn’t it? And it had seemed to me that the two of them had been growing rather flirtatious of late. Bobby was my friend; and Leah was my friend—and that was the problem. Neither one of them owed me anything. If those two ended up getting together, I could make no case for betrayal. I had no claim on Leah.
“Okay,” Dad said. “I’m not going to order you to cancel on your friends and take your sister out. But someday, son, you’re going to have to learn what it means to step up to the plate when others need you. That’s a lesson I had to learn at a young age. Your mother and I have tried to make things easier on you. We never wanted you to struggle. But sometimes I wonder if we’ve made you a little too self-centered.”
I could easily predict what was coming next. My father had been too young for either World War II or Korea, but he had been a Cold War draftee in the late 1950s. He had reenlisted once in order to raise money for college.
My dad had been in the army during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Stationed in West Germany at the time, he’d been given a fallout suit and an M14 rifle, and told to expect a tactical nuclear strike and an invasion from the east should the crisis escalate into war. All the while, he would have to face the possibility that his friends and loved ones back home had been vaporized by Soviet missiles fired from Cuba.
In my more contemplative adolescent moments, I was able to acknowledge that yes, my father’s growing up years had been more difficult than mine had been (so far, anyway). But my concerns were mostly limited to what remained for me in junior high, and high school beyond that.
“You don’t think you’ll be done with closing by Halloween night?” I asked.
My father was leaving the room.
“I don’t know, son. If I can, I’ll finish up and be home in time to take your sister out. Otherwise, Carrie will have to stay home while her big brother goes out.”