My last Halloween (the true story)

How egg-throwing teenage boys ruined my last trick-or-treat

My novel 12 HOURS OF HALLOWEEN is a supernatural coming-of-age tale about three young friends who endure the trials of a 12-hour curse on Halloween night, 1980. To survive the night, they must battle vampires, animated trees, and the horrific creature known as the “head collector”.

12 HOURS OF HALLOWEEN is one of the most autobiographical novels I’ve ever written. Like the characters in the novel, I was 12 years old in October 1980. The suburban Cincinnati, Ohio setting is very similar to the one in which I spent my formative years.

That said, the main character of the story, Jeff Schaeffer, doesn’t have much in common with me, or with the boy I was more than 40 years ago. And while I had a group of friends, neither Leah nor Bobby is an exact representation of anyone I knew back then.

Oh, and I never did battle with any of the supernatural creatures that appear in the book.

Here is another point of fabrication: I went on my last trick-or-treat in 1979, not in 1980.

I set 12 HOURS OF HALLOWEEN in 1980 because some of the themes I wanted to explore required an adolescent perspective; and I was twelve in 1980, not in 1979.

But like the characters in the novel, I was somewhat torn (as were the adults around me) about the appropriate age for giving up the trick-or-treat ritual.

In the culture of those times, you were generally okay for trick-or-treating up to age ten or eleven. But once you reached junior high, well, people would give you funny looks if you showed up at their door on October 31st, asking for candy. And once you reached high school, you were definitely too old.

***

In 1979, therefore, my friend Ken and I decided to go out for “one last Halloween”, kind of like the characters in the novel. (Ken, being a year older than me, actually did turn twelve that year.)

I wore a prefabbed costume from Kmart. I don’t even remember what it was. (I seem to recall a green skeleton, but I can’t be sure.) Ken, however, had one of the coolest Halloween costumes I’ve ever seen—before or since.

This was the early Star Wars era, and every kid was a fan. Ken was no exception. His mother made for him a very elaborate imperial stormtrooper costume. This was not something store-bought. She made the whole thing from scratch. It was amazing.

Halloween 1979 in the Cincinnati area provided a clear, pleasantly cool autumn night. We set out a little after 6 p.m., and everything went fine…at first. Then we crossed paths with a group of teenage boys, a hot rod, and some eggs.

***

One thing I’ve noticed about the 21st-century: suburban teenagers are less mischievous than they used to be.

This could be because of helicopter parenting. How much trouble can you get into when your parents are tracking your movements on a smart phone app? Kids today are also very absorbed in virtual worlds of different kinds.

In the late 1970s, however, adolescent entertainment consisted of whatever was on network television (cable TV didn’t become common until about 1982), books, and other young people.

And since there were no parental tracking apps, your parents typically had only a vague sense of your whereabouts at any given moment.

In this atmosphere of fewer ready-made distractions and much less supervision, there were more motives and opportunities for getting into trouble. And plenty of teenage boys jumped at the chance.

***

This particular group of teenage boys, riding around on Halloween night 1979, had decided that it would be fun to throw eggs at the kids who were still young enough to go trick-or-treating.

They were obviously selecting their victims at random. I will retroactively blame Ken for our being singled out. His solid white stormtrooper outfit really did make him a target.

The car—it must have been a Dodge Charger or a Trans Am—slowed down as it approached. Ken and I had no time to assess the situation, let alone take evasive action. Then someone in the passenger seat threw some white objects at us via their rolled-down window.

The car roared away before we realized what had happened: they had pelted us with eggs.

Ken had been walking closest to the road, and he was a mess. The stormtrooper outfit his mother had so painstakingly crafted was now smeared with dripping yellow egg yolk.

Some of the eggs had splattered on me, too…though not very much.

After that, we decided to call it an early night. Neither one of us wanted to walk around dressed like an omelette.

At least the boys didn’t throw rotten eggs at us, I would think later.

***

My guess is that the egg-throwing foray was a spur-of-the-moment thing for the boys.

Speaking of the teenage boys: I never learned their identities. Whoever they were, though, they would all be pushing sixty in 2021.

***

So that was how my last Halloween went, in 1979 and not in 1980. By Halloween 1980, I decided for myself that I had had enough of Halloween and trick-or-treat. It was time to let that childhood ritual go.

Halloween, nevertheless, retains a strong grip on my imagination. 12 HOURS OF HALLOWEEN was therefore a very fun book to write as an adult.

***View 12 HOURS OF HALLOWEEN on Amazon***

Ghostbusters, 1984

A quick musical note: On this date in 1984, Ray Parker Jr’s song “Ghostbusters” hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. As the above tweet mentions, the song remained in the top spot for three weeks.

The song was a tie-in with the movie, of course. And since this was the era in which MTV still played music videos, the song was also a big hit on MTV.

The Ghostbusters song, heavy on concept, was ideal for the highly visual MTV medium. Watch the video below. It is now hopelessly dated, but still kind of fun. 

What was your friendly author doing on August 11, 1984? Whereas I’ve just celebrated my 53rd birthday in 2021, on this date in 1984 I had just turned 16. I already had my learner’s permit, and I was learning how to drive. I took driver’s ed that summer, as I recall. 

“Ghostbusters” was one of the constantly played songs of the late summer of 1984, and it quickly faded away afterward. This is no slight on Ray Parker Jr. A song based on a comedy film about ghost hunters is only going to have so long of a shelf life. 

The result is that whenever I hear this song, it takes me back…to a better, vanished time, that long-ago summer of 1984.

Fifty-three

The author with maternal grandparents, 1968. (Both were then younger than I currently am.)

Today is my birthday. On August 9, 1968, I came into the world in the little town of Sparta, Wisconsin. (Or so I’ve been told, I don’t remember much about that day; I’m taking everyone’s word on the matter.)

I didn’t grow up in Wisconsin, either, or spend any significant portion of my life there. In 1968 my father was finishing up his enlistment in the US Army, and he was stationed at nearby Camp (now Fort) McCoy. About the only thing I did in Wisconsin was to be born there.

If I were a member of an earlier generation, I might remark about how much has changed in my lifetime. My paternal grandfather was born in 1909. That was before mass-market automobile ownership, the interstate highway system, commercial air travel, computers, and manned space flight. Not to mention nuclear power. My paternal grandfather watched all of those things come into existence between his birth and the age of 53.

Not me. All of the above had long existed by the time I was born. A few of those things have been significantly enhanced since my birth, computers being the most obvious. Some, like commercial air travel and the interstate highway system, are about the same.

But a few have actually seemed to move backwards. NASA landed a man on the moon in 1969, the year after I was born. (The first manned space flight was in 1961, seven years before my birth.) NASA hasn’t been back to the moon since 1972. And since the Three Mile Island disaster of 1979, Americans have become much less optimistic about the wonders of nuclear power.

In 1968, people were dying of cancer, heart disease, and communicable pathogens. People are still dying of cancer, heart disease, and communicable pathogens. But they didn’t have COVID in 1968. Or AIDS.

***

The major technological advances of my lifetime, of course, have been the Internet and digital technology. I reached early adulthood in an era of typewriters, landlines, and cassette-based answering machines. As a result, I certainly appreciate the Internet. But as paradigm-shifting developments go, Facebook and Twitter can’t compete with the first manned space flight or the invention of the computer itself…all of which came about during my paternal grandfather’s lifetime.

***

What about politics? The year I was born, 1968, America was bitterly divided over what are now called “the culture wars”. In many ways, we are still arguing over the 1960s.

The Soviet Union existed in 1968. As I turn 53, the USSR has been gone for almost thirty years. But Russia is now a different kind of adversary. China, for all practical purposes, has replaced a Maoist interpretation of Marxism-Leninism with statist crony capitalism. But China remains our adversary, too.

***

So much for the world. What about the age of 53 itself?

The decade of one’s fifties occupies a nebulous middle ground. In your fifties you are neither fish nor fowl. Young adults equate you with their parents. Elderly adults equate you with their children. I have actually been described as “old” and “young” in the same day, depending on who I’m interacting with.

This isn’t a roundabout way of saying 50 is the new 30. To be sure, once you reach the mid-century mark, you are no longer “young”, in the conventional sense of that word. As a rule, people in their fifties don’t compete in the Olympics, have children, and get married for the first time—things that twentysomethings and early thirtysomethings typically do. Many of my former classmates are now grandparents, in fact. Very few of them still have school-age children.

And yet, at the age of 53, there is still much to do, much that can be done. Fifty-three is a full generation younger than either of the final candidates for POTUS in 2020. (My parents were both born the same year as Donald Trump, in fact.)

***

I’ve almost certainly passed the halfway mark of my life. I don’t expect to be alive 53 years from now, in 2074.

And having reached the halfway mark, I feel a certain freedom as I face the years ahead.

There is no need to worry about impressing anyone when you hit 53. Once you’ve passed the age of 45 or so, you naturally tend to drop off society’s radar a bit. No one cares how “cool” you are anymore. In fact, for middle-age people, the bar for coolness is substantially lower than it is for 20- or 30-year-olds.

Even Jennifer Aniston (one year my junior, born in 1969) isn’t very hip nowadays, even if she’s exceptionally well-preserved. Never mind that she was the “it” girl of the 1990s. No one much under the age of 40 remembers the 1990s. And most people over the age of 40 no longer care about the 1990s.

***

Looking back on the last five decades, I have no major regrets. This doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t do anything differently. Of course I would do many things differently. There are times when I fantasize about riding a time machine back to 1987, and thwacking the 19-year-old version of myself on the head.

But there is a difference between looking back and saying, “Wow, what an idiot I was then!” and having deep, soul-piercing regrets about the past. Nor do I spend much time beating myself up over the wide knowledge and experience gap between 53 and 19. If I would have known better, I would have done better. Probably.

There is a lot more I could say, about loss, and mortality, and the importance of finding a spiritual compass for one’s life. But I have several writing projects on my plate, and I want to get them out into the world… while there is still time.

As noted above, at the age of 53, one no longer has the sense that time and life are virtually unlimited, barring major catastrophes—as most of us do at 19. At 53 there is still some sand in the hourglass; but there is a lot less sand than there used to be.

Music from the summer of ’88

It remains one of my missions here to remind readers (especially those too young to remember), that our culture wasn’t always as angry, self-destructive, and generally mucked up as it currently is.

Music often reflects the spirit of the times.  The summer of 1988 was a happy time. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, the US economy was booming, and the dominant mood was one of optimism. (You sure could use a bit of optimism nowadays, couldn’t you?)

In the summer of 1988, I was in college. During that summer, I worked as a bagger at Thriftway, a now defunct grocery store chain in the Cincinnati area. (I also did stints in produce and seafood, if you want to get technical about it.)

That was a summer of some great music. No protest music to speak of, just songs about falling in love, getting on a roll, or going for a drive with your girl (or guy) on a summer night. 

Below are some of my favorite songs from that long-ago summer of 1988. These are songs that take me back…and might take you back, too, if you were around then.

R.I.P. Dusty Hill

I am part of the MTV generation. I turned 14 in 1982, the year MTV took off.

ZZ Top’s breakout album, Eliminator, came out in 1983. The music on the album was certainly quite good, and has stood the test of time. I think it’s fair to say, though, that MTV was pivotal in ZZ Top’s breakout success. MTV, alas, was a highly visual medium.

And ZZ Top was a very visual band. The group also mastered the MTV format.

ZZ Top was known for its two frontmen, Dusty Hill and Billy Gibbons. With long flowing beards and fedoras, Hill and Gibbons were anachronisms even in the early 1980s. 

Dusty Hill passed away earlier this week, from undisclosed causes at the age of 72.

Requiescat in pace, Mr. Hill. You made some fine music, which brings back fond memories for millions of Gen Xers like me.

***

And now, in honor of Dusty Hill, my favorite ZZ Top video, for the song “Legs”.

Both the song and the video are everything the 1980s was, and the present decade is not: sensual, unashamed, and (most of all): fun

 

‘Major Tom (Coming Home)’ by Peter Schilling: 1980s rock moment

A handful of German musical acts made the US charts in the 1980s. Most of them were in the genre of new wave/synthpop. 

Perhaps the best known was Nena, with her “99 Luftballons”. Then there was Falco, with “Amadeus”, in 1986. 

And then there was this guy: Peter Schilling. The above song, “Major Tom (Coming Home)” has been a bigger deal since the 1980s have been over, than it ever was during the 1980s. The song was used in the 1980s spy drama The Americans, and several other films about the last decade of the Cold War.

Honestly, I was very into music in those days, and I barely remember this song. It peaked at 14 on the US Billboard Hot 100 in 1983. I should remember it better. Perhaps the two FM pop/rock stations in Cincinnati weren’t very enthralled with it. (I do vaguely recall seeing the above video on MTV.)

That said, this is a song that captures a key part of the musical zeitgeist of the 1980s. Rock musicians in those days were not afraid of doing bombastic songs with overly ambitious themes. This was not only the over-the-top 1980s, it was also the Cold War. Thanks to Carl Sagan, there was a renewed interest in space, and the space shuttle was still a relative novelty.

That all came out in the music. Themes of space travel and nuclear war were therefore common, as well as all manner of futuristic themes.

***

‘Major Tom’ is a quirky, moody song, with a refrain that I find oddly captivating.

There is no love plot in this song, so far as I can tell. Nor can I tell you exactly what Peter Schilling was trying to say here. But I like the result.

Speaking of Peter Schilling: I understand that he has had a long, successful career in his native Germany. In the US, he is mostly known for this song. 

***

Note: Before someone emails me…Like all good music fans of the 1980s, I am aware of the Scorpions. But the Scorpions were not new wave. (They were heavy metal.) The Scorpions were the biggest German musical act of the 1980s; but they are in a completely separate category, and in a class by themselves. 

 

80s rock moment: REO Speedwagon

One of the great bands of my youth was REO Speedwagon. The band’s most commercially successful albums, Hi Infidelity (1980), Wheels Are Turnin’ (1985) and Life As We Know It (1987) were all released in my adolescent/teen years.

REO Speedwagon’s ballad, “Can’t Fight This Feeling” was near the top of the charts throughout the spring of 1985, my junior year in high school.

In the above video, the band’s lead singer, Kevin Cronin, performs the song as a duet with his daughter at a music festival in 2019.

This is a song about falling in love, so nothing original about the theme. But there are a million ways to fall in love, and a million angles on it. The angle here is innocence, commitment, etc. There was something refreshing about this ballad even in the comparatively simple world of 1985. It is especially refreshing now, in these cynical, dysfunctional times of the 2o2os. 

“What started out as friendship has grown stronger…” That would be a good way to fall in love, wouldn’t it?

The first ‘Star Wars’ generation

I remember sitting in a cinema one day in the early summer of 1977. I was just shy of nine years old, so I was there with my dad.

My dad wanted to see this new movie called Star Wars.

I didn’t really know what to expect, but my dad (then barely in his thirties) was excited about it. So I went along, too. My mom had no interest the movie. (My mom liked very few movies that didn’t involve horses.)

I remember watching the opening scenes. The big spaceships on the big screen. Oh, man, I was immediately hooked.

I know: this essay has already veered into cliché. By this point, everyone has seen those scenes in the original Star Wars movie. The CGI effects in 21st-century movies like Avatar, moreover, have since surpassed our collective ability to be visually amazed.

But keep in mind: in 1977, the average feature film was a Burt Reynolds movie that relied on conventional car chases. (In fact, one such movie—Smokey and the Bandit—was released within a few weeks of Star Wars.)

Most of the available science fiction in 1977 was campy and already a decade old. There was Star Trek, of course. But Star Trek was made in the 1960s, and it showed in the production values.

There was also Lost in Space, which had its original prime-time run between 1965 and 1968. (Oh, and the first season of Lost in Space was in black and white.)

I won’t tell you about Star Wars and how it was different because well…you already know. But you might not know what it was like to be part of the first Star Wars generation.

To truly get that, you have to have been there.

America in the 1970s was an unsettled place. The country was on a hangover from Vietnam, the counterculture, the 1960s, Watergate.

Many of the Baby Boomers, then at the peak of their childbearing years, were trying to reconcile parenthood with all the Me Generation stuff.

I should note that my parents were the exception in this regard. I had wonderful parents and—on the whole—an idyllic childhood. But my childhood was the exception. This was an era of small families, divorce, and adults working in parenthood as an afterthought. The 1970s was not a child-focused decade, on the whole.

This showed up in the marketplace. Corporate America didn’t put out much entertainment for children, because the demand wasn’t there, like it was from the mid-1980s onward. For most children, circa 1976, Saturday morning cartoons (mostly reruns from the 1960s) were the highlight of the week.

But then there was Star Wars. If you were a kid in that era, Star Wars was not just a movie, but a way of life…or a way of play, anyway.

Star Wars trading card, 1977

Publishers cranked out Star Wars trading cards and comics. Toy manufacturers rushed light sabers and action figures to market. There was always something new to buy…or to beg your parents to buy.

Burger Chef, a now defunct fast food chain, issued a set of Star Wars posters in 1977. Each one was given away with the purchase of a double hamburger meal, or something like that. I talked my parents into acquiring all of them.

My bedroom became a shrine to Star Wars. My room contained not just the posters, but all the paraphernalia I could acquire.

Burger Chef Star Wars poster 1977

I’ve watched the more recent Star Wars movies. I know that the last few have been controversial among longtime fans. I’m not interested in wading into that debate. For me, the first three movies—Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) are the only three “canonical” ones, anyway.

These three films traced the end of my childhood, effectively. I was nine when the first one came out. When Return of the Jedi hit the local cinema, I had completed a year of high school.

But this is about more than mere nostalgia. In recent years, the culture wars have invaded science fiction, superhero comics, and whatnot. There was little appetite for that in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Why? That era was already full of gloomy, abstruse movies that were overloaded with “message” and “issues”. And in the 1970s, the issue du jour was the Vietnam War, which was still very much in recent memory.

And so we got turgid, barely watchable films like The Deer Hunter (1978), Taxi Driver (1976), and Apocalypse Now (1979). In 1978, I remember hearing a news story about a Vietnam vet shooting himself at a screening of The Deer Hunter. That movie is incredibly gloomy and depressing to watch, as are the other two. (And the Jodie Foster scenes in Taxi Driver, in which she plays a child prostitute, are downright bizarre by today’s standards.)

Star Wars offered a break from all that. Star Wars was a movie about a war in space that didn’t ask you to think about Vietnam. Nor did it ask you to think about the nuclear arms race—another big “issue” of that time.

The original Star Wars trilogy had a relatively diverse cast. It wasn’t all white males in the spotlight. Who can imagine Star Wars without Carrie Fisher, after all? And the third movie of the original trilogy made a major star of Billy Dee Williams.

And yet, Star Wars didn’t ask audiences to engage in endless navel-gazing about race and gender. (These matters now greatly preoccupy the fandom of science fiction publishing, but that’s another “issue” for another time.)

The original three Star Wars movies were simply fun. They weren’t controversial. They didn’t try to change your worldview or your politics. Practically everyone liked them. (Even my mother relented and saw the second and third Star Wars movies, despite their lack of horses.)

And if you were a kid in the late 1970s, Star Wars was larger than life.

I’ll close with a blunt assertion: I think it’s high time for the film and comics industries to retire the franchise. To put this in perspective: I was not quite nine when the first movie came out. I’ll soon be fifty-three, and they’re still riding the Star Wars wagon, trying to squeeze a few more million out of the original story concept.

But who cares what I think? Maybe I’ll see the next Star Wars movie, and maybe I won’t. It’s not like I’m boycotting them. But like I said: for me, the first three are the only ones that really count.

1980s music: Susanna Hoffs

I’m from the 1980s, as many of you may know. (Actually, I never really left.) I still love pop and rock music from that era. Iron Maiden, Foreigner, AC/DC, Journey…I love ‘em all.

But there were also some great all-female acts during the 1980s. My favorite, hands down, was The Bangles.

The charismatic lead singer of The Bangles was Susanna Hoffs. Here she is performing “Manic Monday” before a live audience in 2021. This version is a little different, stylistically, from the original, but it’s basically the same song.

“Manic Monday” was released in 1986, my senior year in high school. I can’t hear it without being transported back to that time, which was a happy one for me. (I had a mostly positive adolescent/high school experience.)

Nothing else to add, except that Susanna Hoffs is still lovely and talented at 62. Enjoy the video.

And if you’re too young to remember the 1980s and that decade’s music, you might investigate some of The Bangles’ other songs on YouTube. The Bangles put Taylor Swift to shame, IMO.

In the dog days of summer, “think January”

Today I mowed both my lawn and my dad’s lawn in 90-degree, near 100% humidity weather.

I sweated about two gallons. That was five hours ago, and I’m still trying to rehydrate myself. More water, please!

(Note: The only truly pleasant season in Southern Ohio is late autumn, from about mid-October through Thanksgiving. The rest of the year, the weather here swings between various disagreeable extremes. So…don’t move to Southern Ohio unless you have to. The weather here sucks.)

Today’s sweltering heat brings back a particular memory: In late August of 1982, I began my freshman year of high school. My high school had no air conditioning.

I recall taking an afternoon English class on the second floor of the school. It was hot, really hot. The entire class was sweating.

And let me be clear: this was 1982. It wasn’t as if air conditioning hadn’t been invented yet. So why wasn’t the school air-conditioned? I wondered.

Our teacher, in a wry acknowledgement of our suffering, wrote the following on the blackboard one afternoon before beginning the day’s lecture:

THINK JANUARY

That brought a laugh—or at least a chuckle—from every 14-year-old in the room. And for whatever reason, I’ve never forgotten it. Today, almost 40 years later, I shall be “thinking January” with the above photo.

(I actually took the photo on February 10th of this year; but that’s close enough.)

Wherever you are, dear reader, I hope the weather is more pleasant today in your part of the world. I repeat: don’t move to Southern Ohio unless absolutely necessary. The weather here sucks.

Two songs for Father’s Day

Today is Father’s Day, at least in the United States.

If you were fortunate enough to have a relationship with your father, and if your father is still alive, take a few minutes today to show him your appreciation.

I was blessed in this regard. I had a good relationship with my father (who is still with me) and my grandfather (who passed in 1998).

There are many memories of them both that I could relate. Perhaps I’ll get to that later in the day. For now, though, I’m going to leave you with two songs about fathers and fatherhood.

The first of these is Dan Fogelberg’s “The Leader of the Band” (1981), which explores the father-child relationship from the child’s perspective. The second is Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” (1975), which looks at fatherhood from the father’s perspective.

Both are worth listening to and reflecting upon as you begin Father’s Day, 2021.

JibJab, and when America still had a sense of humor

Between 2004 and about 2009, JibJab was one of my favorite destinations on the Internet. The JibJab guys specialized in political humor.

Take this one: “He’s Barack Obama”, from 2009.

The above short piece pokes fun at the (then) newly elected President Obama. The video parodies Obama’s over-reliance on platitudes like, “Yes we can” and “Hope and change”. Also, on a more serious (but still funny) note: Obama’s tendency to over-promise and under-deliver, and his blithe disregard of the national debt.

“He’s Barack Obama” is clearly a work of political satire. That said, the video is not shrill or mean-spirited.

JibJab was bipartisan. The small production company also had a good time parodying Republican George W. Bush, as in this video from late 2005.

I would mark 2009 as the approximate point at which America lost its sense of humor. That period between 2004 and 2009 wasn’t so long ago; and yet, it seems like another world.

I’ve been referring to JibJab in the past tense, I realize. JibJab, for what it’s worth, still exists. But JibJab now avoids political satire. Who can blame them? We now live in a world of Twitter mobs, social media bans, and ever-watchful culture nannies.   

JibJab now specializes in mildly amusing, but basically ersatz, holiday e-cards. That’s a shame. I would love to see what JibJab might have done with AOC, Joe Biden, or—for that matter—Donald Trump.

Diane Franklin and 1980s film culture

Diane Franklin appeared in a slew of memorable 1980s films. These included her breakout role as Karen in the surprisingly meaningful teen sex comedy, The Last American Virgin, in 1982.

That same year, she delivered a haunting performance as the doomed eldest daughter of the quasi-fictional Montelli family in Amityville II: the Possession. This film was loosely based on the infamous Amityville, New York murders of 1974.

Oh, also: Better Off Dead (1985), TerrorVision (1986), and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989).

In this interview with Ray’s Happy Hour-ish podcast/YouTube channel, Ms. Franklin discusses some of her iconic roles, storytelling in the movies, and 1980s pop culture. She also talks about her recent and upcoming film projects. Enjoy.

1970s blizzard years

Those awful, wonderful winters from 1976 to 1978

This past week two consecutive winter storms dropped more than a foot of snow on Cincinnati. I managed to shovel two driveways, twice, without a.) throwing out my back, b.) re-repturing my 2005 hernia, or c.) having a heart attack. At my current age of fifty-two, I consider that a not unnoteworthy accomplishment.

The winter of 2020 to 2021 has been a rough one so far in Cincinnati, especially compared to the past three or four. Yet more snow is forecast to arrive later this week.

Of course, for American adults around my age—especially if they grew up east of the Mississippi—there are two childhood winters that stand out in memory: those are the back-to-back “blizzard winters” in the mid-1970s: the winter of 1976 to 1977, and the winter of 1977 to 1978.

The winter of 1976 to 1977

The winter of 1976 to 1977 was the winter of record-breaking, pipe-bursting, river-freezing cold. Here in Cincinnati, there were three straight days of record cold in January 1977, in which the temperature stayed below minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit the whole time.

The Ohio River froze solid—for the first time since 1958, and only the thirteenth time on record. In the Cincinnati media archives, there are photos of people walking across the Ohio River, and even driving across the ice that month. The freezing of the Ohio was quite a novelty, much talked about on the local news. One of my older friends has told me about driving his car across the Ohio River that winter on a dare. He was then nineteen years old, and he’s now in his sixties. So he obviously made it across.

January of 1977 was also a snowy one. Cincinnati had 30.3 inches of snow that year. (The usual figure for Cincinnati in January is six inches.)

Photo: Kenton County Library
Photo: Kenton County Library

The winter of 1977 to 1978

The following winter of 1977 to 1978 was just as bad, with almost as much cold, and even more snow. On January 25, 1978, one of the worst blizzards in U.S. history pummeled Cincinnati with almost seven inches of snow. There were already fourteen on the ground.

I remember the night of January 25, 1978 well. I played forward on our fourth-grade basketball team. That night we had a game at a rival Catholic school in the area, Guardian Angels. I remember walking outside at halftime with other members of my team. The air was not exceptionally cold yet by January standards. (It would soon plummet below zero degrees.) But there was a strange fog in the air. I think we all had the feeling that something momentous was imminent. On the way home from the game, the snow began. By morning, it was a whiteout.

Winter landscapes of the memory

At the age of eight or nine, one doesn’t have much life experience to draw upon. I could sense, though, that those two winters were worse than the handful of winters I could recall before. During those two winters, the outside air always seemed to be bitterly cold. Furnaces ran constantly. Fireplaces crackled nonstop. The ground was always snow-covered.

Many people are depressed by snow and cold weather, and winter in general. Not me. I will confess that some of my happiest childhood memories are winter ones, in fact.

I was particularly close to my maternal grandparents. During those blizzard years of the 1970s, they lived just down the street from us. When school was canceled due to inclement weather, I got to pass the day with my grandfather, who had recently retired. We spent a lot of time together in those years. I’m grateful for all the snow.

The cyclical nature of winter weather

It has been my observation that bad and mild winters tend to alternate in cycles. From the mid-1970s through the early 1980s, the winters were harsh, with record cold and snow.

The winter of 1981 to 1982 was cold. The Cincinnati Bengals went to the Super Bowl that year. On January 10, 1982, the Bengals won a key home game against the San Diego Chargers. The air temperature at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium on game day was minus nine degrees, with wind chills down to 35 below. That game has gone down in NFL history as the “Freezer Bowl”.

I was in the eighth grade in 1981-1982, and going through a (brief, in retrospect) rebellious adolescent phase. This included hanging out with an edgier crowd, and embracing a short-lived fascination with smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol.

Even in 1982, smoking and drinking weren’t acceptable pursuits for eighth graders. But hiding these illicit activities from adult authority figures was half the fun. I have many memories of shivering outside that bitter January, as I sipped a furtive drink of whiskey, or smoked a Marlboro. Even today, when I happen to smell someone else’s newly opened pack of cigarettes, or taste an alcoholic beverage, I’m transported back to that brutally cold winter of 1981 to 1982.

The last bad winter I remember from that larger cycle was the winter of 1983 to 1984. That winter brought record cold and snow to the entire United States, including Florida and Texas. As I recall, there was a lot of anxiety about the citrus crop that year, and skyrocketing prices of orange juice.

Over Christmas break in December 1983, my parents decided to embark on a rare family trip to Florida. When we reached Macon, Georgia, it was 4 degrees, with 23 degrees forecast for our destination in the Sunshine State. After spending a night shivering in a Macon hotel room with an inadequate heater, my parents decided to cut our losses. We headed home the next morning. We could freeze in Ohio for free, after all.

But the weather is no more constant than anything else in this world. That cycle of severe winters, from 1976 to 1984, transitioned into a milder pattern over subsequent years. The winters of 1984-1985 and 1985-1986 weren’t exactly balmy; but they weren’t severe, either. Throughout my last two years of high school, classes were rarely canceled due to weather. This was fine with me, because I generally enjoyed high school more than grade school.

And during my college years, spanning the winters of 1986 to 1987 through 1990 to 1991, the winters in Cincinnati were notably mild. I did not go away for college; I lived with my parents and commuted to two local schools. I did not miss a single class due to bad winter weather throughout my entire college career.

That mild cycle continued through the early 1990s, only to go the other way again in the middle of the decade. The winter of 1995 to 1996 was an especially bad one for the entire Midwest, resulting in a rare shutdown of the University of Cincinnati in January of ’96. By this time, I was a working adult in my mid-twenties.

The winter of 1995 to 1996 drew comparisons in the media to the blizzard winters of the mid-1970s. I remember scoffing when I heard this. Having been a kid during those fabled winters of the 1970s, I never took the comparison seriously.

But then, everything seems to happen on a larger scale when you’re a kid…even the weather.

Scary Christmases gone by

Krampus, Dickens, and what I saw on Christmas Eve, 1976

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Yes, I know this has been a lousy year. It’s almost over, though.

Christmas is generally a festive holiday, but there are some macabre Christmas traditions, too. And they didn’t necessarily begin with this very macabre year of 2020.

Consider, for example, the Dickens tale, A Christmas Carol. This is one of my holiday favorites. Who can forget the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, which reminds us of the Grim Reaper? Or, for that matter, Marley’s ghost?

Krampus and St. Nicholas

In some parts of Europe, Christmas includes the Krampus, a horned creature that incorporates both Christian and pre-Christian (pagan) traditions. In Germanic folklore, the Krampus works in conjunction with St. Nicholas, rewarding children who have been good, and punishing those who have been bad.

Let me tell you about something that happened to me on Christmas Eve many years ago…in 1976.

I was at my grandparents’ house in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio. The family had just had our Christmas Eve dinner—Grandma’s turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. (My grandmother also used to prepare a festive gelatin salad made with raspberry Jell-O, diced nuts, sliced carrots, and Cool Whip. (I realize that might not sound very tasty, but it was.))

Anyway, I had just left the table for a call of nature. This took me to a hallway in another part of the house.

There in the semidarkness of the hallway, I saw the shadow of a small, gnomish creature. It was right there, within lunging distance of me, cast on the wall.

I was startled—though not necessarily in mortal terror. Being eight years old in 1976, I ran back into the dining room, and told the adults.

There was something in the hall!

They accompanied me back to the hallway where I’d seen the unusual shadow. Needless to say, it was gone.

But there had been something there. I know there was.

My grandparents lived in that house for the rest of their lives. I was close to my grandparents, and visited them often, well into my adult years.

I never saw anything there resembling that gnome shadow figure again. Nor did I ever see any other other strange phenomena in the house.

But I know that something made a brief visit there on Christmas Eve, 1976.

A bad elf, maybe? I don’t know. But like I said, I saw something.