EVERY OCTOBER, it’s my duty to point out that my hometown, Anoka, Minnesota, is known, at least in Anoka, as the Halloween capital of the world, and it puts on big parades and a football game, the Pumpkin Bowl.
Even as a child, I felt that a town of 10,000 was overreaching to consider itself an international capital of anything, but I kept my thoughts to myself.
It was a big deal, even if people in Russia or China were not aware of it.
In 1953, I saw the last living Civil War veteran, Albert Woolson, ride in the parade, and one year Hubert Humphrey came.
Our high-school drum major, Dickie Johnson, was the proudest, struttingest, highest-baton-thrusting drum major you ever saw. When you saw him coming down Main Street, you imagined that Pope Pius, the Queen of England, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe might be coming along behind.
This celebration was organized by the town fathers in the Twenties, after a rash of mischief-making, and in my youth I heard stories about that from men who claimed not to have been involved but whose information seemed to me firsthand, stories about disassembling a neighboring farmer’s Model T Ford and reassembling it on the roof of a machine shed. It was a great feat, accomplished silently in the dark, the neighbor’s dog etherized, and my father spoke admiringly of the deed though he denied responsibility.
I’d guess he was present, however. He also, without claiming responsibility, talked about the Halloween custom of tipping over outhouses and seemed to have witnessed it.
Most farms near the Keillor farm still relied on outhouses in the Twenties and Thirties and beyond, and people must’ve used them warily around Halloween.
Perhaps they opted for chamber pots instead. But excretion is a personal matter and the outhouse offers greater privacy and so a person who feels colonic pressure might well opt to take a lantern and head for the little house out back.
I was a mama’s boy and privy-tipping struck me as one of the cruelest things you could do to another human being. A man with his trousers down, seated over the hole, listening for suspicious sounds in the dark, and there comes a moment when the bowels open and there is no stopping it and you are helpless to defend yourself as a gang of youths dashes up through the weeds, pushes the outhouse over on its door, throwing you off your perch, perhaps breaking the lantern and starting a fire, and you must evacuate through the hole you’d been emptying your bowels through and perhaps landing in the pit on top of your own waste products. I heard Dad describe this once to his brother-in-law Ray, and the level of detail in his story suggested firsthand knowledge if not participation.
It was fascinating to think that my quiet dutiful faithful father might have been involved in such hell-raising or knew others who were. I was a decorous boy, and couldn’t imagine tipping a toilet with someone in it.
I still can’t.
But maybe I’m all wrong. There is meanness in the human heart and perhaps the annual night of privy-tipping served to satisfy the urge.
Maybe you walked away from the scene of the crime, the victim howling in misery, and your conscience was strummed, and you became kinder and gentler as a result.
Some of the kindest people I know are former football players.
Once they ran crashing into each other’s bodies and now they are tenderhearted, whereas I, a lifelong pacifist, am capable of vicious sarcasm and withering comments.
What ended privy-tipping was indoor plumbing, not a Halloween festival. And though it’s a great holiday for people who enjoy impersonating evil and weirdness and disfigurement, the symbol of it is the pumpkin, a vegetative fruit of utter mediocrity: the best pumpkin pie you ever tasted was not much better than the worst. The pumpkin is merely a vehicle for nutmeg and cinnamon.
As a symbol of town pride, the pumpkin is not a good choice.
The door-to-door begging tradition is very sweet, especially for cranky old neighbors living in seclusion with Fox News, Facebook, and a freezerful of dinners. The parade of children gives them a glimpse of the future of our country. The young traipse through the dark, all glittery and happy, and hold out their sacks expecting good things, counting on the kindness of strangers.
Forget about pumpkins. Buy regular-size candy bars, not the miniatures. Celebrate sweetness.