Monday, October 3, 2011

School Daze

We took a drive through my old hometown this past weekend and I had a random Halloween memory of something I hadn't thought of in ages. Driving past the Catholic church and school, I saw they were having some kind of Fall Festival outside - including a bean-bag toss game (or one of those portrait type things that you stand behind and stick you face in the hole) with life-size boards, one of which featured a fairly realistic-looking witch.

Seeing this as we drove past made me think of the Halloween parties we had at the same school back in the late '70's and early '80's. You would think because it was a religious school that Halloween would be shunned - but in all actuality it was really quite the opposite. When I was a kid the church embraced the holiday and all its pagan symbolism, even going as far as throwing one of best and most elaborate Halloween parties in their basement/cafeteria that you could imagine.

As you could probably guess, the St. Thomas Halloween party was an event you looked forward to all year. On the day of Halloween you'd get to wear your costume to school and pass out treats and goodies in class. Everything would be Halloween-themed that day: the spelling words, the arts and crafts, the books at story-time, EVERYTHING! You'd wear your costume all day until it was finally time to go back for the big party - and the anticipation you'd feel as you walked down the steps - strewn with fall leaves and corn-stalks - into the basement was deliriously wonderful - your mind would run wild imagining what sinister scenario was waiting for you behind those two swinging doors.

And each year, the school didn't disappoint. After class let out, the staff would go to great lengths to transform the basement into a creepy Halloween wonderland. The lights would be turned off and the tables moved out of the way. The room would be decorated with cobwebs galore, cardboard black cats and witch heads, ghosts and bats, black and orange streamers on the ceiling, jack-o-lanterns, and more. And the games - oh, the games! Bobbing for apples, pin the tail on the black cat, the wheel of fortune, fortune telling (with a gypsy that had a real crystal ball!) and my favorite - The Devil himself! Yes, even Old Scratch paid a visit to our school! Beelzebub would be a man in a red spandex outfit with a red mask, horns, tail, and trident. Beside was a pile of mats from gym class, and the game would be you tried to get past the Devil without him tripping you. He was sneaky, that old demon. Just when you thought he wasn't looking and you'd make a mad dash for it, out would come the Devil's leg, tripping you and sending you sprawling onto the mats.

But the best was always saved for last. At the far end of the cafeteria, through a second set of swinging doors (and what led into the cook's kitchen area) was the Mad Scientist. A truly demented show, this never failed to both delight us and scare the living death out of us kids. A theatrical, hunch-backed, over-the-top church parishioner played the part to the hilt, letting us feel real sawed up (cow) bones, and (peeled grape) eyeballs. He'd saw and grind his monster's 'body' apart with various implements, all the while trying to entice us to lay on the table and be his next experiment. We would all shriek with fear - many kids couldn't stand the fright and would bolt out the door. It was the absolute pinnacle of Halloween, except for one thing...

When the St. Thomas party was over, you actually got to go TRICK-OR-TREATING! Remember, this was around 1979, so trick-or-treating lasted well into the night. Kids didn't go out until 7:00 p.m. or so and we'd beg for candy until after 10:00 p.m. and sometimes even later! Things have changed since then - trick-or-treating is a lot more of a cautious activity - but the memories of my Halloween youth at the old Catholic school stay with me always, and are a big part of defining the home haunter I am today...

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