Saturday, October 27, 2012

Halloween in Old Fairhope

This is from my novel That Was Tomorrow, just in time for Halloween 2012.

The school year 1921-22 was moving almost too fast. It was soon time for the big Halloween Party, and, by the second semester, the new folk dance teacher would be on campus. There was much more excitement about folk dancing than Amelia ever would have imagined.
In the meantime, Marietta Johnson had already made one trip to Greenwich, where her summer teacher training school was held, and met in New York City with the “Fairhope Educational Foundation” who gave fund-raisers for her school. When she traveled she was always invited to speak in neighboring towns, and she took the opportunity to encourage them to employ Organic methods in their school systems. She never returned to Fairhope without a family or two following her, to see her demonstration school at work. Most stayed and enrolled their children. There were over 100 students, many of them boarders.
All the students were excited about the Halloween party they would hold in Comings Hall. The older students organized projects to make the party fun—a costume contest, cakewalks, washtubs of water full of apples, and booths surrounding the rim of the hall with games.
Everybody in school would be involved in decorating the big, empty hall. They envisaged the event as a massive fund-raiser, even though little money exchanged hands. They would charge for a wheel of tickets, and every game and contest would cost a certain number of tickets. The parents got involved with refreshments—a bake sale, plates of ham and potato salad, lemonade and punch. A large urn of coffee would be on hand. Mothers baked cakes for the big cakewalks which would be held periodically during the evening. Mordecai Arnold, father of Louisa and five other Organic students, had for several years volunteered for the job of calling the cakewalks, which featured himself standing in the center of the circle while Piney Gaston played her enthusiastic brand of piano, stopping suddenly, and calling a random number for a handful of cards handed him by Mrs. Johnson. Whatever cakewalker—man, woman or child—was standing on the square marked with that number, was the winner of a homemade cake! This age-old party game always had currency in Fairhope.
The school event would be on the Friday of Halloween weekend, meaning that most of that day was taken with preparations for the party. The high school emerged as organizers, painting the floor with the cakewalk circle, putting up posters all around town, and decorating Comings Hall with festoons of crepe paper and huge handmade posters of witches, black cats and jack-o-lanterns they had created in their Arts and Crafts classes. The older boys were in charge of the Fun House, which was set apart on the stage with the curtain drawn. Behind that curtain they had created a maze of reconstructed cardboard cartons, a crazy mirror, the tunnel to a barrel that would roll its occupant some ten feet, and an exit on a slide down the steps to the main floor. The boys guided their charges, mostly kids their age or younger, through the labyrinth to the exit. If a child entered who was clearly not able to make his way, he was given an abbreviated tour.
Five cakewalks were scheduled during the evening, and one big costume parade. Sarah, looked astonishingly beautiful in a gypsy skirt and blouse with golden hoop earrings. Paul Frederick, Jim Gaston and Maxwell Taylor were judging the costumes. This was a wrench for Max, who had a hankering to win with his Mad Hatter costume, but he had recused himself from the competition to lend his expertise as a judge.
All the town, Amelia reckoned, showed up for the party, and in fancy dress too. Captain and Mrs. Cross came as Tweedledum and Tweedledee from Alice in Wonderland; E.B. Gaston came as a wizard in a high pointed hat with stars on it, and his wife came as Mother Goose. Mrs. Johnson felt she should have come as The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, but she didn’t know how to articulate that as a costume, so she settled on a ghost costume, which didn’t fool anybody for long.
The women of Fairhope had spent weeks making these costumes, sometimes going against their better judgment when asked by their children to create such outlandish disguises. One boy gave his mother the task of designing a Headless Horseman costume. She accomplished this by taking a hatbox to cover his head and shoulders, attaching a tin can to the top of it to provide a neck, covering the whole thing with construction paper and cutting slits in the box so he
could see. He made a head for his horse, and the head he would carry under his arm, out of papier-maché in his arts and crafts class. The horse’s body was a broom. Fairhope children rode brooms as horses all the time.
One of the school’s big families, the Arnolds, came as the ragged, shipwrecked Swiss Family Robinson, taking the idea from a book they were reading together. Their oldest four children were boys, with Ezekial (“Zeke”) being a senior in high school, and the other,s stair steps on down in size. The two youngest girls took part with Louisa playing Jenny, the English girl who appears at the end of the book. The toddler Bonnie dressed as Knips, the monkey.
Hal and Martha Etheridge and their daughter Ally came as a family of French poodles.
Avery and Amelia decided not to tell each other what they were working on for costumes. Avery’s was quite unusual, Amelia could see that—at its base a black, body covering leotard, such as worn by circus performers. She peeked one afternoon as Avery assembled all the components of the costume, but Avery shooed her out as soon as she saw her.
“This is ART!” she told her roommate. “I need my solitude to create!”
Amelia stood outside the bedroom door like a curious child. “It doesn’t look like art to me,” she called. “It looks like black underwear!”
But it did look rather like art at that. She knew also that there was a lampshade involved.
Amelia would dress as a scarecrow, in bedraggled men’s clothes with a floppy straw hat and bunches of hay sticking out of her shirt cuffs and pant legs. The girls agreed not to see each other dressed until the party, so Avery put on her costume at the School Home, which was chaotic with children getting into costumes. Amelia dressed at The Sieve, and walked to Comings Hall in full scarecrow attiree. It was still daylight. She might scare a few crows on her way. The party started at 5 P.M. and she didn’t want to be too early or too late.
She was hardly prepared for the pandemonium. She watched in awe as the hall filled up-- little kids were literally climbing in the rafters, and the crush of partygoers in bizarre modes of dress was impressive. Jim Holloway was Abraham Lincoln, and it turned out Avery was a floor lamp, complete with cord and plug. She had cut out eyes in the lampshade so she could see. She was quite a figure. Jim took one look at Amelia in her scarecrow attire and said, “Who are you? Luther Beagle?”
Moments like this made Amelia wish she had the kind of quick wit that Avery did. She said, “Who are you? Charlie Chaplin?” It got a laugh, but she wasn’t sure it was really funny.
She and Jim were having their ham dinners when the first cakewalk was called. They put their plates aside and took part in the walk which was made more fun by the running commentary by Mr. Arnold, describing the costumes and chanting, “One, two, three, four, keep walkin’,” and Piney, in a witch costume with a long black gown and a pointed hat, played a variety of tunes, from “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” to John Phillip Sousa marches—and the walkers fairly strutted in time creating a kaleidoscope of color and contrasts.
“And the first cake goes to the gentleman without a head!” he announced as one of the mothers beamingly presented a cake to the headless horseman. The boy had to pass the cake to his parents so he could continue to enjoy the party. Without a head he couldn’t bob for apples, but he remained headless to the costume parade.
This would be the climax of the party. At that moment the milling, chattering crowd of fantastical characters circled the hall in a slow-moving, serpentine extravaganza of color and flash. Disparate characters talked with one another, a circus of incongruity. The four judges, just as extravagantly attired, were making notes and conferring with each other about what they saw. One by one contestants would be tapped on the shoulder by a judge and asked to form a smaller circle in the center. Clearly these were the finalists: The Crosses, the Headless Horseman, the floor lamp, Abraham Lincoln, and one four year old in a fairy costume that looked as if it came from a road company of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Max showed his theatrical side in announcing the inner circle of winning looks. How different he was in his role as a theater director! His voice boomed, and he exuded the confidence
of a circus ringmaster—which he was for the night. His replication of the Mad Hatter in the Tenniel drawing was complete with a lopsided top hat that had a tag tucked into the ribbon, saying In This Style 10/6. He added a dramatic flair to his announcements. Amelia had never noted the rich baritone timbre of his voice before.
“The floor lamp with the astonishing hourglass figure is runner-up Number Two!” Max bellowed. Applause from the crowd. Not that Avery had the kind of figure called an “hourglass” by previous generations, but her female shape definitely showed in the black body stocking. She may have been embarrassed by Max’s description, but if she was blushing it was hidden under a lampshade.
Tweedledum and Tweedledee agreed to have a battle—” he said, “But they won’t have it tonight, because together they are the First Runners Up!”
It was clear how much everybody loved the Crosses. There was a wave of applause and whistles.
“And the winner of this year’s Best Costume Award...” Jim in his Abe Lincoln get-up looked as if he thought he would surely win, and the little girl did a fairy dance in the most modest way she could.
“The Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow!”
No one was surprised or disappointed when the headless horseman won the contest. His prize was a handmade pottery jack-o-lantern, made with some artistic flourishes by Miss Kitwell. It had been glazed bright orange in the kiln, and filled by the high school students with homemade fudge.
After the presentation of the prize, the crowd began to mill around, forming random patterns of colors and patterns. There were enough witches to add a dash of black among the contrasting splashes of bright color. The oversized bow around the neck of the mad hatter was blue with big gold polka dots and the Swiss Family Robinson were mostly in white and gray. There was Julian Crane as Father Time, a grim reaper with a sickle and a dingy white robe, accompanied by his wife in sparkling white as the evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. Abraham Lincoln had his arm around the waist of a beautiful gypsy girl and was gazing down into her eyes. Mr. Gaston, for the night a wizard, possibly of the dark arts, approached them with his peaked hat—sparkling with moons and stars—slightly askew. Mrs. Johnson, well concealed under a ghostly sheet, strode around the room, as if she assumed she had anonymity in her village for a night. Amelia realized she was truly anonymous; her scarecrow costume included a hooded mask, and she was new, so not that easily recognized. The phantasmagoria of costumes disguised the usually reserved, scholarly reformers, teachers and parents, and it was as if the town had actually become inhabited by their doppelgangers.
The floor lamp came up to her and said, “Well? What do you think? Does this group know how to put on a party or not?”
“I never saw anything quite like it,” Amelia responded. “I’m beginning to understand the concept of the surrealist movement.”
“I think it’s about time to leave this cacophony of color and go home,” Avery said.
The party was indeed winding down as people gathered up their things and told each other goodbye until tomorrow—which would be the day they would get together to take down the decorations.
When they got home Avery went straight upstairs to get ready for bed, but Amelia went to the kitchen to make herself a cup of cocoa. She needed to unwind. When the milk was hot she stirred it into the cocoa powder and sugar, thinking of the party. She heard noise from next door, as if maybe Sam Bradley might be having his own gathering. She walked out to the back porch to see what was happening.
“Hell-FAR and damnation!” came the boom of a man’s voice. A chill went down her spine as she strained to see who making the racket.
It was clear in the dim light from Bradley’s back porch that he was ejecting someone from his house.
“The devil takeem all!” The man was screaming.
Amelia had not heard such language in Fairhope. She was riveted to the spot, squinting to see who it was. Bradley’s voice was low, as if trying to tame a wild beast.
“I know how you feel, but we can’t do nothin’ about this,” Bradley was saying. “It’s time you went home to cool off.”
“They’re all goin’ to HELL anyway.”
Just then the cursing man wheeled away and started to stumble up the path to the street. She had a glimpse of his face, distorted in rage but eerily smiling. After a moment she recognized Curry Cumbie, but Amelia was thunderstruck with remembered fear.
She thought of the wicked witch causing danger to her teddy bear. She heard her own voice warning her cuddly toy of hellfire and damnation. She began to understand the source of her mistrust of this man, and once the connection was made she would carry it with her the rest of her life. Miss Pritchart.
The real Halloween, October 31, was Monday. The date was known as a night of mischief. A few high school boys let livestock loose on the streets, not doing real damage. Some threw a few eggs into the trees on the streets of homes they knew well—basically their own and those of friends.
The big event was taking Luther Beagle, the town drunk, to the bay and giving him his yearly bath. Luther protested, as usual, but he was light in weight, so that two boys were able to subdue and lift him after he realized that fighting was futile. He had gone through this for several years by now, so he knew well that protesting would only postpone the inevitable. Usually he tried to hide from the boys, but his cunning was long gone and he could never successfully avoid his yearly dunk. It was a rite of passage for the older teenaged boys in Fairhope to abduct the old derelict, in his fit of mostly feigned outrage, and haul him off to the big pier, late at night, every Halloween. They claimed it was the only bath he got all year.
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