Halloween Revisited*

When I was a kid, there were only two holidays I looked forward to: Christmas and Halloween.

I grew up in the 60’s in small-town Alabama town where Halloween was — well, magic.

I remember spending hours thinking of what I wanted to be on Halloween. Those were the days before Walmart ate the South, but we we did have shopping options even then. In Sylacauga, we had Grants, a sort of small-time version of the aforementioned abomination, and we also had a Woolworth and a couple of five and dime stores. I loved looking at the store-bought costumes and dreaming of what I could be on that scariest of nights. Marvel super heroes were high on the list, as were the monsters of the day: Frankenstein, the wolf man, the skeleton, and Dracula. Girls had a variety of witch costumes, along with ballerinas, princesses, and other “girly” options.

A lot of those years, dreaming was all I could do, but it was enough. I never got too many store-bought costumes, as it was the 60’s and money was tight. Several years I went trick-or-treating as a ghost. Po’ folks know how to improvise, and two eye-holes can convert an old bed sheet into a pretty scary ghost.

Then there was the selection of the pumpkin and the hours of planning associated with designing a proper jack-o-lantern. Should it be scary or funny? I usually chose scary. After all, it was a night to be delightfully frightened.

Halloween night was glorious for a kid in those days. We dressed up, pretending to be something we weren’t, and waited for dark. Kind of like most adults do now on a daily basis.

First there was the trick-or-treat haul. In those magical days, you could hit a hundred houses and end up with a grocery bag full of candy and treats. We went all over town without a thought that there was any danger involved. After the town neighborhoods, we went to the cotton mill village across the tracks. Even the po’ folks there were good for treats, though they were more likely to be “home-made” candy like caramel apples or popcorn balls. We never had fears that anyone would try to poison us or hurt us in any way, because people just didn’t do that back in those days.

After the big candy haul, there were at least two Halloween carnivals: one at the city school and one at the county school. You could score some candy there too, but mostly you went to the various booths for trinkets. Drop a fishing pole line over a wall with a clothes pin as bait, and land a plastic whistle or set of vampire fangs. Throw a bean bag through a hole in a back board and win a fat Fred Flintstone pencil eraser or a piece of bubble gum. One year I scored a nifty plastic skull ring with fake ruby red eyes. I think I wore that treasure until the eyes fell out and it got so tight that I had to give it up or risk losing the finger.

When I got older, haunted houses became the rage. I got to be a part of a really good one as a teenager–which was sponsored, by the way, by my church. We had Frankenstein’s lab (with an adult dressed as Frankenstein–complete, with neck bolts), an elaborate cardboard maze that you had to crawl through (completely in the dark), the feast of the damned (which involved lots of bloody teenagers sitting around a large table appearing to eat raw flesh), and several other “themed” rooms. It was a big hit in our town, and we raised lots of money for youth choir and mission trips the following summers.

Now I’ll admit there were some tricks in those days. Major evil activities. You could be hit by an egg or have your yard toilet-papered.

I must pause here in this epic tale to make a clear, concise, statement of fact: at no time during these childhood revelries did I feel a compulsion to worship Satan. It was simply a night of pretending and fun. The innocence of childhood in all its glory.

But at some point, Halloween was hijacked. I think it probably started in the 80’s.

People got mean, and there began to be a danger that the treats a child might receive could be tainted with drugs or poison. Hospitals began to offer free x-rays of treats to make sure they didn’t contain razor blades or straight pins. You could no longer roam freely to get your treats–only to houses of people you knew. This was the Halloween trick-or-treating my kids experienced. It was not magic.

Then some of the churches decided that Halloween was evil. That it was a pagan holiday that could lead to all sorts of demonic spiritual problems. Halloween carnivals turned into “Fall Festivals” and haunted houses became “Judgment Houses” in which you were shown where you were headed if you didn’t repent of your evil ways.

I remember the first time I heard this idea in church. The Redhead and I were in a Sunday School class with other couples who had young children. Before the Bible lesson, a young lady got up and read a prepared statement about the potential evils of Halloween, it’s pagan history, and how we as good Baptists should not allow our children to participate.

I allowed her to finish, raised my hand, and stood to make an unsolicited opposing viewpoint. I wanted to say “Woman, what the hell is wrong with you? Are you nuts?” But I was, after all, in church, so I restrained myself. I simply pointed out that we had a lot more serious evil to worry about: drugs, pornography, child molesters, sex that was already becoming common among preteens, etc. And of course, divorce. Want to mess up a kid? Give him two or three sets of parents to deal with (I noticed several couples shifting in their chairs on that last one). If you want to fight evil, fight real evil. There’s plenty around without looking for imaginary versions.

Funny thing, I still see church lady around town.  She won’t speak or look me in the eye.

I realize that the Halloween of my youth is gone, and it’s not coming back. Childhood innocence in general is gone. It was murdered by cable television, the Internet, and all the other trappings of prosperity. But mostly it was ruined by adults who refuse to be adults.

I think that’s a real shame. I might even say that it’s evil.

*I originally wrote this piece in 2010. It got me in a bit of trouble with some church folk, but I didn’t much care — then or now. Keep your “Fall Festival,” “Judgement House,” and “Reformation Day,” and I’ll keep my memories and my opinion.

Grace and peace to you either way. RC

Alabama ‘Shine

Moonshine-still-1936-tva1AL.com, an internet news site which has largely taken the place of what used to be newspapers in Alabama, recently reported that the State’s first legal distillery is open for business in Bullock County.

The company is called “High Ridge Spirits” and the initial product is “Stills Crossroads Alabama ‘Shine.”  The first batch hit store shelves late last week.

The article attracted my interest because I once was a forester for a large paper company in that area of Bullock County.  I managed several thousand acres of timberland, so I’m familiar with the lay of the land, including the people that were my “neighbors.”

I know Stills Crossroads and its sole legitimate business, a little country store — it’s at the intersection of Bullock County Roads 7 and 8.  You can find it on a map southwest of Hooks Crossroads and due west of Beans Crossroads. Lest you assume that the settlers of Bullock County lacked imagination in naming settlements, let me quickly point out that other nearby communities are a bit more intriguing:  Smuteye, Jamback, Blues Old Stand, Three Notch, and Needmore (just across the county line) are a few that should dispel such notions.

I don’t know about the origin of some of these names.  But I do know that Stills Crossroads is so-named because moonshine whiskey has been cooked there illegally for generations.

The most famous cook was Clyde May, a master artisan who eventually served some time in prison for his craft.  After his death, Clyde’s recipe was eventually used to produce 4,000 bottles of bonded whiskey in a Kentucky distillery that was marketed under the name “Conecuh Ridge Alabama Fine Whiskey.”  Quite the irony:  the same State that put Clyde in prison later honored him by declaring his recipe “Alabama’s Official State Spirit.”

As a young forester a couple of years removed from college, I admit that I was pretty ignorant of illegal whiskey-making.  I had walked enough creek bottoms to find remnants of old stills, but most of these were long since wrecked by the law and abandoned.  I was totally oblivious of the fact that whiskey-making was going on right under my nose on the land I was managing.

One of the properties I managed was a large tract of mature timber just across the road from the Stills Crossroads store.  Word came down from the big office that I needed to get with the local timber man and prepare the land for logging. This meant a lot of field work, evaluating the roads and painting cut boundaries on either side of all the creeks.  I called my contact and he suggested that we meet early the next morning to get started.  He wanted to meet at the store.

I came ready to get to work, but he obviously wasn’t.  He suggested that we go inside and have a cup of coffee.

“Yes sir,” he said to no one in particular.  “Me and this young fellow have been sent down down to get that timber across the road ready to be cut here pretty soon.  We’ll be marking lines, and a logger will be moving in to cut the timber in a week or so.  Reckon we will be back to get started in a day or two.”

We left.

I asked what was going on.  “Aren’t we going to get started?”

“Naw,” he said.  “Meet me here day after tomorrow and we’ll get her ready.”

I thought it was strange, but he was my senior and I didn’t ask any more questions.

It was several years later before I was experienced enough to realize that he’d given somebody enough time to move their still.

Interesting tidbit in the AL.com story:  the Bullock County Sheriff busted four illegal stills just before High Ridge Spirits began operation — including one on the very same property of the new distillery.

I guess tax dollars finally outweighed bribes.

Sometimes it pays to have a good timber man looking out for you.