AUTHOR’S NOTE: Several years ago I conducted a program called “Writing Your Life” at the Henika District Library. Each participant was encouraged to relate memorable events from our lives, be they joyous, sorrowful, humorous, life-changing, etc. Among my own stories was this one from 49 years ago, when I compromised my own ethics during a Halloween prank.
by Lynn Mandaville
It was late October 1968, and the autumn weather was just as nice as it could possibly be in upstate New York. I was a college freshman dating the guy who was the social chairman for his fraternity. He took his job as social chairman very seriously. In addition to making sure there was a band and plenty of beer for the weekly parties, he went the extra mile to have a theme as well, complete with decorations.
Since it was late October, there had to be a Halloween party, but since it was so late in October the party would actually be the first Saturday in November. Kegs were ordered. The band was booked. All that remained was to create a festive autumn ambiance. Someone knew a farmer who would lend bales of hay. Another was able to gather corn stalks to bundle together.
But for a true Halloween feel there would have to be pumpkins. No one knew a source for those, and time was short. But someone with a certain moral flexibility (I think it was Big Joey) came up with an idea. We would liberate the now obsolete Jack-o-Lanterns from the houses in town.
There were four of us in Dave’s Corvair: Dave, Big Joey, Bobby and me. We waited until dark before silently cruising up and down the streets of Alfred, N.Y. When someone spotted a pumpkin with appeal, Dave would kill the headlights and pull past the house. Out would jump Big Joey or Bobby, who would swiftly and silently race up to the porch, snatch the Jack-o-Lantern, race back to the car and dive in. Dave even crept out once when he spied a huge pumpkin carved from the bottom to accommodate a big candle.
Soon the car was full of pumpkins. Back to the fraternity house we went to unload our loot.
We made trip after trip through Alfred’s residential streets, Joey and Bobby snatching pumpkin after pumpkin. And though we delivered dozens and dozens of them to the frat house that evening, it was never enough. But finally we realized that we were on our last mission, because it was getting hard to find a house that still had a pumpkin. Before we could go back, though, Big Joey turned to me and said “You have to get at least one to be part of this effort!”
Well, I certainly couldn’t to THAT. I mean, it was bad enough that I was riding in the car with pumpkin thieves. I couldn’t possibly be one myself. But the die was cast, and the guys were united in their resolve that I, too, should become a Jack-o-Lantern hijacker. They would not go back to the house until I had taken a pumpkin.
This presented a dilemma for me. I’m one of those people who grew up with a conscience hand-crafted by Jiminy Cricket himself. My nurtured sense of guilt was so huge that if it were a planet it would be Jupiter. I didn’t know how I could ever pull this off.
The guys kept rationalizing. It was after Halloween night. Everyone had had time to enjoy their Jack-o-Lanterns. Besides, we were due to have the first killing frost, which would accelerate the pumpkins’ rotting, so I’d actually be doing someone the favor of getting rid of the thing. And it wasn’t like I was going to smash it in the road. I was just going to give it a new home for a day.
Okay. Okay. Okay. I could do this. I could do this.
We cruised the streets until at last we spied one last house that still had pumpkins on the porch. There it was, among a bunch of other, larger, really cool-looking Jack-o-Lanterns on the front stoop. It was really small, not even half the size of a basketball. The carving was so bad. The eyes didn’t match, the nose was crooked, and the big, lopsided smile had only one tooth. This was the one. It would never be missed.
Dave pulled past the house. Hyperventilating, I crawled out of the front seat. I ran back to the house, grabbed the pathetic little pumpkin from the steps, and raced back to the car. I jumped in and handed off my prize to Joey. My heart was pounding as we slowly drove back to the house. Suddenly, Joey piped up from the back seat, “Hey, this is my pumpkin!”
“What do you mean it’s your pumpkin?”
“It’s got my name on it!”
Dave turned on the dome light and Joey held up the pumpkin, bottom up for us to see. There, written with a black Sharpie marker, in the printing of one who has not long known how to write, was the name JOEY. This was the only pumpkin taken tonight whose owner had been so proud of his creation that he had identified it with his name.
In all these years since, I’ve been sure I scarred this little kid for life by doing this shameful thing. When I told the story to my dear sister, with a guilt that had not much abated, she suggested that when Joey tearfully asked why his was the only pumpkin stolen from the porch that night, his very wise mother told him that it was because it was the very best one of all.
I sure hope my sister was right.