The Halloweens of today are mostly Treats with very little Trick. This was not the case in the years of the Great Depression and before. Tricks exceeded treats and the best tricks were rewarded with boasting rights that lasted a full year.
In the following article, Irene Ambler presents a picture of that time in Hurricane and an account of a trick which did not go as planned.
This article was first published in the October 17, 1985 issue of the Breeze.
Halloween Shoot-Out at the Little House Behind the Big House
By Irene Ambler
When I was growing up on Putnam Avenue where I was born, we didn’t have a lot of possessions about which we could boast or feel proud. But there were a few things which we strived for in order to maintain a certain amount of human dignity and prestige. Kids could get a glow of glory in running the fastest, doing the most artistic maneuvers on their skates, rolling a hoop with a stick the farthest, or playing the most skillful game of hopscotch. Ladies got a curious thrill in hanging out the whitest washings on the line, having the fullest cellar, or maintaining the fairest skin.
None of these childish and feminine activities appealed to men. It seems in my recollection that dignity, status and prestige in the end of town where I lived was measured in the type of backhouse the heads of house were able to maintain. Men might hide at lawn mowing time, they might have cringed embarrassedly at having to carry out the kitchen garbage, and to help the wives plant flowers was just simply something men did not do.
But, when it came to backhouses, the men would practically glow with joy when it came to the little house out back. Each backhouse had its own individuality and personality, not to mention the architectural planning with which each individual man built and kept up his pride and joy.
Mr. N.R. Allen had the most beautiful and elaborate comfort station on our block. It was big. It was immense. And it was obviously built not only for physical necessity but also for communication and interaction among family members. For Mr. Allen’s backhouse had not two, but three seats with one of the seats being a tiny little seat about ten inches high in order to be comfortable for children. His little building had a lattice fence which shielded the visitors from public view and also afforded a quiet place for solitude. Flowers grew in beautiful profusion on the lattice-blue morning glories, I think.
Our backhouse was not pretty. At least, our first one was not attractive from the aesthetic viewpoint, but it was commodious enough to accommodate two at a time. It was always clean and always had a Sears catalog. Our little house was painted a dirty, ugly looking utilitarian shade of brown, which didn’t show dirt, but was ugly just the same.
Every Saturday I had to scrub the floor and the platform whereon the seats were located. I had to scrub it with a stubby broom and hot lye soap water. The floor had been scrubbed so many times that it looked bleached out white as if clean enough to eat from. Well, really, not quite that clean.
Some folks had diamond designs cut high near the roof; and some even had little fingernail shape, crescent looking moons cut out for decoration and ventilation.
Running a close second to Mr. Allen’s beautiful structure near the alley was the one owned by another gentleman who lived at the corner of Putnam Avenue and Lynn Street, only two doors above our house. I will not tell his name – it is more fun to let oldtimers guess – but I will tell you that he was a cantankerous individual with an unsmiling face and a sort of voice which always seemed angry. To hear him talk, one would think that his artistic soul was as dour as his face and that any thoughts of structural beauty was as absent from his psyche as was a smile from his face. But he did have one phase of his personality which exposed his innermost feelings of beauty, even if exhibited only on his little building out back. He meticulously kept every blade of grass cut around his privy; he painted it almost every year; and, although he was as tight as the bark on a tree, he never hesitated to hire a sanitary engineer (a local honey dipper) to keep his pride and joy clean and usable at all times.
He also, with the tenacity of a bulldog or a landscape architect, planted sunflowers all around and in front of the building each and every year. The sunflowers were huge and beautiful and bigger than anybody else’s sunflowers. His efforts at beautification did not go unrewarded because he had a privy beautiful to behold and one for which he owed no other man an apology.
Our first backhouse was replaced under a cooperative agreement with the United States government when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration had a PWA project for the purpose of sanitizing the rustic, rural countryside of America through construction of one-holers where public water and sewer facilities were unavailable. It was more attractive than the first one; but, somehow I never did get accustomed to sitting catty-cornered in a thing like that.
Some of our neighbors clung to their old privies; and the man on the corner of Putnam and Lynn had no idea whatsoever of parting with the love of his life.
Now, Halloween back in those days was not like it is now. There were no parties, no Trick or Treat and no civic projects for the making of a safe and sane Halloween. Little kids and girls had mild forms of activities for the observance of Halloween. There was the dressing up in costume, throwing shelled corn on people’s porches, and soaping of windows (what a lousy thing to do).
The big boys, however, went in for more destructive and less innocent recreation for that autumn holiday. Boys tore up things. They turned cows and horses out of pastures. They carried chairs and flower pots and sometimes farm wagons away. But most of all they loved to turn over the little houses behind the big houses.
Our neighbor was always a favorite victim for the toilet turnover and the most harassed victim of the Halloween onslaught. Every year his toilet was practically demolished, and every post-Halloween morning he would be out laboriously putting it back together again, raging in unashamed terms at the heinous actions of the boys “who should be in the reform school.”
One Halloween, though, he had just become sick and tired of the toilet assault and he narrated around town for several days prior to the destructive night that he was going to guard his toilet with his double barrel shotgun, making sure that the news was circulated to the necessary ears.
Halloween came at last; and the boys were seen skittering here and there in tight, secretive clusters, whispering in hushed tones and making regular, quiet, Indian-like trips up and down the alley behind the backhouse which was under the protective custody of an angry man and a double barrel shotgun. The man would hear the sound of the boys’ feet and he, snug and well-bundled in warm clothing, would rattle around to let the boys know that they were getting close to dangerous and precious territory.
Along about midnight the boys’ ears were met with new sounds inside the privy on the back of the corner lot. It was a soft, gentle sound which comes from the just and the brave after the person with the gentle sound has sunk into the arms of well-deserved little nap. The gentleman was asleep, no doubt thinking that the ruffians and heathens had gone home around midnight.
But the boys were not at home in their own warm beds. They were still running the alley seeking just the strategic moment to attack. They very quietly got behind that treasured little house, noiselessly as snakes slithering up on their prey, put their hands to the back of the structure and HEAVED it over on its front.
But, all pandemonium broke loose as a deafening blast tore into the blackness of the crisp, October night. The victim, although sleeping, had kept a firm grip on his trusty shotgun with his finger poised surely on the trigger, protecting to the death his most prized possession on earth. People came running from their homes, but they found no indication of where the hot came from.
The boys slunk back home and went rapidly to their own rooms, thinking that it would be only a matter of minutes before the “law” would be after them for murder.
The next morning, just as the sun sliced through the semi-dark fall morning, a lot of boys’ eyes turned to the direction of the scene of the crime. Was he alive? Or maybe he was dead. Was he dead? Was he wounded in the shoot-out? All the boys swore in a secret pact almost sealed in blood that they would never tell who committed the crime.
But, along about nine o’clock in the morning, there came the poor, punished man, seemingly none the worse off except for a slight limp in his right leg. He was armed with crow bar, hammer and a can of nails, ready once again, for yet another year, to repair and restore his little back house where the shoot-out occurred. It was at this time that the true story in all its gory detail emerged in the east end of town. The man was not wounded by the shot gun’s blast. It was the fall that injured him. He had gone to sleep with the gun lying across his lap. The shells tore through the side of the building making a huge hole. The little house was the real victim. This is a true story. It actually happened, and I knew all about it before and after, inasmuch as my brother was one of the leading plotters of the infamy. Also, my little fat ears soaked up everything I heard; and I had eavesdropped the whole plan before the act occurred.
And, sure enough, the next summer the paint glistened in the summer sun, and the sunflowers bloomed again.