About the first part of October, our teacher, Miss Olson, began telling us about Halloween in the olden days in our town. People wore special costumes and went around town doing good deeds, such as taking food and clothing to those who needed them. “They weren’t like some of you boys today, going out Halloween night and destroying people’s property or putting their plows on someone else’s roof.”
I was sure she was looking directly at the four of us sitting in the southwest corner of the classroom. As far as I knew, none of us had been involved in any vandalism. But we were in the fifth grade now and were strong enough to do almost anything. The idea that Halloween had been a night for doing good and not for mischief kept coming up the next few weeks, but none of us boys realized how much of it we had absorbed.
One Monday, Miss Olson announced, “Next Saturday night you are all invited to a Halloween party at my home. Everyone is to wear a costume. We’ll play games, and there will be refreshments. The party will begin at seven-thirty, and anyone who shows up without a costume will be sent home.”
Directly after school, Tom, DeForest, Raymond, and I conferred. None of us had any money to buy a costume, so we all figured out what we could rig up. We had several conferences during the week to update each other’s progress, and we decided to meet at the corner a half block from my house, then walk the four blocks to Miss Olson’s home together.
Even though we arrived early the night of the party, several girls were already there, wearing the usual Halloween costumes—princess, ballerina, and so forth. There was one Gypsy. She pretended to tell our fortunes, telling us we’d go on journeys or inherit a large fortune. After each “fortune,” she placed a small piece of hard candy in our hand, closed our fist around it, and patted our cheek. One girl was wearing an Austrian dirndl (native dress) that her brother had brought home from his mission there.
We had a wonderful time playing games. When we bobbed for apples, none of us boys was able to get one. Only one of the girls got one. She dunked her whole head into the water to do it, and almost all the curl came out of her hair.
The next game went more smoothly. Apples were hung from the ceiling on strings. A girl on one side and a boy on the other were to try to get a bite from it without using their hands. I was matched up with Nora. We eventually worked out a solution: We both pressed our mouths against the apple to keep it somewhat stationary. Then Nora was able to get her teeth a little way into it and hold it still until I got a bite. Most of the others saw what we did, and succeeded in getting at least a nibble too.
After some more games, we sang songs around Miss Olson’s piano. Then the living room door opened, and her mother and father came in carrying plates. On each plate was a cheese sandwich cut diagonally, a mound of potato salad, and a cup of hot chocolate. Forks and napkins followed. And as soon as we gobbled down the food, the plates were taken to the kitchen and we were each given a dish heaped with orange ice cream with small black candies on it, and a large orange cookie with a dab of black frosting on top! It was then after nine-thirty. We all shook hands with Miss Olson and her parents and thanked them for the nice party.
Outside, the four of us boys got together. The moon was about half full, and some thin clouds partially obscured it. We knew that our parents weren’t expecting us home till about ten o’clock, so we walked along the streets, looking for evidences of Halloween pranks. A few gates had been removed, and just in front of one door a bucket of water had been balanced on the top of a rake. The dwellers would get a watery surprise when they opened the door the next morning!
We stopped in front of the Christiansens’ home. All the blinds were drawn, and there wasn’t a light anywhere. They were an elderly couple and were almost totally deaf. Mr. Christiansen spoke only Norwegian, and though I understood Norwegian pretty well, I couldn’t speak it. Most Norwegians can understand Danish, even if they can’t speak it, but when I tried to talk to him in Danish, he’d wave his hand and tell me that I should know that he didn’t understand English.
Next to the kitchen of their home was a wooden lean-to. Its foundation was four feet above the ground. Under it Mr. Christiansen stored his wood and coal so that it could be out of the weather but handy to get at.
Miss Olson’s lessons about Halloween in the olden days struck a chord in us as we stood there, and we decided to chop some wood for the Christiansens. When I went home for my favorite ax—my father had made it specially so that I could cut kindling—I told my parents what we were going to do, and they seemed very pleased.
Having the shortest distance to go, I was at the woodpile first. I found several pieces of sawed logs under the kitchen stairs and was busily chopping those into kindling by the time the others arrived.
At first we worked as quietly as we could, but then we began to sing. Pretty soon we were singing louder and louder, and I was thinking, How happy Mr. Christiansen will be when he comes out in the morning and sees all this kindling. And how happy Miss Olson is going to be on Monday when we tell her what we did after we left her party. I don’t know how the other boys felt, but I was feeling pretty pleased with myself.
Suddenly the light in the kitchen went on, the door flew open, and out came Mr. Christiansen. He was in his nightshirt, and his feet were bare. He yelled, in Norwegian, “Thieves! Thieves! You are stealing my wood!”
I tried to speak to him in Danish, but he just yelled, “No! No! I don’t understand English, and you are stealing my wood!”
Then Mr. Christiansen saw the lighted lantern that I had placed on a nearby rock. “And you are trying to burn my house down!” he bellowed.
All we could do was grab our saws and axes and leave. I felt terrible. This certainly wasn’t the way it was supposed to turn out.
DeForest was the first to say anything. “So much for doing good deeds on Halloween. I wonder if people in the olden days ever ran into this kind of trouble.”
Now, I can understand the old man’s confusion. As poor as they were, Mr. Christiansen had always worried about someone setting his house or his barn on fire or stealing his kindling. And it must have been hard for him to chop and cut all the wood for their everyday needs. We had tried to reason with him, but was it really us? I mean, that night I was dressed in a mountain man costume—a red flannel shirt underneath a jacket that Mom had sewn fringes of cloth scraps on, Dad’s old leather boots, and a hat I’d made from a rabbit skin. Our string mop had become my scraggly beard.
Tom wore an old crumpled hat, one of his father’s old coats that his mother had sewn patches on here and there to cover supposed worn spots, and an old pair of overalls that were also covered with various colored patches. He had rubbed soot on his cheeks to look like a scruffy beard, and was a very convincing hobo.
DeForest had so many freckles that they seemed to be plastered on top of each other. He hated them, so he had painted his face white and his nose red, made a top hat out of black construction paper, stuffed paper into his dad’s work shoes, and wore two different plaids for his pants and shirt. He made a really great clown.
Raymond was wearing a suit of long underwear that had been dyed green and had “muscles” sewn into it, and a blue blanket that had been fashioned into a cape. He’d glued blue scraps of material onto the front nt in the shape of the letters SR for “Super Raymond.”
So no wonder Mr. Christiansen didn’t recognize us. When he’d gone to bed, all had been quiet. Then he was awakened by our singing, which to his deaf ears must have sounded like coyotes’ howling. Imagine how he must have felt when he saw all sorts of strange-looking characters lurking around his woodpile. I would have yelled too.
When I went home and told my folks, my mother said, “We’ll get this all straightened out tomorrow. I’m sure that when Mr. Christiansen finds out what you were trying to do, he’ll be happy and grateful.”
The next morning on the way to church, I was startled to see him bundled in two heavy quilts, sitting in a rocker in his yard. He was asleep, and I figured that if he had been sitting there protecting his woodpile all night, he was entitled to sleep.
He was asleep in the chair again on Monday morning. His head was bent over to one side, and he looked cold and tired.
At school, we told Miss Olson the entire story and how puzzled we were by the outcome.
“I know all about it,” she told us. “I’m very proud of you boys for what you tried to do. I’m in touch with Mr. Christiansen’s daughter, Mrs. Larsen, and I’m sure that everything will be straightened out to your credit.”
Neither the chair nor Mr. Christiansen were in his yard when I came home from school that afternoon. As I entered the kitchen, my mother said, “Miss Olson and Mrs. Larsen have explained to Mr. Christiansen what you boys were trying to do for him last Saturday. He wants to apologize to all of you. You’re to go over tomorrow after school.”
The next afternoon, Miss Olson opened the door as we approached the Christiansens’. The old couple were sitting by the window. Their daughter stood next to Mr. Christiansen. “Now, here is the way we’ll work this,” Miss Olson said. “You boys line up in single file. When I introduce you, you shake hands with Mr. and Mrs. Christiansen, then tell Mrs. Larsen your parents’ names and where you live. She’ll translate your words into Norwegian for them.”
Tom was called on first. Mr. Christiansen thanked him profusely, in Norwegian. The old couple smiled and shook hands with him.
DeForest was next. The couple knew his family quite well. In fact, Mr. Christiansen had made bins for DeForest’s grandfather’s salt refinery.
Then came Raymond. After Mrs. Larsen explained in very loud Norwegian who he was, Mr. Christiansen thanked him over and over again. Then Raymond winked at Mr. Christiansen and grinned at him. One of his teeth had been blacked out with black gum. Mr. Christiansen almost laughed out loud.
I was last. As Mrs. Larsen started to tell the couple about me, Mr. Christiansen waved her to silence. “I know this boy. He comes over to visit, and he talks to me in a very strange language.” He grabbed my hand and held it in both of his. Mrs. Christiansen did the same with my other hand.
“Well, I think that everything is straightened out now,” Miss Olson said. “Do you boys think that you could finish what you’d started to do for the Christiansens last Saturday night?”
I hurried home for my special ax, and Raymond and DeForest borrowed Mr. Christiansen’s ax and saw. Tom busied himself with carrying in the wood. We soon filled up three coal buckets, two for the kitchen and one for the bedroom.
Mrs. Larsen told us to wash our hands; then we were ushered into the dining room, where we saw stacks of sandwiches, a huge bowl of potato salad, a tray full of pumpkin pickles, and cups of steaming hot chocolate. Mr. Christiansen offered a prayer in which he thanked the Lord for us, our families, and Miss Olson.
When we left, the Christiansens stood by the door and thanked us again for coming. We decided that maybe we’d have an olden-days Halloween next year too.