Uncle Rick’s Chrysler Imperial had fins like a rocket, and a push button transmission. My brother Joe and I were riding in it trick or treat along Twin House Road south of Cottonwood, Idaho. It was 1969, I was seven.
Rock chips splattered against the wheel wells. The sky was cloudy, and all I could see through the windshield was a gravel road and the edge of harvested wheat fields. A gray bird swooped through the headlights. I gasped. My brother jerked. The Chrysler slowed.
“What was that?”
Uncle Rick put his foot back on the accelerator. He flicked his cigarette in the ashtray. “An owl. It’s hunting for mice.”
“I didn’t know owls were that big?”
“They get to be pretty good sized.” He kept his eyes on the road.
I stared across the Camas Prairie at the scattered farmhouse lights. Peered up at the moon’s faint white smudge in the black overcast sky. When I looked back I noticed a small pinpoint of light in the darkness ahead. It got brighter as we drew near, Jack-o’-lanterns.
There must have been at least eight of ‘em. They were arranged against the fence corner at the turn to my Uncle Johnny’s. A burning candle flickering through each of their hollow eyes and gap toothed grins.
I thought back to the owl that’d startled everyone. The pinpoint of light in the middle of nowhere. The glow of the Jack-o’-lantern’s dancing flames. This, I thought. This is the way Halloween was meant to be.
I’ve never forgotten that Halloween. Since then, I’ve experienced Halloween in the movies, on television and at Disneyland. None of them compare to that car ride, and the welcoming glow of my cousins hand carved, candlelit Jack-o’-lanterns. That was pure Halloween.
Carving a Jack-o’-lantern is as important to me as having a turkey at Thanksgiving, or a tree at Christmas. My childhood rushes back when I pry the top off a freshly cut pumpkin. The smell. The feel of the cold slimy seeds.
I plop them out on a newspaper, or into a bowl. Flicking my wrist to free the sticky entrails from my fingers. Once most of the seeds are gone, I scrape. I use an ice cream scoop. I tilt the pumpkin sideways and rotate it. Scraping and dumping until the inside is clean and smooth.
Now the important part, the face. Triangle eyes and nose with a wide toothy grin? Round eyes and a mouth open in surprise? You could also use a store bought pattern. The options are endless. It’s up to you and your imagination.
Candles have lost favor to battery powered lights, or glow sticks. I’m a purist. Tea lights are the easiest candle to use. The kind in the little aluminum container. Store them in the freezer so they’ll burn longer, light them with a stick of spaghetti.
Let your candle burn about fifteen minutes and remove the Jack-o’-lantern’s lid. There should be a black mark, or warm spot. Cut it out. Make a chimney for the flame. You can enjoy your creation longer that way.
My favorite pumpkin story happened when I was in sixth grade. Buttery’s in the Lewiston Shopping Center had pumpkins for five cents a pound. My neighbor Mike, his little brother Doug, my little brother Jack and I decided to walk down and buy one. Mike and I were ten, Doug eight and Jack seven.
We left after school on a warm Indian Summer afternoon. It was a little over a mile, one way. Neither Jack or I remember the walk down NezPerce Grade, but we both remember the walk home. It was uphill all the way and the pumpkins got pretty heavy. Jack carried his by its stem like a suitcase. Then it broke. After that, all he could do was hold it in his arms.
NezPerce Grade used to have guardrails made of large concrete pillars with cables strung between. The cables were gone, but Jack made it up that hill one pillar at a time. Resting his pumpkin on each for a few minutes before taking it back in his arms and trudging to the next. Mike and Doug walked on ahead. I stayed with Jack. It was a long walk home.
When I drive up that grade around Halloween I still see us carrying those pumpkins. A childhood journey completed almost fifty years ago, but still not finished in my memory. A lot has changed. Halloween has changed. Now there are stores specializing in animated props, digital displays, costumes and decorations I could only dream of.
Then there’s that night. The night with the owl that swooped through the headlights. The orange pinpoint of light in the darkness. Jack-o’-lanterns stacked on the corner of a quiet country road. Candlelight flickering through their child imagined faces. Technology will never replace that. Nothing can, that’s the essence of Halloween.