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 at my other uncle’s houses along Twin House Road south of Cottonwood, Idaho. It was 1969, and I was seven years old.
Rock chips splattered against the car’s wheel wells. It was dark, 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. Felt my brother jerk, and the Chrysler slow down. “What was that?”
My uncle put his foot back on the gas pedal. “An owl. It’s probably hunting for mice in the fields.”
“Wow, it was big. I didn’t know owls got that large?”
“They get to be pretty good sized,” Uncle Rick answered, concentrating on the road.
I stared across the Camas Prairie at the scattered lights of farm houses. Looked up at the faint white smudge of a moon in the black overcast sky. I turned back to the windshield and noticed a small pinpoint of light. It was all by itself, and 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. The light of a burning candle flickering through each of their hollow eyes, and gap toothed grins.
I thought back to the owl that’d startled everyone in the car. 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 that day 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, on that cold dark night. That was pure Halloween.
Carving a pumpkin at Halloween is as important to me as having a turkey at Thanksgiving, or a tree at Christmas. My childhood rushes back as soon as I pry the top off a freshly cut pumpkin. That smell, and the feel of the cool slimy seeds as you prepare the huge berry for carving. I plop it’s guts out on a newspaper, or into a bowl. Flicking my wrist to free its sticky entrails from my fingers.
Once most of the viscera is gone, I scrape. I use an ice cream scoop. One with a good sturdy handle. I tilt the pumpkin sideways and rotate it. Scraping and dumping until the last of the slimy strings are gone, and the inside of the pumpkin is clean and smooth.
Now the important part, the face. Triangle eyes and nose with a wide toothy grin, or round eyes and a mouth open in surprise? The options are endless. It’s up to you and your imagination. You could also use a pattern and make an intricate design. It’s your choice.
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 the candles in the freezer so they’ll burn longer. A stick of spaghetti works great for lighting them.
Let your candle burn about fifteen minutes, or so and remove the Jack-o’-lantern’s lid. There should be a black mark, or warm spot from the candle. Cut it out. Make a chimney for the heat of the flame to dissipate. You can enjoy your creation longer that way.
My favorite pumpkin story happened when I was in sixth grade. Buttery’s in the Lewiston Center had pumpkins for five cents a pound. My neighbor Mike , his brother Doug and my little brother Jack and I decided to walk down and buy one. Mike and I were probably ten, Doug eight and Jack seven.
We left right after school on a warm Indian Summer afternoon. It was a little over a mile to the store one way. Neither Jack, or I remember the walk down NezPerce Grade to the store. But we both remember the walk home. It was uphill all the way, and the pumpkins got pretty heavy. Jack was holding his like a suitcase by its stem. Then it broke. After that, all he could do was carry it in his arms.
NezPerce Grade used to have large concrete pillars with cables strung between them as guard rails. The cables were gone but Jack made it up that hill one pillar at a time. Setting his pumpkin on top of each for a few minutes before taking it in his arms and trudging to the next. Mike and Doug walked on ahead but I stayed back 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 since then. Halloween has changed. Now there are stores that specialize in animated props, digital displays and costumes and decorations I could only dream of.
But then there’s that night. The night with the owl swooping through the headlights. The orange pinpoint of light ahead in the darkness. Jack-o’-lanterns stacked on the corner of a quiet country road. Candlelight flickering through their child imagined faces. Technology can’t replace that. Nothing can, that’s the essence of Halloween.