A Child of the Fifties

by Paul Schroder

Chapter 4

Well, I made it through the rest of autumn of my fifth year. I played with my cars, rode my bike and had adventures with my friends. Jimmy and I imagined ourselves as every daredevil super-hero from every comic book imaginable. We found that a stick could be everything from a sword to a machine gun. I also learned that you don't kneel down in ant beds and you don't grab bumblebees with your bare hands. It seems like every day was a new learning experience.

October came rolling around. The stores were advertising Halloween and that got me and Jimmy all excited. I remembered the prior year's candy haul when I was four. I half filled a pillow case full of goodies! People hadn't yet tried putting razor blades or pins into apples or do bad stuff to the candy. We got stuff you wouldn't dream of handing out today. I got two or three caramel apples, homemade fudge, cookies galore and, of course, store bought candy.

Jimmy and I, in our daily conversations, would talk about what costumes we wanted to wear. There was little to no money for store bought costumes so we had to use our imaginations and dream up something thrifty. Jimmy's Mom had a sewing machine and so had scraps of colored cloth left over. He finally decided on being a Pirate because cloth scraps would make an ideal head-band and also a sash for his waist. We'd already made our own wooden swords. Using a rubber band and some cardboard, his Mom had made him a neat eye-patch. The finishing touch would be a mascara mustache and Jimmy would be good to go.

I had gone as a ghost when I was four. I hated it. The cloth kept twisting and covering up the eye holes so I couldn't see. I kept stepping on the stupid sheet and falling over. My mother was the one who had to take me door to door so she got an ear-full about that blankety-blank sheet. (That blankety-blank business earned me a mouthful of Lux soap, by the way.) Just because I heard similar words pouring out of my older brother's mouths didn't mean I had license to use any of them in front of my Mother.

Halloween was like five days away and I still couldn't figure out what stuff was available to make a super duper costume out of. I asked my brothers to help me think of something. They came up with stupid ideas, like a 'doorknob' or 'peckerhead' (from Dick) and cat burglar from Billy. Duh... how could a cat be a burglar?

Mother tried to help. She said she could pin a reddish colored towel to my blue pajama tops and I could be Superman. And then Dad said something that made things sound even harder still.

"Remember, Paul. It's really cold outside now. You might want to think of a costume you can wear over your winter coat."

That left me standing there, as my brother would say, blinking, stinking and thinking. My pajama top wouldn't fit over my coat, so no Superman. I was stumped. I just sat, dejectedly, on our couch thumbing through the Sears catalog. I was looking for ideas.

Father saved the day. He came home from his railroad trip with a surprise. He had stopped by Woolworth's 5 and 10 cent Store and picked up a costume for 50 cents.

I was ecstatic. It was composed of 3 tubes of greasepaint, white, red and black. There was a red, rubber clown nose with an elastic band on it to go around your head and keep it attached to your nose. There was also a wig of red, fuzzy hair. Perfect!

The day came and I was so excited that I had to stop and go pee three times while Mom was applying my makeup. And she did a swell job. I looked a lot like Clara-bell Clown from the Howdy Doody Show. Clara-bell couldn't talk though and so he squeezed a bicycle horn to answer yes or no questions. Me... I couldn't stop talking out of pure nervous energy.

My Father laughed and said "if he has this much energy at the start, imagine him with a couple of candy bars in his system." This caused my Mother to make a funny face.

Us younger kids would go trick or treating while it was still light out so whoever took us around could keep easier tabs on us. The bigger kids would go out after dark. It was time, so I put on my winter coat. Mother stuck some toilet paper around the collar to keep the makeup from making a mess of my coat. Then I walked up to the mirror and surveyed myself.

"Good job, Mother", I exclaimed. "I can rob ever house on the block and they won't know who hit 'em!"

Mother does a double take and... "What did you say?"

Laughter from my brother Dick in the living room. (It was he who told me to say that.)

Realization dawns on my Mother and she steps into the living room.

"So, mister comedian. For that, you are elected to take your little brother on his rounds tonight."

"Ah Ma! I was just funning with him. It WAS funny. You know it was."

"So is this, Dicky darling. So is this." And just like that my brother was elected to taking me trick or treating.

My brother is preferable for this duty anyway. Mothers tend to come across one another on the walks and then they have to yakety-yak for awhile . This leaves the kids anxiously dancing around their mothers, tugging at their skirts. My Father whispered to me once that women are yakaholics. Anyway, Dick was at least able to keep up with me. He would grab the pillowcase outa my hands once in awhile though, and rifle through it. He'd pick out a choice piece of candy and hand it back. I considered that cheap rent.

Anyways, I'd run up the people's walks, knock on the door, say trick-or-treat, gather my loot then run to the next neighbor's house. I was determined to fill that pillowcase up in the time my mother allotted us.

Earlier in the summer, I had attempted to cut across some people's yard, at night, to get to get to a field out back. I'd made it half way across when I heard a monster dog barking on their porch. I'd turned and ran back out to the street, slamming their gate behind me. I collided with my brother who was riding his bicycle and so I never did see the dog. I walk up to their gate this time and it's daylight and no dog is visible anywhere on the property. I bravely open the gate and run up to the front door. Still no dog. I knock on the door-frame and this sets off a barrage of full, deep-throated barks from inside the house. I'm in the process of turning around to dash back to the front gate again when I hear the door knob turn and the door quickly opens.

Now, we had a cartoon in our Sunday funnies about a huge old dog named Marmaduke. He was a sweet dog but he kept getting into trouble because he was immense. As the door swung open, I was staring up into the eyes of Marmaduke's doppelganger! He was taller than me by about a good three inches. He appeared to me to be all eyes, mouth, teeth and tongue! And he used that tongue to lick me from my chin all the way to the top of my head! I let out one mighty scream, dropped my pillowcase and bolted for the street. And although it was a rather longish front yard, I believe I managed to make it to the street in about two bounds, where I met my brother.

Well, the scream had started at the people's house and continued all the way to the sidewalk. This caused Dick to start getting panicky.

"What's wrong... what the hell's wrong?" Then he realizes whose house we are standing in front of. He knows this house because there is a girl living here he likes. He also knows the dog, "Mouse"!

By now there is a girl on the front steps holding the collar of this monster dog named Mouse. And Mouse has a red, rubber clown nose and wig laying at his feet, along with my sack of candy!

Dick bursts out laughing and is fit to be tied. I'm looking at him as though I'm measuring him for a coffin. What an insensitive dork, I'm thinking. I'm already planning payback.

Long story short, I get introduced to Mouse. I get my nose, wig and pillowcase back. Dick's girlfriend gives me a whole fist full of candy as an apology and I'm anxious to get down the street and continue making a haul. But now I have to wait while my fourteen year old brother makes moon eyes and goofy talk with a dumb girl.

We were about 30 minutes late getting back to my house because I didn't want to stop stuffing the pillowcase. I did notice, though, that for the rest of the evening I was getting some strange looks from the folks handing out the candy. I couldn't figure out why since I'd managed to reattach the nose and wig to fix my costume.

When we got home my Dad laughed and held me up to the mirror over the bathroom sink. Mouse had managed to blend all the colors of my greasepaint into one technicolor streak with his giant tongue. But that's okay. There was enough paint left to color Dick's face that night while he slept. He even managed to make it to school the next day without noticing. He did give quizzical looks towards mother though, during breakfast, because she was trying really hard not to smile or look at him. Even brother Billy decided to let things ride.

When Dick got home from school that day he was nearly apoplectic and wanted Mom and Dad to read me the riot act. Instead, he was told that if he would wash his face and brush his teeth in the mornings like he was expected to, he would have caught it in time.

I heard Dick talk about it with Billy a day or so later. He said people didn't really tell him about it at school for awhile either. I guess everyone figured he was just showing off or something or was weird. A few guys gave him the thumbs up sign. Some girl told him Halloween was over so take off your stupid mask. He said he thought she was just insulting him, saying she thought he was ugly. It took his best friend, Tharon, to finally fill him in on what was going on.

Years later I heard an expression, "he who laughs last laughs loudest". While I didn't laugh out loud, I did spend the full day he was in school grinning like the Cheshire cat. But then I ate more candy than I was really allowed to and spent the rest of the day with a stomach ache. Karma's a bitch.

November arrived with a chill wind. My enthusiasm for playing outside hadn't lessened any. Kids just seem to tolerate the cold way better than adults do. As it gets colder you simply play harder to keep yourself warm. Many's the time, on a cold day, when I'd unzip my winter coat to get a little temperature regulation going. But, being young and caught up in whatever play I'm doing at the time, I may forget to zip back up again when the level of play decreases. This brings on a chill which, eventually and inevitably, brings on a runny nose.

Now, for kids, runny noses don't present a real problem. After all, that's what the sleeves on coats are designed for. Show me one little guy that carries around Kleenex for heck sake. But it does tend to drive a mother to distraction. So, like as not, when I got the sniffles I was directed indoors for the remainder of the day. Mother would stick wads of Kleenex in my pockets for me to use and to protect my shirt sleeves. It didn't work.

Many a night in my bed I would spend with Mentholatum rubbed into my chest. It seemed to work wonders at keeping the sinus passages open. But my brother's said it stunk up the bedroom. Mother compromised by just rubbing it onto my upper lip instead. It still worked like a champ.

Anyway, November eventually turned to December and all I could think about was Christmas. Mother had helped me make a list for Santa. But then she asked if I'd like to go see him and tell him in person.

Oh my God! Is this for reals? I don't even get to see Santa on Christmas because I'm asleep when he gets to our house.

"Santa is going to be at Sears every day until Christmas eve," she says. "We'll go see him and then we can do a little bit of Christmas shopping."

Wow, so Santa hangs around at the Sears and Roebucks here in our town? Don't they have a Sears at the North Pole? And how can he afford to spend so much time in a department store? I'll bet his elves are drinking his beer and goofing off back at the North Pole.

Once there, we waited in this long line of kids and mothers that seemed to move at a snails pace. What slowed it down was posing the kids on Santa's lap for pictures. A lot of kids didn't want to cooperate. When my turn came I quickly understood why. Santa's breath smelled like garlic and old socks! I wasn't shy about letting him know about it either.

"Geeze... Santa! Yer breath smells awful! Pee-yuuu"

The guy reflexively pulls his head back, reaches into his pocket a pulls out a mint. That cut through the stink a bit, enough to tolerate it at any rate. After all, I was there on a mission.

"Aren't cha gonna ask me what I want for Christmas, Santa?"

"Smile for the camera first, kid."

I look forward, towards the six foot tall elf standing behind the lights and the old Graflex portrait camera. I gave the photo-taking smile that my mother had coached me on for my entire life. The bright flash told me it was over and we could get down to business.

"Okay, kid. What'cha want?"

I took a deep breath and started in...

"I want a coon skin cap like Davy Crocket wears, a Kentucky long rifle that shoots real bullets, a new Flash Gordon ray gun that shoots sparks. I want two so my friend Jimmie can have one too. I know he won't remember to ask for one. I want a bunch of new army guys and some tanks and jeeps too."

All this in one breath so I have to stop to inhale. Santa takes that brief second to say:

"You can't have a rifle, you'll shoot someone. How about a BB-gun instead?"

Now, I'm pretty sure he knew my parents wouldn't allow a 5 year old boy to have a BB-gun. But I think he's miffed that I called him on his bad breath. He's gonna make my parents suffer for it.

I just nod my head enthusiastically, ready to continue the list. But Santa slides me off his knee and says "next."

The pretty elf girl takes me by the hand and leads me over to my Mom, who is giving our address to the picture taking elf.

"Okay then, that's three 8x10s. Two of them will be Christmas gifts for his Grandmothers. They are always easy to buy for."

With the business finished, Mother takes me by the hand and we continue her shopping. I'm still staring daggers at a very rude Santa Claus. I know I can't give him what-for or I might not get any of the loot I asked for."

"Did you tell Santa all the things you put on your list?"

I stopped moving, which stopped my mother of course. She felt the tug on her hand and looked down. She saw a little boy with a seriously under-curled bottom lip.

"What's wrong, sweetheart?"

"He didn't let me finish. I only told him some of the stuff. I was going to ask for something for you and father and Billy and Dick too. I was even going to tell him to pick out something nice for himself but...nooo. Old, stinky, poo-breath pushed me off his lap right after he said I could have a BB-gun."

Mother, who was bent over, commiserating with me, snapped upwards like a soldier coming to attention!

"He said you could have a WHAT?"

"A BB-gun, mother, he's bringing me a BB-gun. He says I can't have a Kentucky long rifle because I'd shoot someone."

"Oh he did, did he? It was nice of him to consider everyone's safety."

She said this while staring absolute daggers over towards the Santa area.

"Come with me, son," and she jerks my arm as we set off on a fast walk back towards Santa.

This is great, I'm thinking. She's mad he rushed me and I didn't get a chance to finish. Now I can tell him about the roller skates and the dump truck for playing in the big sand pile behind my house and...

We got to Santa's roped off area and Mom addressed the young elf girl with the clipboard:

"Hold his hand" she commanded, pointing to me.

The girl knew authority when she heard it and snatched my hand like she was afraid I might float off to the ceiling if she missed me. Mother then just stood there tapping her foot and waited for the little girl on Santa's lap to be slid down and ushered away.

My Mother ascended the throne like a usurper and stood, hands on hips, next to a definitely shrinking Santa.

"BB-gun? What the hell is wrong with you? He's five years old for Christ's sake!"

She's definitely using her outside voice. My eyebrows shoot up and I grow a grin like a cat humping a hamster. People's heads were popping up around the store, looking our way. Then she bent over to really get into the guys face but stopped when she realized what I'd meant by old, stinky-poo breath. She pops right back up again.

"Have you been eating the ass end of a reindeer? What's wrong with you? Brush your teeth! You are supposed to represent something wonderful and magical to these children."

By now a bunch of mothers, mouths open, were dragging their gawking kids away from the excitement. I was agog. Never, in my long years on this earth, had I ever heard words like that come out of my mother's mouth!

The elf girl with the clipboard drops my hand so she can cover her mouth in total surprise. I'm jumping up and down in an adrenaline rush.

The floor supervisor had arrived along with store security. They were all gathered around Santa and my Mom. Everyone was gesturing and talking at once. Finally, my Mother just stood her full five foot three height, pointed at Santa while looking the supervisor in the eye. You could see the supervisor's Adams apple bob up and down a couple of times. The floor boss then made a thumbs down gesture to his brow-beaten Santa and the discussion had come to a close. They threw up a sign that Santa was on a break while they rounded up a replacement.

Mother turned, descended Santa's dais and walked over to me. She held out her hand and I grasped it gladly. My mother is a freaking gladiator! She could kick Superman's ass!

She gave my arm a gentle tug and we continued on our way. I was so proud to be seen with her, until she looked down at me and said:

"Santa says you can't have the BB-gun after all. You'll put someone's eye out."

Ahh...geeze. Why'd I ever go and open my big mouth?

"Stupid Santa! He's a blankety-blank!"

That earned me a trip down the Lux highway that evening, once again.

I wasn't about to give up without a fight, however. That night I asked Jesus to intercede with Santa for me and force him to give me the BB-gun that he promised me. But, come Christmas morning, I guess even Jesus was afraid I'd put someone's eye out. I got a Roy Rogers outfit instead.

Next week, Paul's marching sidewalk band, and my brother teaches me how to box. Now, if you were writing a story, I'd send you an email. How come you haven't sent me one?

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