The following Halloween story is contained in the novel “Arse Over Teakettle,” a tale about a young boy growing up in post-war Toronto in the 1940s. The fictional character Tom Hudson and his friends go “shelling out” for treats at the neighbours’ houses. Tom’s mischievous friend Shorty provides excitement that the boys had not expected when they encounter a gang of older kids, led by Kramer, the notorious local bully. The gang consider the younger children easy prey and attempt to steal their bags of candies.
The warm days of early October passed quickly, cold air nipping at noses and rouging our cheeks. The final week of the month, Halloween treats appeared in the School Store window. Along with the usual candies, there were wax Dracula fangs. Similar to the wax lips and moustaches, the purchaser inserted the fangs in the mouth. When tired of putting the bite on friends, a person chewed them like gum.
My brother Ken was in grade seven and decided that he was too mature to go shelling out. The York Township municipal government was sponsoring a party and a feature film in the auditorium of York Collegiate, our local high school. Several service clubs were offering a similar program at the Grant Theatre, and the movies were free. My brother said he was going to attend the Halloween evening at the Grant.
My friends and I had discussed our costumes and agreed that we would all dress as ghosts. It was an easy outfit to create, as all we required were old bedsheets. We thought that a group of five ghosts, floating across the lawns and streets, would appear awesome and surely increase the amount of candy the neighbours deposited in our bags. We agreed that when it was almost dark, we would meet at my house and begin our foray into the frantic street scene.
My grandfather, who we called Gramps, along with my dad had placed the goodies that they intended to shell out in the hallway beside our front door. A sliver of daylight remained in the western sky as we departed from the back door, a gaggle of ghosts. Our first victims were Gramps and my dad, at our front door. Our laughter betrayed our excitement as we mounted the steps to the verandah and stood at the door.
“Shell out! Shell out! We’ll break your windows inside out,” we screamed.
Gramps opened the door a crack and peered out. “If you break me windows, you’ll get no kiss here tonight.”
I laughed and replied, “Save your kisses for Nan and kindly shell out the kiss candies.”
Shorty added, “I don’t want your kisses, either, and if you have beans to shell out, they had better be jelly beans.”
Gramps chuckled as he opened the door wider and threw a handful of treats into our bags. We thanked him and headed off to the other houses.
Though this episode had only absorbed a few minutes, darkness had fully descended by the time we reached Mrs. Leyer’s door. Our ghostly sheets glowed in the blackness of the night, eerie and frightening, so we imagined. The apparition would surely cause her bottle-job red hair to stand on end.
Shorty muttered under his sheet, “I hope the old bag has something good to put in my bag. All year she shells out crap. This is her night to give us a sweet treat.”
Jimmy added, “Perhaps she’s not home. She may be out on her broom.”
We giggled and shouted our shell-out warning as we waited for the door to open.
To our surprise, Mr. Leyer appeared. He and his wife were the neighbourhood “grumps.” He glanced at our costumes and, in a friendly voice that seemed syrupy he said, “Who have we here under those bedsheets? Ghosts give me the shivers. Float away from my verandah before I die of fright.”
He dropped something heavy into our bags and shut the door quickly.
Laughing, we departed. However, when I reached into my bag to see what he had deposited, I realized that he had given us apples. I knew that they were from the tree in his backyard, as they were small and shrivelled. In addition, they had wormholes. Shorty wanted to throw them at their door.
Mrs. Leyer had likely prepared the shell-out treats, so what else should we have expected? I wanted revenge, too, but I had promised my mother that I would lay off Mrs. Leyer. I guess my “inner voice” was hard at work. Smashing apples against Mrs. Leyer’s door was certain to cause her misery. We all discarded the apples, leaving them in the gutter as we proceeded to the next house. When we looked back at Mrs. Leyer’s house, we noticed that the porch light had been extinguished. I suppose she had told her husband that donating such expensive treats would bankrupt them.
Continuing down the street, we received goodies that were more appropriate. People seemed to enjoy seeing a bunch of ghosts. One man took our picture. When we arrived at the bottom of the street, we crossed over to the opposite side. Our shell-out bags were by now heavy with loot.
In front of us was a darkened section of street where someone had smashed the streetlights, and there were six houses in a row with no verandah lights. As we attempted to walk along this portion, Kramer’s gang suddenly appeared from behind a hedge and blocked our path. They didn’t know who we were, under the bedsheets. However, Kramer, similar to most bullies, decided to confront Shorty first, as he was the smallest. Lording his height over his intended victim, he leaned down and taunted him. “Hey, shrimp. Gimme your bag of treats or I’ll break your nose.”
Bending down was a big mistake on Kramer’s part. Shorty let fly a right-hand punch into Kramer’s face. It hit like a freight train. Kramer went down, blood gushing from between his fingers as he attempted in vain to stem the flow. It was then that Jimmy kicked one of the guys in the leg, and Sam threw an apple that hit another of them on the head, knocking off his sweaty red cap.
I decided that using apples as cannonballs was a great idea and reached into my bag, wishing that I had kept Mr. Leyer’s apples. Meanwhile, when Kramer attempted to stand to his feet, Shorty delivered a swift punch to his stomach. Kramer doubled over in pain and went down a second time. Shorty hit him in the face once more as he collapsed. Then, almost without missing a beat, he struck another red-capped kid in the stomach.
Leaderless and wounded, the Kramer gang fled. The final blow was an apple that Shorty torpedoed against a fleeing boy’s head. What a shot. The apple split into pieces on impact. What a great way to make applesauce!
When I returned home, I never told my parents about the fight. I knew my mom would say that I should have turned the other cheek. I knew that such action would have resulted in both my cheeks being punched. I told my brother, and he laughed. I inquired about the film party at the Grant.
“It ended halfway through the second film. Some kids pelted the screen with rotten apples. They damaged the screen, and it’ll likely have to be replaced. It’s amazing how a small group of idiots can ruin things for everyone.”
“I know what you mean,” I replied.
Halloween was over for another year, apples having played an unusually prominent part in the celebration. The next day, the newspapers reported that it had been a quiet Halloween throughout the city. They attributed it to the massive party held in Maple Leaf Gardens, which had attracted thousands of teenagers. Similar events held in high schools and theatres had encouraged many kids to stay off the streets. The damage at the Grant Theatre had been an exception.
Fortunately, the press knew nothing of Shorty’s fistic manoeuvres.
I didn’t know that when I was too old to go shelling out, a wonderful part of my life would end. It was to be similar when the time arrived when I received no toys for Christmas. However, this was not a year to be concerned about such matters.
October ended, and the dreary days of November descended.
Other posts about Toronto’s Halloween celebrations of yesteryear :