Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The night that changed my life.

Well, one of the many nights that changed my life.

And one of the most memorable.

Recall that picture of the L.A. Dodgers baseball-shaped AM radio?

Here's the story I promised in that post.

No, I didn't come close to death and then suddenly pull away from The Light and breathe again with a new outlook on life, a new tenderness toward my fellow man.

I was not visited by three Ghosts.

Well... sort of.


If I may quote Sophia Petrillo:

'Picture it -- Las Vegas, October, 1975 -- and Hallowe'en was in the air!'

Mom had just finished a two week run of performances with her sisters and Andy Williams, as they did many times a year in those days.

We were packing up, getting ready to drive back home to the San Fernando Valley... and man! did my arm itch!

I kept digging at it, and by the time we were halfway to Barstow and my chest and neck were searing and itchy, my mother had officially diagnosed me:

Chicken pox. 

I was just seven years old.

Oh, it wasn't the itching that was bothering me. Not as bad as I probably made it seem, anyway.

No, what was terrible was that I had just come down with it and knew it meant at least two weeks of fevery, irritated, Calamine-soaked convalescence... and Hallowe'en was only a week away.

Yes, friends. Your humble pubkeep was going to MISS OUT ON HALLOWE'EN.

Me, the Monster Hallowe'en Lovin'est Kid of the Ages, was going to be sick for Hallowe'en.

I was a seven-year-old questioning the fairness and even the existence of a God who would let such a monstrous thing come to pass. I was mad, and surly, and itchy and ill, and put out in the way only a truly bent out of shape child can be.

For the next week, things were not pretty.

Well... okay, it wasn't really that bad. Fact is, I was honestly too sick for a few days to even care -- the itching was still terrible but the novelty of it had worn off in bleeding sores and it was the fever that was making me so sick. I couldn't do much more than groan and drink fluids and sleep.

So I wasn't really up to acting up.

But once the worst of it was over, the realization returned -- no Hallowe'en.

Now, you've read the posts about my Grandmother's house, right? So you know what it meant for me to be there on the 31st, and what it meant to know I wasn't going to be. 

I was dead inside.

Well, odd as it may seem, even in the face of The Great Disappointment I could not stay entirely miserable.

Sure, tagging along with my mom as we drove my brothers to Gramma's house was probably a lousy idea; the drive back was indeed miserable. My older sister Julie stayed with us, rather than go to Gram's, which seemed like a kind thing to do for me but I was baffled that she'd choose to miss out.

My baby sisters were far too little for any of it.

Still, it wasn't all bad.

For one thing, I got to dress up, sort of. Mom let me slick my hair back, and use one of my blankets as a cape, and put in some good ol' vampire teeth. You know the kind...
Mine didn't glow in the dark but this picture looked better than the others.

Another questionable move that at first seemed like a good idea was helping hand out treats (with a vampiric laugh or two) to neighborhood kids. Not that I was really contagious anymore -- it was the ten minutes it took to realize I was missing out on the Big Night that burned me. By the dozenth knock and shout of "Trick or treeaat!" I was a broken man.

My fever had returned, my itchiness inflamed, my face was hot with tears, and it was only 6:30 pm. 

Would the torment go on forever?

"Alright," said Mom. "You're miserable. Hot bath time."

The last time I visited that house, I couldn't help but notice how tiny the bathtub was. Back when I was seven and despairing, it seemed enormous, cold, clinical, deep and intimidating.

But at least I was finally letting it all out. I was crying, itching, soaking, and just plain sad.

"It's not fair," I'd repeat. "I like Hallowe'en more than anybody! It's not fair!"

But my mom was... well, my mom. Mom had (and still has) a talent for putting certain things in perspective in a way that sneaks up and makes sense. While I could still hear knocks and laughs and neighborhood fun beyond the bathroom window, I listened to her, and while I may not recall all of the wording precisely, I will never forget the message she conveyed.

"You know, Mike, of all my kids you do love the monsters and the spooky things the most, I don't know why. All of you kids do but you most. I know you think you're missing out. But listen to the kids outside --"

I did.

" -- and tell me you'd rather be outside with them."

"No," I admitted, "I don't really want to be with them, I just want to be at Gram's house putting on the show."

"Exactly. You're not sad because you're not out trick-or-treating, you're sad because you think you've missed out on the part you love most -- dressing up and putting on the show. Well, you got to dress up at least."

I had to agree.

"And you got to put on a show of your own."

"Well, not really. I mean they all knew it was me talking scary and everything."

"Yes but it's still your show, right? Even being sick couldn't keep you from getting into some kind of fun for some length of time."

I soaked, listened.

"You know, you can have Hallowe'en everyday if you want. As far as I'm concerned that's what you do most of the year anyway, with your toys and models and books and everything. You can choose to feel this all the year round. And no sickness can take it away. Now rinse up and let's watch some specials on TV or something."

After I got into my pj's, Mom and Dad made us all some popcorn, and with the remainder of the Hallowe'en candy, we sat down to watch a made-for-TV movie called The Night That Panicked America, a docudrama about Orson Welles' infamous War of the Worlds radiocast of 1938. I had never heard anything about this historic event, and found myself truly enthralled with the idea, the technology, the pure gas of scaring millions of people at once with a microphone, a sound effects table, and a good spooky tale.

I watched the entire film completely entranced, and at some point I became aware that I was, in effect, going behind the scenes to put on the show for Hallowe'en; that I was a part of the display, the magic of the scare and the fun, and I was in on the knowledge of how to do it.

This was a revelation. From here on out, I was going to be in on the haunting, even if I had to build it myself.

By the time the cast had realized it was just a radio play, I was curious.

"Dad? You were born when?"

"Nineteen and Twenty Four."

"And this was on the radio in 1938?"

"Yessir," he nodded, knowing exactly where I was going with it.

"So did you hear it?"

Dad smiled, put down his crossword and lit another cigarette. "Well, it wasn't on the 31st like the movie says; it was actually done the night before Hallowe'en. I was almost 14 years old and spending the night at a pal's house a few blocks from where your grandparents and I lived in Indiana..."

As he told me his own tale of this until-tonight-never-even-heard-of epic event, I began to realize with great pride that I was somehow connected, however tenuously, to one of the best Hallowe'en pranks ever pulled, and even my Dad, the master jack o'lantern carver himself, had to give it to those radio guys for pulling it off.

These were heady, powerful revelations, folks. A kid thinking like a grown up about what was now fully solidified in my mind and soul as The Most Important Night of the Year.

Oh, there was plenty more to that night. I recall pieces of Nosferatu on PBS, but after such a long night of emotional downs and ups, I was tired. Dead to the bone, getting-over-an-illness, rescuing-from-disappointment tired.

My sister allowed that I could go to sleep in her room that night before everyone else came home from Gram's.

This was just cool because, well, being a younger sibling getting to hang in your older siblings' space is a big deal.

As a mild SoCal windstorm picked up outside, coaxing the fingers of drying branches to scratch the windows and shingles, I drifted in and out of sleep in the orange dimness of (I think it was) a Woody Woodpecker night light, sort of like this only with glitter in the plastic and the eyes and beak weren't painted:

... listening to the wind and the quiet raucus of mid-'70s pop on that little baseball shaped radio on the bedpost beside my ear...
Fly, Robin Fly, If You Leave Me Now, Could This Be The Magic?

... and as I lay there in a perfect mid-sleep state, I realized one more thing.

Rather than miss Hallowe'en, I had just experienced the first truly meaningful Hallowe'en of my young life. I had faced a sadness, met it, and dealt with it. I had learned so many things about myself and about Hallowe'en night.

And I was never, ever going to let another one get by me.

Strange, but as I neared real sleep I could hear children running, laughing, down the street. It couldn't have been, because it was well past 11 pm and there was no more trick-or-treating going on, but I heard them just the same.  
Maybe it was that wind (as I like to think, a sour-sweet Grinch Night wind). Hallowe'en was still playing itself out, all around me.

Soon, I could also hear the hushed-but-too-loud-whispering voices of my brothers as they returned home, sharing tales of scaring glory, of the best masks and the funniest lines from the Dr. Insano balcony show.

Sure, I could've felt jealous.
But then I realized something else. Soon, I was going to be the happy, healthy one having all the fun.

They were all going to come down with chicken pox in another week.



  1. Great story! And such a wonderful memory.

  2. I stayed because it was way sad for you to be home alone (Jen and Bets didn't count).
    The radio was a gift from Kaye Ballard that was given to me at NBC studios, right outside of the big double doors where you go in for the Tonight Show. I have no memory of what show Mom was doing, but I do recall that Kaye asked if I liked music and would I want my own radio... and then, without even asking Mom, SHE GAVE IT TO ME. For my very own, not having to share with any of you, not having to let Dad or Mom "keep it safe for me" (which, as a parent, I realize now was probably always a better choice).
    And, yes, Dad telling the story of his experience with "War of the Worlds" was amazing. Funny and sweet- and in my memory, was co-written by Ray Bradbury.
    We were blessed.

  3. Well, you were truly blessed.
    And its clear from your story how your life was started on its path to what you are doing today.
    Its always amazing to me how sometimes people discover their meaning in life. Even more amazing to me that you can identify Halloween 1975 as one of those turning points.
    Thank you for sharing your story.


    I wish I had known you when I was doing my "Hallowe'en Memories" series on my blog last October!

    This was absolutely wonderful! Thanks so much for taking the time to share this!

  5. Thank you Shellhawk, I loved reading all of the memories on your blog. It's a great blog, not least because I'm a SoCal boy who was also an Adam & the Ants fan in the '80s!