Posted by: Bill Tracy | October 3, 2010

October Splendor

For birds and men, October is a good month to travel.

-Loren Eiseley

Fall Lane

For those enamored of "driving aimlessly" I suggest country roads, open windows and fallen leaves. Politics courtesy of 1992.

If I could get my hands on the levers of time, I’d slow it down for this month, way down. October is the royalty in calendar’s court, and it deserves more than 31 days. No other month could be its equal. Given such control I would reduce time to half speed, maybe less. Surely, the splendor of October deserves to grace our lives for at least two months.

Hands down, the best memories of my childhood live in October. In 1956, I was nine years old, and I can’t imagine anything in this world better than being nine on an October day in the little Borough of Runnemede, New Jersey.

In early October, the school year holds its freshness. Its promise still tantalizes. By November, either academic disaster or the boredom of mediocrity will have set in. On the October morning, classes are still new, maybe even interesting – and no report cards have yet been issued! Parents believe it when you tell them you are doing well. They want to believe. October is good for them too!

Great Pumpkin

The Great Pumpkin watches over shoppers of the October bounty.

The relentless oppression of summer’s heat is past, brushed aside and gladly forgotten. The icy emptiness of winter does not yet steal into the nights. The midday sun is a warm caress on the cheek. It makes me look up and smile at the sky. Even an occasional “frost on the pumpkin” carries a cheeriness. Leafy trees visually serenade us in a way that spring flowers cannot match. Fading greens are giving way to bursts of brilliant red and yellow and orange against the deep blue autumn skies. This richness of color sparkles in young eyes. We pick up the most vividly colored leaves and press them into scrapbooks. In the 1950s, fallen leaves are raked into mounds and burned, always it seems, in late afternoon. Walking home from school the smell of those burning leaves imprints itself on the future; autumn cannot ever be the same without it.

With fanfare and great drama, new cars models are revealed. In the 1950s, October was the month when car companies introduced new models. Television ads hinted and titillated – the new Ford would be unlike any other ever seen. The ride of a new Chrysler model would turn the coarse roadways to marshmallow. For any male over six years of age, this was a major event. New cars AND the Baseball World Series all in one month! Life could not possibly be sweeter! (Well, we could hope to see the Phillies in the Series back then, but we knew better!)

1957 Chevrolet

The timeless 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air. I was there the day it was born.

In the rare conversation today where I convince someone I really am a prisoner of time, sometimes they are gracious enough to ask me – where would I go in time if I could make such a trip. The answer is easy, and it’s a day I recall today with amazing clarity. It’s the evening of Wednesday, October 17, 1956 in Runnemede. As soon as dinner (spaghetti and meatballs) is over on this chilly fall evening I run around the corner to Campbell Chevrolet on the Black Horse Pike. This is the introduction day for the new 1957 Chevrolet, a day never to be repeated in human history. For the past two weeks, the showroom windows have been whited out; no one is allowed in.

After dinner, it’s already dark outside. In the distance the showroom lights blaze with promise. I’ve brought my friends along, Scott Mutchler and Bobby Marino. We are stunned when we enter and see this vision of an automobile – FINS! Hood ornaments to take flight on their own. Cars have entered the jet age. A hidden gasoline filler cap we cannot find! We spend at least an hour going over every detail, staying as much as possible out of the way of adults who don’t seem quite as enthusiastic as we are. They don’t seem to understand this is the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air! I honestly believe the kids had more of an idea what a classic car this would become. The world and wisdom of kids! A glossy sales brochure secretly spirited out is read again and again late into this night.

Jersey Devil

A depiction of the infamous Jersey Devil, scourge of the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey. In my mind, it was a hideous combination of dragon, werewolf and pointy-tailed demon. Image from: http://animal.discovery.com/tv/lost-tapes/jersey-devil/ and Copyright Discovery Communications, LLC.

Sometimes October had a weekend of camping with the Boy Scouts. Sitting on a log, the campfire flames flicker in the faces of the other kids. Feeling the chill night air on our backs we tell spine-tingling stories – none more chilling than the Jersey Devil, a mythical monster none of us had ever seen, yet one we were sure existed and was lurking in the shadows just beyond the meager shelter of our tents. Surely, not all of us would survive this night. Huddled in sleeping bags and wool blankets in dark tents, it’s a long time before sleep comes for Scouts of Troop 117. When frosty morning finally brings light and safety from the night demons, hands are warmed as they wrap around steaming cups of hot chocolate. And talk is about how cold we know it got overnight. Surely we were heroes for surviving such hardship. The tales would be told again later, at home, to admiring and respectful families who would hold us in awe. And the Jersey Devil had been outfoxed one more time.

While every day of October has a dreamlike quality for kids, the big payoff comes at the end. I don’t care what Jean Shepherd said, Halloween was the pinnacle of the kid year, at least in those days. (For those unschooled in kidology, in his 1983 movie A Christmas Story, Shepherd says Christmas is “the holiday upon which the entire kid year revolved.” I disagree. For me, it’s October and Halloween.) Christmas was a great day, but October was a great month.

Halloween Night

I was in the house when I heard a child's voice on the sidewalk say, "NO, Mommy, I don't want to go up there. It's too scary." That's when I knew I had created an unforgettable October memory.

The whole month was full of pumpkins and candle-lit jack-o-lanterns on front steps and porches, the promise of spicy pumpkin pie, black and orange crepe paper festooning the stores, crisp ginger snaps, falling leaves, dangling cardboard skeletons in the classroom, costume choices, soaping car windows; oh, it seemed like the ecstasy knew no bounds! In Runnemede there was a kid festival down in the bank parking lot one evening, probably the night before Halloween. Apples were dunked for in big vats of icy cold water — no hands! (What would the county health department say about that today!) Costume prizes were awarded. There was candy all around. And the magic all happened in the chill of a dark evening in fall.

But Halloween day was the climax, the zenith, and the nadir not to be matched by any other day. Candy, glorious candy, all you wanted and all you ever dreamed for. And there was none of this nonsense about razor blades in apples and rat poisons injected into Clark bars. Parents felt no need to trail around after children for protection. Our community protected us.

Living Dead

The living dead make their way to ravage PumpkinLand.

Unless we were lucky enough to have Halloween fall on Saturday, I took my costume to school. There were Halloween classroom activities in the afternoon, some costume judging, candy exchanges, etc. Nice, but just the warm-ups for the main event. The very second school was out, I was on the streets and knocking on doors – “Trick or Treat” indeed! I worked my way along the east side of town, house-to-house from Evesham Ave. on the south end to 11th Ave. on the north end. By then it was time for dinner, and I was home. I got that out of the way as quickly as family allowed, hid my cache in a secret place, grabbed a couple of new grocery bags and headed out to work the west side. From Smith Lane on the north end, back to Evesham on the south, the west side got taken for as much loot as could be had. The big goal was to get to the Gardner Funeral Home before they ran out of the day’s grand prize – the brilliant red glaze of the candy apple. I understand they still hand them out today – and I’ll bet there is still a long line. Finally, after every door had been opened and every treat bagged, I would trudge home to revel in enough candy to pay a year’s tuition at a good dental school! Tomorrow would be November, but for tonight, sweet October lingered and I relished the afterglow.

Ghost Ship

A ghost ship plies a pond somewhere in the Midwest on an early October morning.

Welcome to October. Welcome to my very favorite time of year. I hope you’ll slow down long enough to savor its delights and every ounce of its splendor. If you do, maybe we can make it last just a little longer this year.


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Christmas Tree Farm

Autumn provides a suggestion of color to a Christmas tree farm near Leesburg, VA.

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Responses

  1. What a beautiful and fun-filled song of praise for this wonderful month! I remember everything you wrote about, especially the smell of burning leaves, as heady as any incense. One of the best aspects of Halloween was that it belonged to us kids completely, no parents needed. We made up our own costumes and wandered the night completely unsupervised. Or so we believed. For I’m sure that if any misfortune were to visit us in our trick-or-treating, somebody’s mom or dad would be there to help us out.

  2. I LOVE Halloween! If we all keep blogging about it like this for our friends and community, maybe we can bring that childhood joy to the next generation.

  3. I wish I had written this posting. I remember the whited-out windows on Campbell Chevrolet’s building and the waiting to see the new Chevy. My dad and I would walk down there to view the new cars when they came out.

    And, yes, the best “gift” on Halloween was the apple taffy, or is it taffy apple from Gardners.

    Good post. Thanks for the memories.


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