Posted By: Susan Rooke
Posted on: October 20, 2016 4:39 PM
It was the early 1960s. In another year or two, my father would go into a San Antonio hospital and never come out. But that Halloween he was still himself, healthy so far as I could tell, though I later realized that wasn’t true. I was very young. It’s the last Halloween I can remember with him.
My father was born in 1892; this past July 11th would have been his 124th birthday. That should make me about 95, but I’m his last child, born to his young wife when he was already past middle age. I’ve always heard that in some ways he was a hardnose. As the much indulged child of his later years, I never witnessed that side of him.
It appears that we’re wearing matching outfits. I would guess my mother is to blame for that.
By the time I came on the scene, he was retired from the army as a general, and of course that’s not a position that indecisive softies typically hold. He liked to call himself Iron Pants, and the motto he lived by, and which he repeated to me every time I was ill or injured, was “Mind Over Matter.” His faith in the power of the mind to triumph over the body was unshakeable, and he wanted me to share that faith. And so he preached to me, but not in a hardnosed way—in an encouraging way. He wanted me to grow up strong. In some ways his strategy worked. I’ve been known to call myself Iron Pants Jr., but it’s really more like Iron Pants Lite. And it seems that the older I get, the flimsier the Pants get.
But my father was a man of sharp contrasts. For instance, his feelings could be easily hurt. One day my mother walked into the bathroom to find him scrutinizing himself in the mirror, looking very concerned. She asked him what the matter was. An enlisted man had cussed him out, he told her—called him a “white-haired old sonofabitch.”
She tried to soothe him, assure him that the man was wrong. But the “sonofabitch” wasn’t what worried him; it was the other part.
“Do I really have white hair?” he asked her.
The contradictions didn’t end with his tender feelings. Inside Iron Pants lived a germaphobe, known to touch doorknobs with Kleenex, and a man with a strong belief in mysticism and the occult: séances, spiritualism, clairvoyance, ESP—even UFOs. Mixed in with all these traits was his certainty in the Golden Rule. From the time I was very small, he stressed to me its importance. There are variations, but here’s the way I learned to say it: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Oh, Daddy. *sigh* You know now that not everyone puts as much stock in that saying as you did, right?
In particular, it was his trust in the Golden Rule that does a lot to explain the mistakes that were made on that last Halloween.
The pumpkin wasn’t one of them. It was magnificent—a showstopper. That thing was a monster: about 20 inches tall, spherical and shapely, bright orange. A Martha Stewart pumpkin ahead of its time. Somehow, on the afternoon of Halloween day, my father got it in the house and onto the kitchen table, which had been covered with newspaper. My mother, at least one of my brothers, and I gathered around to watch as he cut out the stem, then gutted the pumpkin like a big, orange fish.
Soon after he started, I asked for my turn with the knife. He made it look so easy. Why couldn’t I give it a shot? I was the only one who thought it was a good idea, though, and that was probably for the best.
With great precision and attention to symmetry, he carved its face. (I have neglected to mention that my father was an engineer.) At last it was ready for its candlelit debut.
Transporting it out to the curb was like setting up an art installation. It had to be arranged just so on our street corner (we had part of a block all to ourselves), catty-corner to—and quite a ways from— our front door. This was deliberate. Because it developed that creating a stunning jack-o’-lantern to commemorate Halloween was not the point of the exercise. The point was to keep trick-or-treaters from ringing our doorbell. The pumpkin’s light would pierce the darkness like a beacon, acting as advertising. The trick-or-treaters would flock to it, and there at its base they would find a huge bowl filled with candies. (My father had no problem spending money on candy. He had a ferocious sweet tooth.)
He expected that they would help themselves then to a few packs of M&Ms or Tootsie Rolls, or whatever. He even put up a sign directing trick-or-treaters to do that very thing. Just in case any of them wouldn’t know what to do. *sigh* again.
We all know how this ends, don’t we?
For several minutes after placing the pumpkin, we stood admiring it as dusk fell. What a great, glowing beast of a jack-o’-lantern it was. Then we trooped back up to the house, and that was the last time we saw any of that candy.
We do know that the first ones to the bowl got it all. My father, pleased with the success of his idea, nevertheless went to check on things after we saw the first trick-or-treaters leave the pumpkin. They had taken rather a long time to choose their candy.
It certainly doesn’t follow the precepts of the Golden Rule to wish tooth decay and painful stomachaches on those kids. But that’s just what he did.
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