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Smoke 'Em If You've Got 'Em (a Halloween Story)

Today, I'm sharing an oldie but a goodie (as my dad used to say) from my first book, A Year In Words. It's a story of suspense, intrigue, and of course, juvenile Halloween stupidity. Enjoy!

It was the usual suspects: a cowboy, a firefighter, a doctor and a football player, among others. No, it wasn’t a Village People re­union. It was the annual Halloween party of the Fightin’ 43rd Cub Scout Pack from Saint Henry’s Catholic School circa 1973.

We had gathered at a fellow Cub’s home for an evening of candy, organized games, bathroom humor, scary stories, hot dogs and Kool-Aid. By the end of the night, we were a dozen Cubs with Kool-Aid mustaches and sugar buzzes.

And one puker on a tobacco jag.

My best friend/cousin Mike and I made a grand entrance, dressed respectively as Ollie (the “bad” ghost/nemesis in the Casper the Friendly Ghost cartoon) and Beetle Bailey (the namesake of the popular military comic strip a the time). My costume came courtesy of my older brother, Mark, who after returning from the Army in the early ’70s, left all his government-issued apparel at our house. For Beetle’s bulbous nose, my mom cut a plastic golf ball in half, painted it flesh colored and used string to secure it so it wouldn’t slide off.

Mike’s costume consisted of a sheet with three holes—two for the eyes and one for the mouth—the name Ollie written in Magic Marker on his chest (because if you didn’t specify, he could be mistaken for any other run-of-the-mill ghost or a junior member of the KKK), a fedora and Ollie’s signature cigar.

We were all pumped to get the party started. And with the festivities falling on a school night, efficiency would be paramount. At 7:00 p.m. sharp we dug in, starting the night with relay races, always a big hit when a bunch of boys get together.

Next came the backyard candy hunt. We broke into teams and used flashlights to find as many sugar bombs as we could. Each team got to keep what it found, and the team with the most candy got a special prize, which as I recall, was just more candy.

With my deep Army fatigue pockets perfect for collecting massive quantities of candy, loose change or anything smaller than a sub sandwich, I was the first draft choice, a role I did not take lightly. Mike was on my team because he had neither pock­ets (an occupational hazard of such a costume) nor a bag for his loot. But he did have a good work ethic, a lot of team spirit, a nifty fedora and a real-live stogie.

After the hunt (our team won), we ate hot dogs and guzzled Kool-Aid, reveling in victory and our choice in costumes. I was the perfect Beetle Bailey, a man of few words but always man­aging to be the center of attention. Mike played his role equally well, tipping his hat and making smart aleck remarks (a talent he has honed over the years and still possesses today), chewing on his cigar in true Ollie fashion. (Remember that part; it’ll rear its ugly head later.)

After hot dogs and Kool-Aid, it was time for scary stories. You know the kind. Somebody turns off the lights and tells a tale about the couple whose car stalls on a dark road, and some guy stops to help them. It’s cold and rainy (because scary stories never happen on beautiful warm summer afternoons), and as luck would have it for these two lovebirds, the guy turns out to be an axe murderer. Frankly, I usually lost interest about 30 seconds into these things, so I really don’t know the plot lines very well.

Anyway, during the story, we passed around an assortment of mushy, bumpy, slimy food items. Spaghetti is presented (in the dark) as the victim’s guts, Jell-O is brains, grapes are the eyes (or, I guess, the kidney stones or something like that). Anyway, it’s all in good fun, right?

As we wrapped up the scary stories and the lights came on, I noticed Mike leaning against the wall. He didn’t look right. He was sweating through his sheet, revealing his brown and orange plaid shirt. This wasn’t the Ollie I knew. Something was up.

Me: “Hey, what’s going on?”

Mike: “I dunno know. I feel kinda dizzy . . . and I think I’m gonna be sick.”

Me: “Hmm . . . well, maybe you should take off that sheet so you don’t puke all over your costume. Hey, I wonder if there’s any Kool-Aid left. Ooh, cookies!” (Distracted by more important issues than my cousin’s health, I exit stage left.)

Mike: “Ugh . . . ugh . . . ” (gurgling sound)

Then, it happened. The good news is, Mike was able to re­move the sheet before he hurled his Halloween candy, hot dogs and Kool-Aid all over himself and the floor. The bad news? He scored a direct hit on his snappy new suede Hush Puppies.

So, what caused this sudden onset of nausea? Well, I guess it’s not too hard to understand when you realize that cigars (even unlit ones) and nine-year-olds are rarely an ideal combination.

Although instructed by his folks that he was to simply hold the Tipparillo or White Owl or Belvedere or Hardcastle or whatever cheap brand of cigar he was given, Mike thought it would be more authentic—and apparently more Ollie— to put the cigar in his mouth, thinking—as any nine-year-old boy would in that situation—“Hey, it’s wrapped in plastic. What could go wrong?”

Now, that theory is great until you accidentally bite through the plastic (which he did) letting the robust tobacco flavor and its accompanying buzz creep into your system. Obviously, the hot dogs and candy playing a supporting role in the experience. I’m just glad he didn’t quietly hurl during the “lights-out/scary stories” portion of the evening. Who knows what we would have been passing around then?

Suddenly, I felt like we were in one of those psychedelic ep­isodes of the old cop series, Dragnet, where Sgt. Joe Friday goes on one of his signature rants because some hippie he’s encountered is zoned out on grass or Mickies or speed.

(The following scene should be read aloud, in a rapid monotone voice, a la Joe Friday.)

JF: “So, you think you’re makin’ the scene, don’t ya? You and your pill-poppin’ friends, with your fancy hat, scary stories, candy jags and your Kool-Aid. Sure, you’re a real cool customer aren’t you Charlie?” (Or Ollie, in this case.)

(Now envision Friday getting right down in Mike’s face, his voice a determined whisper, his pointed finger not a half-inch from Mike’s nose.)

JF: “Well, let me tell you somethin’ mister. You might think you can go through life under that white sheet, swingin’ it with the hippies, the junkies and the mods. But I got news for you, street urchin. You’d better straighten up and fly right or you’ll find yourself under another sheet, but this one comes with a toe tag. That’s right, Bogart. You and your cigar and your fancy fe­dora and your hippie Hush Puppies might make it out there for a while, but sooner or later, those mean streets will gobble you up. And if they don’t, you’ll do it to yourself. Now if that’s what you want, you just go ahead and puff those Belvederes, but for me, I’m giving you one chance; one opportunity to stay off Skid Row and join the rest of us . . . in the real world.”

(Now comes the “good cop,” as Friday’s tone softens.)

JF: “Because it’s not so bad out here kid. Whaddaya say? C’mon and join us, where life is good. Sure, we might be squares. But we wake up every morning to the bright sunshine on our faces, and we go to bed at night knowing we put in an honest day’s work.”

In the show, this is where Mike’s character would simply stare at Friday through a drug-induced haze, quietly realizing the error of his ways, and then we’d cut to commercial.

Well, it didn’t quite go down like that, although Joe Friday and Bill Gannon (Friday’s trusty sidekick) would have been the hit of the party had they shown up, and likely would have won the costume contest.

After all was said and done, Mike went home to recoup and by the next day, he was his old self again. Luckily, he was able to kick his one-hour tobacco addiction cold turkey. Come to think of it, cold turkey might have been what we used for the gall bladder in the scary stories.

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