Sunday, November 9, 2008

Days of Spooky Halloween Fun, Carnivals Have Faded

I've always loved Halloween.

I still remember my favorite house for trick-or-treating. Barbara Coker always put together goodie bags full of homemade treats: popcorn balls, those no-bake oatmeal cookies that transcended fudginess and Toll House cookies at a time when store-bought chocolate chips were still a novelty. Now that I think of it, I may borrow a child and swing by her house tonight.

I miss elementary school Halloween carnivals. One of the high points of my grade-school days was the year our class at Enota hosted the haunted house. Back then there were no euphemisms. It wasn't a fall festival. It wasn't an autumn extravaganza. It was a Halloween carnival. We all wore our costumes to school and they weren't limited to story-book characters.

Game tickets were a nickel each and every classroom hosted a different game. There was the beanbag toss and the cake walk. There was the fishing game, where a line with a clothespin on the end was dropped behind a curtain. There'd be a tug and when you reeled it back in there would be a cool toy, like a Chinese finger trap or one of those BB puzzles clipped to the end.

The very best venue of all was the haunted house. The desks were pushed off to the side and covered with black garbage bags. There were spooky black lights and, as you moved through the labyrinth, scary creatures would jump out at every turn. One or two little kids always wet their pants. One year, I was one of them.

My father was the werewolf. He bought a rubber mask from a costume shop in Atlanta, tattered up some old clothes and glued fake werewolf hair all over his neck and hands. He leapt around and made scary howling noises. I was so proud of him.

Tommy West, who went on to coaching fame at Clemson and Memphis was, for that night at least, the son of Frankenstein. His dad was taller than all the other fathers and, with his blank stare, lurching walk and bolts on the sides of his neck, he gave Lon Chaney Jr. a run for his money.

Sadly, my children have never attended a Halloween carnival. Granted, they've been to corn mazes, pumpkin farms, a fall festival where the principal kissed a pig and any number of Renaissance festivals.

But somewhere along the line somebody decided to do away with the Halloween carnival.

Maybe it happened when rumors started circulating about razor blades in apples and hospitals started offering to X-ray trick-or-treat goodies. Maybe it was when costumes became more gory than imaginative and all you needed was a hockey mask, a bottle of ketchup and a machete to be fully costumed.

At least our girls got to experience trick-or-treating. Our neighborhood used to be a grand one for that activity. Each house seemed to have more elaborate decorations and better treats than the last.

One young couple underestimated the amount of candy that was required and ended up handing out wax-covered discs of gouda cheese to the last few goblins who came around.

Drew and Susan Thomas would always have some sort of surprise on their porch. One time they rigged it up so a disembodied hand would skitter across the railing whenever anyone came up the steps. But by last year all of their boys were off at college and the porch was dark.

Now 14, our youngest is a little long in the tooth for trick-or-treating. Most of the kids from our neighborhood are grown, gone and thinking of starting families of their own. Since 2006 we haven't had a single trick-or-treater.

Just as Halloween celebrations have waned, I hope they will someday wax. Perhaps by the time I'm a grandmother, there'll be a resurgence of Halloween carnivals. I'll be the first to sign up for haunted house duty. After all, I already have the werewolf mask.

Originally published in the Gainesville Times, October 31, 2008

Warning: Hamster for External Use Only

I think I was about 9 when I got my first hamster.

Every Saturday morning, my mother and I would go to downtown Gainesville. I'd try to sit patiently while she had her hair "done." That involved washing, rolling on plastic rollers and then sitting under one of those hooded dryers for about half a day. Then there would be lots of teasing with a rat-tail comb and liberal application of hairspray. So much hairspray that I'm pretty sure I know what really happened to the ozone layer.

While all these ministrations were taking place, I'd read Highlights magazine, finding the hidden pictures on the back page and learning proper etiquette from Goofus and Gallant. I knew if I'd just bide my time, there would be a payoff.

Lunch was at the counter at Woolworth's. The entrees were fairly average. It was the dessert menu that kept us coming back. To this day, I've never had a banana split that comes close to matching theirs.

After lunch, I'd drag my mother down the wide stairs to the basement and the pet department. There were colorful parakeets and delicate canaries. There was tank after tank of silvery guppies and graceful angelfish.

This was back before folks knew they were flirting with death by purchasing those tiny salmonella-laden turtles. I owned a couple of them myself and lived to tell about it. I guess it just wasn't my time to go.

What fascinated me most were the hamsters. They were just so cute and personable as they went about the business of stuffing their little cheeks full of pellets and running industriously on their wheels. Every Saturday, I'd beg for one, and every Saturday my mother would say she'd think about it.

Then finally there came that magical day when all the planets lined up properly. I started my usual plea, prefaced by, "I'll take care of him all by myself, I promise I will" and, wonder of wonders, my mother said yes. Just like that.

I had Stanley for a couple of years. He lived in a little wire cage on my desk. Each night, I was lulled to sleep by the whirr of his exercise wheel and the scent of cedar shavings.

So what has made me so nostalgic about hamsters? Recently the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report advising families with children younger than 5 to avoid owning "nontraditional" pets such as hedgehogs, hamsters, baby chicks, lizards and turtles. Advice that sounded like common sense to me was apparently big news. I read it here in The Times, saw another item on CNN's Web site, even caught a mention of it on "Good Morning America."

So are there really parents out there who give baby chicks to toddlers who will put anything in their mouths that won't fit up their nostrils? And even if they are that clueless surely there's someone in their life who has the good sense to say, "Bernice, have you lost your mind? That Komodo dragon is gonna make lunchmeat out of little Travis."

I guess not. More and more we are officially reminded of things we ought to know already. We see it in press releases and on labels and stickers on packaging. Apparently whoever writes these caveats considers the shopping public a special kind of ignorant. Or, more likely, potentially litigious. They've taken CYK (Cover Your Keister) to a whole new level.

I think it all started when an elderly lady in Albuquerque upended a cup of McDonald's coffee in her lap. Since gravity works all and not just some of the time, she wound up with serious burns, sued the fast-food emporium for damages and ended up with a $2.86 million award (which was later significantly reduced.) Now coffee cups all bear the notice: "Warning - Coffee is HOT." Well, I would certainly hope so.

Consider these actual warnings that have been found on consumer products:

"For external use only" - on a curling iron.

"Caution: Remove infant before folding for storage" - on a portable stroller.

And my all-time favorite: "Wearing of this garment does not enable you to fly" - on a child sized Superman costume.

In the words of my idol, Harris Blackwood, "You just can't make this stuff up."

The codicil to those words of wisdom was provided by comedian Ron White when he said, "You can't fix stupid."

No, but you can try. I guess that's what press releases are for.

Originally published in The Gainesville Times, October 16, 2008

Pass Along Love of Reading at Readathon

I grew up in a family that loved to read. We received the Atlanta Constitution in the morning and the Daily Times in the afternoon. For decades my parents maintained subscriptions to Time, Reader's Digest, National Geographic, Life and Look Magazines.

When I was 6, they dug deep into their pockets to buy a set of World Book encyclopedias. When my daughter started school I dug equally deep to buy a home computer. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

One of my earliest memories is of listening to my father read bedtime stories. That nightly ritual went on for years. He had a soothing, expressive voice that would bring "Black Beauty," "Ivanhoe" and "A Little Princess" to life.

For my fourth birthday, I was given a subscription to "Best in Children's Books," sort of the elementary school version of "Reader's Digest Condensed Books." Each month I'd receive a couple of volumes in the mail. Mail is a big deal when you're 4. Over several years, I accumulated dozens of these anthologies. My mother gave them away when I was in high school. By then, I was far too cool to let my disappointment show.

About a decade ago, I was at one of Brenau University's used book sales. I spotted a weathered copy of one of the "Best in Children's Books" and picked it up. I felt like I'd stepped back in time when I saw the laboriously printed "Teressa Hamrick" on the first page.

Today, when I look at my daughters, I can see bits of my parents. One girl has my mother's flawless Irish complexion. The other has my father's laugh. And they both love to read.

When I became a mother, I vowed to remember the word "no." I would not give in to every plea for the latest video game or Barbie jeep or yet another doll. At the same time, I vowed to never say no to books. One of the resources that has helped me keep that promise is Hall Book Exchange.

It was started 25 years ago by Mary and Mac McKenzie. They parlayed Mary's enormous collection of romance novels into a used bookstore where customers can trade in their own volumes for credit toward other books. The idea was as simple as it was brilliant. There hasn't been a moment since 1983 that I've been without one of their credits in my wallet.

These credits ensured that our daughter, Rachel, read not only "The Wizard of Oz" but all of the other L. Frank Baum books as well.

They were a lifesaver as our Molly worked her way to a bachelor's degree in English.

I'm partial to their books on cassette and CD. I've listened to a lot of books I would never find time to read.

Mary and Mac are gone now but their torch is ably carried by Myra Meade, who bought the shop seven years ago.

To celebrate the shop's silver anniversary, she's holding a Readathon. For 24 hours on Oct. 17-18, there will be nonstop reading going on, with every penny of the proceeds going to the Gainesville/Hall County Alliance for Literacy. Readers are asked to collect pledges at the rate of $10 for each hour of reading. There will be local authors reading from their works and autographing books. They are donating their proceeds as well.

There will be snacks and coffee, children's bedtime stories and a morning stretch. Our girls will be reading children's stories. Rachel will be reading one of her favorites, Carmen Agra Deedy's "Martina the Beautiful Cockroach," in full cockroach costume. And you moms out there know how difficult it is to come up with a cockroach costume.

We've all seen the bumper sticker: "If you can read this, thank a teacher." I do thank them with all my heart. Here's a shout out to Marie Bennett, Louise Adams and Louise Davis, wherever you dear ladies are.

I thank James and Lee Hamrick for giving me an appreciation of the written word and Hall Book Exchange for helping me pass that appreciation on to the next generation. To show my gratitude, I'll be at Hall Book Exchange on Oct. 17 reading from (what else?) that "Best in Children's Book" from long ago.

Originally published in the Gainesville Times, Oct.2, 2008