Boomers Got Mischievous

The night before Halloween has been called by different names in different regions: Mischief Night, Hell Night and Devil’s Night, among them. It marks the time when (mostly) young boys, usually teen or pre-teen in age, would carry out pranks such as soaping windows, the toilet-papering of trees and homes or setting bags of feces on fire in front of a homeowner’s door — the “trick” in “trick or treat” — along with other acts of minor vandalism such as egging or smashing jack-o-lanterns.

Halloween is thought to have evolved from practices of the Druids thousands of years ago. Their year began on Samhain, which was November 1 and started with a festival the day before. Bonfires were set and crops and animals were sacrificed as a way of honoring the dead, who Druids believed returned to Earth for that night. Animal skins were worn as costumes in celebration of the first day of the new year and the coming of winter. When the Romans conquered the Celts in 43 A.D., the Roman harvest holiday of Feralia and Samhain were combined as a way of honoring the dead and celebrating the harvest. It is thought that apples became associated with Halloween through this connection.

The history of Mischief Night dates back to the late 1700s in England. Then, it was observed on November 4, the day before Guy Fawkes Night. You may recall that Guy Fawkes became involved in a plot to blow up the Parliament House in 1605, but was captured before he could ignite the fuse on the dozens of barrels of gunpowder placed in the basement by the conspirators. In subsequent years on the night before his arrest, citizens would mark the occasion by setting bonfires on what became known as Bonfire Night.

In the U.S. at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century, October 31 — Halloween night — was marked by acts of mischief, presumably carried over from traditions practiced by the wave of Scottish and Irish immigrants in the late 1800s. By the time of the Great Depression in the 1930s, relatively harmless pranks had become increasingly violent toward people and damaging to property. In order to reduce the incidences of vandalism, it was suggested that children be “bribed” with candy on that night, thereby adding the “treat” to the “trick or treat” tradition of door-to-door begging in costume. It caught on and has evolved to the Halloween we see today.

In boomer times, practices on Mischief Night, which by then was observed the evening before Halloween, were regional in nature. In some areas, boomers would merely ring doorbells and run away, or toss toilet paper over houses or onto tree branches. In others, egging houses, cars, buses and occasionally, other kids, were popular. Mister Boomer’s neighborhood tended to take a walk on the mild side. On one particular night, a pre-teen Mister B recalls heading out with his brother and the neighborhood boys for an evening of wandering, pretty much like many other nights. Unbeknownst to Mister B, one boy had a couple of firecrackers that he had probably saved from the Fourth of July, and another boy had a bar of soap. As the group walked around, a plot was hatched to have one boy light a firecracker on a house porch and another would ring the doorbell while everyone ran away. Mister B was safely hidden behind a car a few houses away, along with several others. The plot failed as the firecracker went off before the homeowner answered the door. After the bang, a man flipped his porch light on, opened his front door, and, not observing anything, closed the door and shut the light.

As the boys walked, they came upon a group who were toilet-papering a tree. It was a cold, wet night, and the participants were having a hard time tossing the roll just so it would festoon over a branch and drop back down. Instead, the paper tore on the wet branches and shredded in the wind, making a mess of it. A little further on, they encountered a car that had been egged. Mister B was appalled at the scene, since he believed the urban legend that eggs could damage or even remove paint from the vehicle. That just seemed to be a senseless waste and unfair to the car owner. While boys debated whether egg would in fact remove paint, they wandered on through the night.

A few blocks later, one of the boys remarked that the boy with the bar of soap had stopped behind the group. He was diligently marking the windshield of a car. The usual method of soaping was a few scribbles on a house window, or a line drawn on side windows of a car as one walked by. Mister B, though never having participated in the practice himself, thought this one of the more harmless pranks because, unlike wax, the soap could be easily removed with water. In this case, for some reason the boy decided he wanted to completely cover every inch of the windshield. The boys scattered as a tall figure was observed in the dark on the porch of the house where the car was parked. One of the boys tried to warn the soaper with his best “stage whisper,” but he was too absorbed in his work to pay any attention. As he finished, he let out a giggle of glee. It was then the silhouetted figure spoke. “Have you had your fun?” the man said. The boy stood in silence. “Good,” he added, “Now tomorrow you’ll be coming over to clean it.” “Yes, sir,” was the muted response.

Therein lies a difference between young boomers and the generations that followed. The night became quite violent in later years in some parts of the country, escalating to arson in areas such as Detroit, Michigan and Camden, New Jersey. Yet here was a boy in the mid-1960s, caught in the act, who first of all respected his elder in his speech, and secondly, voluntarily returned to the house the next day to wash off the soap he had worked so hard to layer on that windshield.

What memories of Mischief Night do you recall, boomers?

Boomers on the Fourth of July

On the eve of the signing of the Declaration of Independence by Congress, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, about the day the document was to be signed. It was dated July 3, 1776:

I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.

After World War II ended in 1945, the country was in a celebratory mood. A great many former soldiers were married, and this continued for another twenty years, setting up what was to become the largest baby boom the country had ever seen. By the time the first boomers were old enough to play with matches, the country was a decade past the War. As the patriotic wave that had overcome the victorious nation continued in annual celebrations, fireworks were a regular part of the festivities. Many boomers have family photos of their fathers and uncles setting off Roman candles and fireworks in parks, vacant lots and backyards. It seemed only natural then, that boomers would follow suit, setting off firecrackers of their own as soon as they could get their hands on them.

 

 

The sale of fireworks are controlled by individual states. As for Mister Boomer’s experience, fireworks of all kinds were banned in his state, but not the neighboring state. Living only 30 miles from the state border, it was a short drive to the nearest fireworks stand, which was conveniently situated a few hundred feet from the border.

Mister B recalls making the ride with his father and brother, a straight drive down what used to be the main interstate highway before the freeways were built. Mister B’s father liked to set off Roman candles and small flying rockets in the neighborhood, but only occasionally and not on every July 4th.

By the time Brother Boomer got his first car, Mister B would ride with him down to the border crossing where his brother could purchase fireworks for himself. His taste tended toward the bigger firepower that the neighborhood kids all seemed to have: strings of lady fingers, M-80s and cherry bombs. It was less about the rocket’s red glare, and more about the bang.

Sparklers, however, were not initially banned in the state and were a big holiday winner among the younger set. Once the sun went down, kids would get a sparkler in each hand and run around in a circle or down the block, trailing the sparkling flame behind them. Several kids standing together would write in the air with the lighted stick, making fading letters or shapes against the night sky.

During the day, kids opened small packages of colored balls that resembled Trix cereal, colored red, yellow or blue. Hurling one of the little spheres to the sidewalk, it would pop like a cap. A bigger bang could be elicited by laying down a grouping of the spheres and smashing them with a rock or brick.

Meanwhile, neighborhood boys were setting up increasingly elaborate ways to bring on the snap, crackle and pop. Firecrackers were never used in Mister B’s neighborhood to harm animals, as in the stories that some boomers relate. Rather, the neighborhood boys enjoyed blowing up things like model airplanes, cars and boats, or the occasional head of one of their sisters’ dolls when they felt particularly sinister.

Mister B recalls one summer when Brother Boomer and his neighbor buddies reenacted scenes of the Robert Mitchum movie, Thunder Road. Laying down trails of lighter fluid and strategically placed lady fingers half-buried in the side of a small mound of dirt, model cars ran the gauntlet, only to meet their fate amidst the explosions and flames; boomer boy play at its pinnacle!

The larger, distinct kaboom of an M-80 or cherry bomb was heard around the neighborhood for a week before the holiday, and up to two weeks after. Fortunately, the kids in Mister B’s neighborhood were smart enough not to accept dares of holding a firecracker while it exploded, thus preventing major injury. Mister B stayed away from personally setting off firecrackers, instead living vicariously through his brother’s and neighbors’ actions.

Firecrackers were a part of the July 4th holiday experience for most boomers. It’s another example of how we were allowed to do things that today would be considered far too unsafe, often within the sight of our parents, and sometimes, as was the case with firecrackers, with the help of our fathers.

Happy Fourth, boomers! What firecracker experience does the Fourth evoke for you?