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?

When Autumn Leaves Start to Fall

When Mister Boomer was growing up in the 1950s and early ’60s, his parents’ front yard had the two biggest trees in the neighborhood sitting in the front of the house between the sidewalk and the street. The developer, who had built the houses in the early 1940s, most likely in anticipation of returning GIs, was smart enough to leave some mature trees on the block that were there long before the bulldozers arrived.

The trees provided ample and welcome shade all summer long, but as autumn came calling, they became the bane of the neighborhood. Bushels and bushels of leaves dropped from the trees, and with the help of a little wind laid a blanket of yellow, orange and brown halfway down the block. At any given time, the leaves would be past ankle deep anywhere on the property.

As was the case with most boomer households, the task of raking the leaves fell to the young boys. Boomer boys, however, were never content to just do a chore of any kind without trying to find some fun in the process. In the case of the leaves, piles became the goal: the bigger the piles, the better for jumping into. Mister Boomer and his brother worked at the epicenter of the leaf gathering, seeing as we lived beneath the biggest suppliers of the falling stuff. Consequently, the piles were often formed at the Boomer household, or in the street directly in front of the house.

Several of the neighborhood kids would work together to collect leaves in wooden bushel baskets that families had gotten from the produce market when they purchased apples, potatoes, green beans or cucumbers for canning. Like working a production line, they’d fill-and-dump, fill-and-dump bushels of leaves until the piles rose to the height of most of the boys. Then it was time to play.

Jumping into the piles was OK, but hardly provided the boys the thrill they were after. Readjusting the piles, they would construct a wall that stretched across the street; the boys had a bigger impact in mind. Getting their bicycles, they gathered at the top of the block, which happened to be a small hill, and zoomed down and through the wall. Leaves flew in the air every which way, much to the delight of the boys. Dozens would be stuck to their clothing, turning them into instant fall-leaf monsters.

By the time a few more satisfying runs were accomplished, a mother or two would step out on a porch and “suggest” that the boys rake the leaves as they were told. Grabbing rakes that had been haphazardly discarded, they then pushed the piles into mounds near the street curb. A quick match to a single leaf by one of the older boys would start a pile burning.

It was customary to burn piles of leaves then, with the blessing of the city. It was the common way to rid one’s yard of leaves. To this day, Mister Boomer can smell the burning leaves of his youth … and it smells like autumn.

A few years later, the city reversed the policy and banned burning in the street. Not long after that, a neighbor, who had long expressed contempt for the trees that had deposited such a huge biological layer on his property, took samples to the city. The trees were diagnosed as having been diseased. One fall day, Mister Boomer came home from school to find two massive stumps where the trees once stood. Mister Boomer’s mom told him the workers had counted the rings, and the trees were over 80 years old. It felt like an old friend had moved away, never to return.

What memories do falling leaves bring to you, boomers?