On most mid-century days, the suburban streets of my childhood were filled by a legion of door to door salesmen trafficking in fantasy.
The pavement belonged to this endless parade of post war peddlers, their sample cases bulging with promises for a brighter, cleaner, more attractive future for you and your family.
But on the last day of October the flock of high brow-invest-in-your-child’s-future encyclopedia hustlers, along with the Fuller Brush Man and the Avon Lady ceded their hard-earned territory to a motley crew of pirates and hobos.
From afternoon to evening on October 31 the peddler’s turf belonged to the trick or treaters who marched en masse from splanch to ranch in pursuit of Milky Way dreams.
Thanks to the baby boom, the concrete sidewalks of these newly built developments were as congested as rush hour traffic as they morphed into a magical world of make-believe filled with devils, gypsys, and Indian chiefs.
Costumes were the key to successful trick or treating and mothers were often enlisted in the effort.
Some sewing challenged moms, or those on a budget, simply cut holes in their freshly laundered percale pillowcases sending Jr. out as Casper the Friendly Ghost. Other moms who were a whiz on their Singer sewing machine could whip up a believable costume from Pinocchio to Peter Pan,
Five and Dime Dreams
But for most kids when it came to Halloween costumes, the wizardry of Woolworths was unsurpassed.
“Only a broomstick ride away” the colorful five and dime store ads beckoned, and for a few dollars an ordinary suburban kid could easily be transformed into a black cat, a scary witch or Bugs Bunny, with the help of some plastic and polyester courtesy of Ben Cooper the king of costumes.
Sure the rubber band in the cheap, easily cracked mask often snapped and the plastic smocks were highly flammable, but for inexpensive costumes from Minnie Mouse to Snow White, the only question every year for my brother and I was which Ben Cooper costume we would choose.
A Cold War Halloween
However for Halloween 1962 my parents took our getups into their own hands.
There would be no glittering fairy princess with a magic wand for me. No ghosts or goblins for my brother.
No, my parents had something more ghoulish in mind.
Less than a week after the crisis that brought the world to the very brink of nuclear destruction, my parents thought it a hoot to masquerade their children as the culprits of that Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet Leader Nikita Khrushchev and Cuba’s very own Fidel Castro.
What better way to keep a cold war chill in the air than to dress my brother and I as those two lovable cold war communist cut ups.
With the promise that these two true-to-life masks would elicit plenty o’cold war chuckles ( nothing says funny like a pair of ruthless dictators) Andy and I agreed.
My older brother had first dibs on choosing masks and he immediately claimed the swashbuckling, bearded Castro as his own. Because the charismatic Cuban was always dressed in army fatigues, my brother’s choice entitled him to wear my fathers moth ball scented WWII army uniform and a White Owl cigar clenched between his teeth.
Cold War Cowboy
Though disappointed to be relegated to the balding, wrinkled Khrushchev, my parents gave me free rein in how to accessorize the Soviet Premiere.
Best known for his off-the-Russian-racks suits, I decided to opt for the cold war cowboy look.
Because I was still deep in my “gunslinger stage” picking my official “Have Gun Will Travel” togs was an obvious choice. Dressed in black, sanforized cotton from head to toe, my Khrushchev would look quite cunning in his regulation “Paladin” black felt hat.
Strapping on the leatherette holster set with two caps guns was the final touch. Short and pudgy Khrushchev wasn’t coy about his ample arsenal of missiles, nor was I.
Trick or Treat For UNICEF
After a hurried dinner, I was raring to go trick or treating, so I quickly grabbed my paper shopping bag not forgetting my UNICEF box.
For one day of the year, schoolkids across the country could proudly show their latent philanthropic side, spurred on by a United Nations filmstrip shown in classrooms explaining that “One little penny for UNICEF buys 5 glasses of milk for hungry children around the world!”
Sure, charitable boxes were a dime a dozen in the suburban landscape.
The ubiquitous March of Dimes tin canister with the heart breaking picture of little girls with steel braces on their legs was found on shop counters everywhere from butchers to TV repair shops, and the blue and white Jewish National Fund box with its Hebrew letters and map of Israel, graced most Jewish homes and establishments.
But the UNICEF box was for kids only.
Lovingly hand-made from wax milk cartons decorated with orange construction paper, we were pint-sized door to door UN Ambassadors for one night, proudly shouting in unison Trick or Treat For UNICEF!”
A Haunting We Will Go
With my brother illuminating the way with his plastic, light up jack o’ lantern, cleverly lit by an Eveready flashlight we stepped out into the chilly fall night.
Up and down the block as far as the eye could see the narrow sidewalks were filled with a spooky mass of taffeta, rayon, vinyl and cheap flammable plastic, most glowing eerily with “glitter glo” the blue glitter glued to the front of the costumes which would reflect headlights of passing cars, Ben Cooper’s contribution to Halloween safety.
Excitedly we joined the mass of cowboys and clowns, robots and princesses in all shapes and sizes, all of whom were far outnumbered by the ragged packs of hoboes.
In the midst of post war plenty, suburban kids delighted in dressing up as depression era tramps – those tragic transients who had fallen from the once upon a time security of middle class.
Even without a Ben Cooper certified hoboe costume, the look of a downtrodden vagabond was easily and authentically achieved simply by raiding father’s closets for oversize clothes, smudging dirt on their Ivory fresh faces and carrying a handkerchief tied around the end of a stick.
The fact that many trick or treaters were but one generation removed from the fate of those forlorn, hungry hoboes, could now, in the flush of the soaring sixties, transform these tragic icons of the 1930’s economic disaster into lovable begging imps, was quite the trick.
The neighborhood homes were all lit up in anticipation of the crowds descending on their stoops, a single carved pumpkin the only holiday decoration save for a stray skeleton scotch taped to the front aluminum door. Holiday decorations were still best left to school bulletin boards.
Traipsing from house to house, we fell in with a coterie of trick or treaters consisting of Zorro, Frankenstein, an army nurse and a Spaceman toting a white pillowcase bulging with candy corn, tootsie pops and pixies, who insisted on ringing the bell on every front door.
At every house, suburban moms with Jackie Kennedy boufants greeted my brother and I with bemused smiles.
In this mid-century mélange we were the only cold warriors in sight.
After a long parade of repetitious, predictable princesses, witches and creepy skeletons, a pair of suburban socialists begging for money for the UN caused gales of laughter.
As the housewives opened their front door wiping their soapy hands on their flowery aprons, manicured hands still damp from washing the dinner dishes, they tossed in fistfuls of Mary Janes and tootsie rolls.
Even unfamiliar, normally unfriendly neighbors winked at my brother and me, making sure to add a few extra shiny pennys for UNICEF.
The more we drew laughter – me in my gun slingin’ black-hatted Khrushchev disguise and my brother camouflaged as a cigar chompin, khaki Communist – the heavier my UNICEF box seemed to grow.
In this make-believe night I could almost believe in the UN’s hope for friendly relations with all nations. For a few hours on that frosty night in 1962 my brother and I were doing our part in defrosting the cold war.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Scary stuff we were.
Thanks for such a consistently fascinating and beautifully illustrated blog. Regards Thom.
It’s my pleasure, and thank you for your ongoing support
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Few people are aware of it – but the Cuba Missile Crisis was NOT the incident that brought us the closest to an all out nuclear war – and the end of the world as we know it. The Cuba crisis – many people don’t like it when I say that Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev is the man who should have most credit for saving us all. By disregarding his generals and the Moscow hawks – he yielded and backed down. That did cost him his political position as the leader of the SSSR. From the Stalin era, he still had the blood of ten thousands or more on his hands – but now he sawed billions.
I don’t use to do so, but I’ll recycle a text I published on another blog some weeks ago – about the man who saved the world in September 26, 1983. (The night before I posted it, I had by coincidence watched a “docu drama” about the incident. He became our hero by disregarding protocol, disobeying orders and by lying to his superior officers and high ranking politicians.
“/…/ Unlike the CMC, when thousands of high-ranking persons were involved on both sides during a time-span of two weeks, this was an affair with rather few persons involved in the USSR only – the leaders would very probably give a “go ahead-signal” if their missile command recommended a launch. And due to the scenario, a great shortness of time – an ICBM would hit its target in about an hour from launch. And – it was Friday night in the USSR – a country famous for a high consumption of vodka. In the “docudrama” it is said that 11,000 warheads would strike in an all-out war; I haven’t checked it but it could be a realistic figure.”
WIKI: “For a few crucial moments on September 26, 1983, Stanislav Petrov held the fate of the world in his hands. When an alarm suddenly went off at Soviet nuclear early warning center Serpukhov-15, Stanislav was responsible for reacting to a report that five American nuclear missiles were heading toward the Soviet Union. Rather than retaliate, Stanislav followed his gut feeling and went against protocol, convincing the armed forces that it was a false alarm. His decision saved the world from a potential devastating nuclear holocaust.
In 2006, Petrov received an award at the United Nations, where he was finally acknowledged for his historic deed and found the strength to reconcile with his past. On his journey, he was greeted by Walter Cronkite as “The Man Who Saved the World” and met Kevin Costner, Robert De Niro, Matt Damon, and Ashton Kutcher.”
If 11,000 hydrogen bombs had been set off in September 1983, I believe that there would be no Internet – we wouldn’t be here at all.
I have read of that incident in 1983 and it doesn’t get the kind of attention it deserves. Thanks for bringing it to our attention again.