Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mischief Night

Richard Shindell--"Are You Happy Now?" (mp3)
Guadalcanal Diary--"Ghosts On The Road" (mp3)

Like the Halloween when I was in the 5th grade and choose as my costume the uniform of a Nazi soldier, Mischief Night is probably best forgotten by time.

In this age of police, DNA, Internet tracks, and all of the other ways in which we are so easily identified, Mischief Night, which was a fairly harmless evening of causing trouble, today would cause a lot more trouble for the perpetrators.

The holiday that we call Halloween used to consists of two nights, not just the current one. Halloween Eve, at least in Pittsburgh where I grew up, was called Mischief Night or Devil's Night, and, as such, was probably the most appropriately named night of the year. Imagine this: otherwise responsible mothers and fathers allowing their sons to dress up in dark clothes and go out with their friends in roving gangs to play pranks all over the neighborhood. "Come back when you're finished, kids, and maybe we'll have some hot cocoa waiting."

And that's what's funny to me now. There was nothing secretive or underhanded about it at all.

But, first, that costume. My grandfather and great uncle served in World War II in the infantry, and one of them, my great uncle Clinton, I think, came home with a full German uniform, complete with boots, helmet, belt buckle, rifle, and bayonet. The story behind how he got it is one I don't know. Moths went to work on it, so by the time parts of it passed to the only male grandchildren in the 1960's, only the collars and cuffs of the uniform remained intact. I suppose it is some measure of both my naivete and stupidity that I spent the day sewing the cuff and collar onto a green sweatshirt, donning the trademark German helmet, and heading out the door with a pillowsack to collect candy.

And was it a sign of the times, as well? My parents didn't bat an eye, my friends that I walked with from house to house didn't seem to find it at all odd that the uniform of ultimate evil was travelling amidst their ranks. And what of the houses where we rang the doorbells? A Jewish home, perhaps, where the mother opens her door to find a blond haired, blue-eyed member of some neo-Hitler Youth expecting some candy?

Back to Mischief Night. A simple Internet search reveals that this tradition continues, but not in Chattanooga, as I just confirmed on the phone with my blog mate. "Mischief Night? What are you talking about?" he asked. I'm talking about soaping windows, rolling houses and cars with toilet paper, peanut butter on screen doors, eggs everywhere, soap on windows, smashed pumpkins. I'm talking about a PG-rated suburban version of A Clockwork Orange, tacitly, if not officially, sanctioned by the adults of a neighborhood, loosely monitored by the police. I'm talking about the things Adam Sandler and his friends do early on in Billy Madison, like lighting bags of poop and then ringing the doorbell and hiding in the bushes to watch the homeowner stamp out the bag and step in the poop. Those things happened on Mischief Night.

I'm talking about the night that made Halloween all the more special, because when you went house to house Trick or Treating, you were in costume partially to disguise your role in what had happened to that house the night before. And, yes, you did visit those kinds of houses, the ones singled out for retribution, both night.

The farther back you go, the more mischievous Mischief Night was. Talk to my father or get him talking about his father, and you're talking about a Mischief Night that involved firecrackers before there were standards, firecrackers that were little less than mini sticks of dynamite, used to blow up outhouses. You're talking about real delinquency, hoisting fences up onto telephone wires and other ways of destroying property.

Our greatest prank was essentially harmless. An old lady three or four houses down, who was the kind who would yell at us for walking on her grass, kept a meticulous year, so meticulous that even in late October, there was not a single leaf in the entire yard. So how do a group of boys respond? By getting several garbage bags of leaves, then dumping and spreading them all over her yard. The next night, while Trick or Treaters came and went, she had hired a security guard to hide inside her large evergreen, keeping watch. Did we go there for candy anyway? Absolutely.

In the context of today, as parents of today, it all sounds pretty barbaric, evidence of some previous, lawless society. We'd never let our children do anything like that. It's enough that we let them drive to Starbuck's alone after 9 PM.

But it's one of those signs of the times, isn't it? One of those requiems for what we have become, a society that is so concerned about being safe and so concerned about staying out of trouble with neighbors, the police, bosses, and anyone else who might hold us or our children accountable for a little good, not-entirely-clean, fun.

Mischief Night in 2009 Chattanooga may seem like anti-social behavior, but if the society expects it, or deserves it, how anti-social is it? I freely admit that even as a responsible adult in the second half century of his life, I have thought of expressing my feelings about a certain neighbor with a dozen eggs launched after midnight. But these days you never know where the cameras might be, you know? Be afraid.

If you've never heard Richard Shindell's terrific "Are You Happy Now?" you have missed out on the story of the worst Halloween prank of all. His work and Guadalcanal are both available at Itunes.


Billy said...

The man who glorifies Mischief Night now works for an administration that requires pranks to be pre-approved.

Four words: "Fire in the hole."

What always starts out as "harmless" (a word in the eye of the beholder) inevitably becomes warped and ruined by a less humane minority of the young turk set.

Randy said...

This post and Billy's comment reminds me yet again of how weird it is to now be a teacher and dorm head of high school boys. A great deal of my time is spent punishing boys for doing things that I found great enjoyment doing when I was their age. It's especially weird since, for the most part, I never got into trouble for any of my pranks.

Thomas said...


Thanks for the Pittsburgh memories. Clearly Chattanooga or maybe just Billy has missed out if he did not participate in any Devil's Night activities.


Jason said...


What felt so mischevious or devilish back then just seems so tame nowadays.

Bob said...

Jason, kind of like the Dallas Cowboys.

Tockstar said...

Have any of you gotten wind of this whole Trunk or Treat phenomenon? The "safe alternative to Trick or Treat"? Some of my mommy friends are raving about it and it just makes me want to weep copiously for humanity.

Daisy said...

Tockstar...couldn't agree with you more! What is so wrong with going house to house? If I wanted my kids to get candy out of a vehicle I'd take them to a trailor park!