halloween with mr. pete
Updated: Oct 8
(note to readers: this is from a column i had many years ago in the sanjuanislander) on the last night of any october in the early sixties my neighborhood was the local mother lode. in military terms, it was a target-rich environment. nineteen homes in one block constituted the greatest population density for miles around. as if that wasn’t temptation enough, at the end of the dead-end road that ran on one side of our block was the entrance to the pink thunderbird mobile home park. sixty trailers, mostly single-wides, all occupied by seniors 55 and over, sat side by side at the end of the lake.
manning the candy bowl at my parents’ house was a full-time job from dusk until 9 or so. one year we counted 222 trick-or-treaters. gangs of pirates and princesses and assorted animals rang the bell, and during the peak rush the door was open for long periods of time. some groups didn’t even bother with “trick or treat!”, but just ran up and stuck out their bags or buckets. departing groups sidled past arriving groups on the winding brick path between the camelias and the rhodys. cars idled slowly around the block, some using only their parking lights to pierce the artificial fog-exhaust of the car ahead in the damp night air. some kids undoubtedly made multiple laps, their pillowcases bulging, parts of costumes swapped in an attempt to avoid recognition, as if anyone could remember the differences in twenty or thirty ten-year-old pirates.
by halloween 1963 i had had enough of this scene. jfk and jackie were in the white house and i was in the sixth grade. at eleven, i knew i was getting too old for this. much more interested in adventure than candy, i set out into the otherwise rural surroundings. many of the houses beyond my neighborhood were set well back from the road, most on at least 5 acres, many still surrounded by orchards and pasture. in contrast to the wearily cheerful responses of most of the homeowners in my block, these people seemed charmed by the presence of an ersatz hobo on the porch. some asked me to wait as they pulled out the kodak brownie or the brand new instamatic to record the semi-historic event. most would offer an “extra candy” to reward my trudging bravery.
the candy yield was low, as expected, but the adventure value was high. even though i worked these roads frequently on huffy and on foot, darkness and imagination still made magic. falling leaves were bats and owls. rustling winds and creaking trees could not quite cover the sounds of unseen pursuers. shadows took on ominous portent, until they revealed themselves as farm trucks, tumble-down sheds, or the occasional wary cow. all in all, it was a much better experience than the crowded groveling of the trailer park. my candy would run out in a day or two, but the memories would linger. i was content as i turned back toward home.
the last house before the turn to my neighborhood sat at least 200 feet back from the road. the porch light of the old farmhouse was still on, but it would be a long walk in and back. a large jack-o-lantern sat at either side of the drive, indicating that the resident would welcome and reward my effort. it was a sign of the era that neither pumpkin had been smashed, and a guttering candle still flickered in one. tossing my still-light bag over one bony shoulder, i turned up the drive. as near as it was to my house, i had never given this old farmhouse a second look at any time i could remember in the past.
the wooden porch creaked as i climbed the stairs. two old chairs sat under the projecting roof, and a glass-windowed and lace-curtained door showed a dancing orange light from within. finding no bell, i knocked on the door.
“just a moment”, came a voice from inside. it was an elderly voice, though i could not determine gender. a few seconds of shuffling preceded the opening of the door. an old gentleman stood before me, slightly stooped and smiling. he wore brown slacks and a plaid shirt, buttoned to the neck, over which he also wore a dark brown wool cardigan. he smiled as if seeing an old friend, and he nodded slightly and gestured for me to enter as he backed up and opened the door wider.
“come in, young man, come in. it is cold and you look as though you have traveled far.” i wondered how he could know that i had ranged a couple miles or more that evening, and then i realized that he referred to my hobo costume.
“thank you, sir. uh… trick or treat”, i remembered to say as i walked into the living room.
“yes, yes. of course. we have quite a variety of treats, young man. here, set your bag down and come see.” with that, the man turned and walked away from the door, heading into the living room. a fireplace heated the crowded room, which held more than its share of antique furniture. all had been pushed back to allow a long table to occupy the center of the room in front of the fire. a lace tablecloth draped nearly to the floor on all sides of the table, which was covered with baked goods and other treats.
“my name is pete”, the old gentleman said. “at your age, you should call me mr. pete. here, take a plate and take whatever you like. please help yourself.” he handed me a large white dinner plate, and once again gestured with his arm extended toward the table. i was torn between my desire to explain that i could not stay and eat his offerings right now, and my amazement at the array on the table before me.
“mr. pete”, i began, as i took the proffered plate, “i can’t stay long. i have to be home by 9”.
“well yes, of course you do”, he replied. “so we’ll only visit for a bit, and then you can take whatever you like when you leave. as you can see, i have made a bit more than i should have”. we both turned to look at the spread on the table before us, and i had to agree with mr. pete’s assessment. the gang in my neighborhood would have made short work of this bounty. here at the end of mr. pete’s long driveway, there was no way he would ever need all this.
there were cookies. lots of cookies. chocolate chip and peanut butter and shortbread. there was a tray of caramel apples with wooden sticks. seeing my eye rest on these, mr. pete offered, “those are gravenstein apples from my orchard. there’s nothing like a gravenstein, you know. not too sweet. not too tart. quite crisp as well.” he nodded his approval as i reached for one of the apples and pried it off the tray where the caramel had glued it in place.
“ i just made those this morning”, he said. for the first time i heard the accent in his voice. i couldn’t tell what kind of accent, but it gave his few words an exotic and mysterious feel, just right for halloween.
“did you make these, too?” i asked, reaching for a popcorn ball.
“of course, young man. i made all these things. fill your plate and come sit and tell me about yourself.”
i was a little bit concerned about getting home late. but mr. pete seemed to be a kind man, in addition to being a wonderful baker. as i sat and worked my way through a caramel apple, a popcorn ball, several kinds of cookies and a brownie, mr. pete sat across from me in an old wing back chair. he learned my name and quite a bit about my family. he also caught up on much of the latest inside information about my elementary school. through it all he made me feel as if i was the most interesting conversationalist he had recently encountered. he smiled and nodded and turned my few questions about him around and had me talking about myself again. his deeply lined face and crinkly eyes focused on me, and he nodded as i spoke. he was a wonderful listener.
“mr. pete, i really have to go. i’m going to be late and my mom will be worried.’”
“would you like to use my phone to call your mother? i am sorry if we have made her worry. please - give her a call.”
“no, thank you, mr. pete, but i really do have to go.”
“very well my young friend. but before you do please take all that you and your friends can eat. these things will go stale and i don’t think i will have more visitors tonight.”
he went through the dining room and into the kitchen, returning with a roll of waxed paper and a grocery bag. he wrapped apples and cookies and brownies with a speed and proficiency that told of experience. he filled a brown bag nearly to the top as i wrapped two or three items. cradling the bag in the crook of one arm, he once again gestured toward the door and nodded at me. i walked to the door, opened it and stepped out onto the porch before turning. mr. pete stood in the doorway and offered the bag with both hands. i took it from him and backed away, ready to turn down the stairs.
“just a moment”, mr. pete said, and he reached down for something beside the door. holding my original trick-or-treat bag out to me, he added, “don’t forget these things, my friend”.
my hands were full with the bag and my flashlight. i looked at mr. pete holding my bag of store-bought candy, and thought that maybe i could repay just a bit of his generosity.
“mr. pete, you keep that bag. i have more than i can carry, and this stuff is better than that stuff anyway. you probably don’t even want it.”
“this is not so, my friend. i grow tired of my own cooking, and sometimes it is nice to have something different. thank you very much.” he smiled again with his now-familiar nodding, and brought my bag of candy back close to his side.
“goodnight, mr. pete. thank you.” i started down the steps, thinking of the rest of my walk home, and wondering how much trouble i was going to be in for being late.
“goodnight young man. just one more thing.” i stopped at the bottom of the porch stairs and turned. mr. pete had stepped out onto the porch, and he paused and looked at me for a moment before apparently deciding to go ahead with his thought.
“this trouble between our countries is no good. i know many people from my old home, and they do not want this trouble. i meet so many people like you here, and you do not want this trouble. who is it that wants this trouble? you tell your family that the russians are not bad people. i will tell my family that the americans are not bad people. maybe we can change this madness. goodnight, young james. godspeed.”
mr. pete was no longer smiling, but his old blue eyes still sparkled as he held my gaze. then he lifted his hand in a small wave and turned to his door. i waved back with my flashlight, and turned and walked down the driveway, holding my bag of homemade treats and thinking about what he had said. an evening begun in search of candy and adventure had ended with a new friendship and a curiosity about the larger world around me. i knew before i reached home that this had been my last year going door to door in a costume crying “trick or treat”.