Talk about something strange; while I’m sure I’ve mentioned Harrisonburg, VA as my birthplace and my bio states that I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley, I don’t think I’ve talked about my actual hometown. While I would call Dayton, VA my hometown, I spent the first five years of my life in the “unincorporated community” of Lacey Spring.
I credit this to being five when we moved away. Oh, sure, I have some solid memories of Star Wars toys, of playing with Tony across the street and rapidly discovering what it meant to be on the outside looking in (he was the only Hispanic kid in the neighborhood, I was the only fat kid), and of being hit in the face with a rock, but when it comes to Halloween, the nominal subject of this post, I have precious few memories. Photos exist, to be sure. I’ve seen the chubby little kid in brown corduroys with a lavish spread of Halloween candy, and a toddler in a Big Bird costume, but I have no tangible recall of those moments.
My strongest memory is of making a trek to the Lacey Spring Grocery on a hot day to get Sunkist soda, which was always my favorite. It felt like such a long walk back then, but Google informs me that it was a mile-and-a-half. I suppose that’s the nature of being a four-year-old with four-year-old legs. Sadly, the grocery closed down at some point and I can find no photos of what it looked like in its heyday. I recently visited the place, and here’s what it looks like today:
The place is white in my memories, which makes sense with that block of white on the right-hand side. Paint job at some point? Anyway. We moved to Dayton in July of 1981; easy to nail down the date as I have vivid memories of that July 4th. They shot off fireworks from the high school down the street, which blew my little mind. Granted, Dayton’s population couldn’t have been more than 750 people at the time, but compared to Lacey Spring it was a veritable metropolis, full of possibility.
We lived in Dayton for 14 years and, consequently, most of my Halloween memories revolve around that place. Hell, it still retains a spooky vibe in the Autumn, even when I revisit it as an adult. The thing about Dayton is that so much of its history still lives on, from the circa-late 19th century buildings downtown to the graveyard (which itself once abutted a long-lost church) with graves dating back to the 1700s. Oh, let’s not forget the potentially-haunted Silver Lake, which was the previous site for said church until a spring flooded out the grounds. Supposedly there are still gravestones in some spots, though I have no idea if anyone has verified this claim. The point is that the ghosts of Dayton’s past still walk the grounds, and it was a fertile place for my imagination.
I loved to walk the streets around Sunset as the days grew short. A lot of people in Dayton still relied on wood stoves to heat their homes, so the place had this wonderful smoky scent that permeated the air. Imagine a combination of that odor with the loamy smell of fallen leaves and the ambient blue-and-purple lighting that fell across the nigh-deserted side streets and alleys. Absolute magic for a kid fascinated by the dark and decay. I’d stay out there for hours until the sky went black, and even then I’d sometimes linger under the oaks, peeking up through the last few wavering leaves to watch the twinkling stars overhead.
Dayton didn’t have a large population of kids, but we celebrated Halloween hard and well. Oh, we had our usual childhood stratification, with the older kids focusing on pranks and the younger kids focusing on trick-or-treating (sans parents, of course, you could still safely walk the streets alone), but there was a sense of it being a town-wide event. 1985 and 86 were the best that I can remember, though 85 is a little fuzzy, save this photo of me with that year’s Jack-O-Lantern. Note the sweet Movie Channel T-Shirt.
My touchstone would be 1986, which would be my last year in Elementary school and represent a jumping-off point to adolescence. We had just discovered the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and, while I would have to wait until Christmas for my own system, several of my friends already had theirs, and they were playing Castlevania that Fall. This would become my go-to-world to visit while I walked through streets, imagining myself as a rogue vampire hunter roaming the graveyard and climbing through construction sites. How could you resist such a fantasy? Practically crack, pure distilled badass as far as I was concerned.
And boy did I think I had a sweet costume in place that year. I didn’t dress as Simon Belmont, the hero of Castlevania (that would be a few years later, for a school dance), but I had something else in mind. That year also represented the last big bang of toys for me, in particular M.A.S.K., GI Joe and Transformers. I had developed a fascination with the recently-released Transformers movie, in particular the character Blurr, a fast-talking futuristic car/robot combination. I have no idea if he’s made an appearance in the live-action movies (I avoid those as much as possible), but I was in love. I had to dress as this robot. Now, keep in mind that this is what the character looked like:
By now you may have figured out that we weren’t exactly rich and, even if you did have money back in those days, you couldn’t exactly pop down to a Michael’s and buy costuming materials. You either bought off-the-rack or tried to build your own the best you could. Blurr wasn’t a star character like Megatron or Optimus Prime, so the off-the-rack option was gone from the beginning. So, being the, ahem, creative child that I was, I decided to create one myself. With boxes. And face paint. And hair dye.
It turned out about as well as you’d expect. I mean, it wasn’t a terrible idea, but the execution lacked poetry, to say the least. It would become a neighborhood legend, in fact, spawning the nickname Boxman. My parents, God love them, have preserved this moment of shame so that I may share it with you.
Hey, at least I tried. Sadly, no evidence remains of the Belmont costume, which actually did turn out pretty sweet and got compliments.
Such is life.
Hope all who celebrate have a Happy Halloween, and I’ll see you next week with some talk about Historical Preservation.