It’s almost that time once again to get the kitchen knife out and grandma’s old dish pan and start carving away at a helpless pumpkin to make it look like something out of an orthodontist’s nightmare. I read recently at The Old Farmer’s Almanac.Com that the jack-o’-lantern dates all the way back to medieval Ireland. All these years I thought it was something we came up with just to get candy, but the Almanac says, “It is a legend that involves an Irishman named Jack who was too stingy to go to heaven and too mischievous to go to hell. Jack had to wander Earth until Judgment Day with a lantern made from a hollowed-out turnip with a live coal inside. Children started making these lanterns on Halloween; in the New World, people switched from turnips to pumpkins.” So I guess by us carving pumpkins we are helping the legend continue along, but I’m just glad they switched to pumpkins and candles instead of turnips and coal.
In our little rural community we all grew pumpkins between the rows of corn either in the field or in the garden. The pumpkins were not the bright orange ones you see today, but more of a pink hue and were usually just called field pumpkins. We grew them to feed our hogs and they were usually harvested about the same time as you would pick corn to go in the corncrib to feed the livestock over the winter. While I was growing up, there was still some fields picked by hand and the old one-row pickers knocked down a lot of corn while turning around that farmers just wouldn’t allow to go unharvested. Any pumpkins found in the field were thrown on the wagon and carried to the barn, later to become a tasty meal for our future Christmas ham producers.
A few of the choice ones would become Halloween decorations for the front porch on Halloween night and a target for jack-o’-lantern thieves as well. Jack-o’-lantern thievery was almost a major sport in my neck of the woods on Halloween night, with trying to catch who stole your pumpkin running a close second. After you reached the age of too old to go door to door asking for candy, and houses were so far apart in our community it hardly was worth the effort anyway, you hit the road on Halloween night with your buddies stealing pumpkins or at least try to.
There were those who sat up with their pumpkins all night like at a wake with a deceased friend and they were the ones that every year you made the target of the “Big Halloween Night Pumpkin Pilfer” for you and your buddies. One year, a group of my friends planned for weeks to steal Miss Baskin’s pumpkin. She was an English teacher from the big city high school and never let anyone steal her pumpkin. It was said she guarded it with a shotgun and no one was brave enough to steal her holiday gourd. That was until Ronnie took the challenge.
On Halloween night, he and a buddy developed a plan that they would cause a distraction at the house next door causing Miss Baskin to look away, allowing Ronnie to grab her pumpkin. He would be all in black and would crawl like a snake to the porch while his friend would grab Mr. Hayes’ pumpkin next door. Mr. Hayes always let you get his pumpkin, but he always carried on about it making a lot of noise, which Ronnie hoped would be enough to allow him to get the Baskin gourd and hit the trail.
Halloween arrived and around 10:00 p.m. on a spooky moonlit night the two jack-o’-lantern thieves approached their targets. Bubba headed out to Mr. Hayes’ and Ronnie crawled like a serpent to the edge of Miss Baskin’s porch. Ronnie could see her sitting in her straight back school chair in the shadows of the corner of the porch with something long in her hands that resembled a weapon of some kind. The two boys had made their plan that when Mr. Hayes started making his racket, Ronnie would make his move.
Just as the moon went behind a cloud, Ronnie heard all kinds of hollering going on over at the Hayes’ house and he saw Miss Baskin get up out of her chair and move to get a better look over that way. Ronnie made his move as well, and grabbed the pumpkin, preparing to make his escape. However, just as Ronnie turned to run Miss Baskin stuck a broom handle in his ribs and at the same time Mr. Hayes threw a large firecracker over where Bubba was running with his pumpkin.
Hearing the firecracker explode, Ronnie assumed Miss Baskin’s broom was a gun and his minutes were numbered, and he fell flat on the ground. For the next few minutes he admitted to a lot of things right there in front of everyone, including Bubba, which wasn’t a good thing, and asked for a lot of forgiveness until he realized he was not injured and he had only been goosed by a schoolteacher’s broom in the ribs.
The night Ronnie got shot by a broom is still a favorite Halloween story in my neck of the woods, but pumpkin thievery is now a thing of the past. Pumpkins have gone plastic, kids don’t care and English teachers no longer guard pumpkins from teenage boys. What have the times gotten to?