Halloween. Mere thought of the word brings a wistful smile to my lips as I remember a small-town childhood in dusty West Texas filled with memories of witches, ghosts and goblins running in werewolf packs and joyfully demanding tribute at every door. I don’t remember a single home with its porch light off. Back then every inhabitant in town and his or her porch light burned to join in this celebration of childhood.
Then I grew up and, as I changed little by little, so did the holiday. Over time, the flood of kids in the streets became a trickle. Then the Navy ordered me to Rota, Spain, in 1986.
Even though Halloween was changing stateside, Spanish kids had apparently not gotten the word. They were out in force on every corner of the Navy housing area. The Spanish around the base still celebrated much as we must have when the first little monsters took to the streets here.
What’s more, Spanish kids and their families put real thought and effort into their homemade costumes. The results were frighteningly fabulous. When those kids came to the door and yelled that heavily accented, oh-so-practiced, “Trick or treat!” I could see the pride in their faces as I surveyed the Draculas, demons, goblins and ghosts before me.
These kids were doing more than cashing in on free candy. They bought into the spirit of the holiday with every ounce of enthusiasm they and their creative families had. And in a period of being faraway from home and ready to confront what even then was an uncertain world, those little spirits renewed my spirit and brought out the child in me again, if only for a night.
My most memorable Halloween moment, a memory that has spanned decades (not to mention an ocean), took place in 1988, my last Halloween in Southern Spain, when a toddler of a ghost came waddling across my yellowed lawn, overseen by his brother, a vampire. I just about cracked my face grinning at those two kids as I made a show of noisily rustling the candy inside my plastic pumpkin and peered down at them and their homemade, meticulously perfect costumes. A smaller apparition had never haunted such a carefully tailored, hand-decorated sheet. And his big brother, the 7- or 8-year-old vampire with his shiny, jet-black hair slicked back, his bloody, canine teeth and flowing, aristocratic cape, looked like he had stepped straight off a street in Transylvania.
Bending down to coo over the little Casper standing there so uncertainly, I gave the friendly ghost extra candy and tried to coax a “trick or treat” out of him but to no avail. It seemed to me this little spirit, whose wide eyes were clearly visible through a pair of strategic cuts in his costume, didn’t know whether to yell “boo” or “boo-hoo” at the guy babbling at him in a strange language. Finally, I straightened up, turned to his brother and asked in Spanish, “¿Cómo se dice ‘ghost’ in español?”
The vampire instantly looked straight into my eyes, bared his frightful fangs and growled in the eeriest, guttural tone he could muster, “Fantasma!”
Legend has it that Dracula could look mere mortals in the eyes and mesmerize them into helplessness. It’s true. I was absolutely transfixed by the scene that unfolded beneath my porch light on that warm Spanish evening. I was rendered helpless with pure, unadulterated glee. Watching the vampire shepherd his tottering little ghost to the next haunt, reveling in the few truly innocent scares left in a changing and frightening world, I was aware at some level I’d never see anything like it again. I was right.
I have already gone through the motions this year and bought a bag of little chocolate bars, but only one small bag. Nothing stays the same, not even Halloween. But I still celebrate. About this time every year, I recapture a spirit lost by traveling back in time to conjure up a little, Spanish spirit and his big brother, the vampire.