Monday, October 30, 2006

Devil's Night.

Is it Devil's Night? Isn't it the night before Halloween? That's when we always celebrated it growing up. I suppose the fact that it falls on a weeknight this year takes some of the fun out of it. You do know what it is... right? When you get too old to go out trick-or-treating, yet still want to recapture the fun of being outside in the dark night, then you turn to mayhem and mischief. Every locale has its special traditions... some play mailbox baseball... others blanket the town in toilet paper... some throw eggs... some even inexplicably soap cars (which seems more like charity as far as I'm concerned... I imagine some responsible and clever adult thought that one up).

I grew up in Allentown, PA, and it wasn't that great of a place during most of the year. But it had some things to recommend it on Devil's Night. It's a small city of 125,000 unfortunates, with easy access to the Pennsylvania Dutch farming communities that characterized the early history of eastern PA. A little known side story of this Germanic subculture was its preoccupation with superstition and magic. So there is definitely something in the air... a tradition to observe.

In the city itself there is an urban vibe that you can find in many of the rapidly diversifying smaller cities of the region. There are streets with densely packed row homes, block after block. This fact figured strongly in our annual plans in late October. We'd typically begin preparing for our adventure by recruiting whoever had a car to drive us out to the cornfields. The secret was to go out there late enough so we could sneak into the field and snatch a few garbage bags full of corn. Our booty in hand, we'd camp out in one of our secluded haunts... smoke cigarettes, tell stories and shuck that corn. Then we were ready to hit the town.

What we were about was an age-old prank called "tic-tac'ing". If you take a handful of autumn-dried corn, and hurl it against someone's front picture window, it makes a shocking rattle that inevitaby startles whatever inhabitants happen to be sitting in the front room of the house. The idea is to disturb their peace and then flee. We had all types of variations on this practice. If you were very lazy, you'd just take the entire cob and throw it against the screen-door... that was called a "door-knocker".

Lake any other adrenaline-producing game, you had to escalate the danger to continue deriving enjoyment from tic-tac'ing. We had a special place- a walking bridge that connected the local middle school to its fenced-off field. We'd lie on top of the bridge and drop handfuls of corn on the cars passing beneath us. If you hit their windshield just right, you could get them to swerve. The climax of that particular set-up always arrived when we targeted a cop car. Luckily we had the home field advantage and knew where to hide. But that was thrilling.

Right around the age that doing this sort of thing would be considered excessively immature, we took the whole thing to another level. We planned out a maneuver that we lovingly called a "blitzkrieg". The tactic involved getting four fleet-of-foot boys, and arm each with a bag of corn. The goal was to sprint down a long block of houses, and hit every single front window on the street. The more effective and thorough we were, the larger the mob there would be to chase us. And those folks weren't playing. A lot of them were armed.

As we hit subsequent blocks, our anxiety would just start to boil over. My very worst instincts were made manifest. I'd get so keyed up, that I'd finally just heave the entire remainder of my stash (in the bag itself), and it would smash through the corner house window. Then the pursuit was really on. I remember a few guns being pulled out, as people caught up with us in their cars.

Despite the implicit threat of firearms back then, it seems that the 80's were much more innocent years. We never really believed someone would fire at us. Nowadays I wouldn't put it past folks. There's more tension in society today, and people are just looking for an excuse. I haven't heard of anyone tic-tac'ing here in Pittsburgh. Maybe it's because of the inaccessibility of corn crops. Or maybe it's just been taken to a new level, and I wouldn't want to know about it. What seemed like a lark in yesterday's America seems a bit foolhardy now. Ah... nostalgia.


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