Chester Martin Remembers Being Chased By Spooks On Halloween

Thursday, October 20, 2016 - by Chester Martin

Halloween was always a cool time of year for the kids of my day. It was celebrated at both home and school, sometimes it could get a little bit out-of-hand, but  was mainly a harmless fall festival. It has changed but little through the years.

At school we had our Halloween parties, just like today - with about the same  foods and trappings as today - the apple-bobbing, haunted houses, fortune tellers, etc.

Halloween parties at home were always quite common, both for adults and kids. Little has changed except for ever more elaborate decorations; "our" jack-o'-lanterns were not nearly so creative as today's. No one ever thought of modifying the inside of a pumpkin to create shadings of the light; that is all modern. Faces for jack-o-lanterns remained rather "standard", with simple toothy smiles or frowns. Halloween candies are exactly the same now as then. (Could you ever imagine Halloween without that yellow-chocolate-white colored "candy corn?")  Corn mazes are a very modern wrinkle on traditional Halloween, however, brought on by some fairly recent Hollywood movies.

In the 1930's and '40's we mainly had simple stuff - orange and black streamers made out of crepe paper - which was cheap to buy and readily available. A really fine pumpkin could be bought at the Chattanooga curb market for much less than a dollar. Orange and chocolate ice cream, served in a single cup, represented the traditional orange and black colors of Halloween.  People good at decorating could work wonders with only their imaginations and these cheap materials. But until the later 1940's there was still no "trick or treat". Lawn displays for Halloween were as yet unheard of.

My earliest memory of Halloween night was downtown - having Market Street roped off for the use of ghostly revelers; it was a large outdoor Halloween street party with a lot of shrieking and noise-making. Once, when very small, my parents took me downtown to one of those parties. I was wearing a "ghost" mask and wrapped in a bed sheet. We were standing in a store-entrance (closed for the day, to be sure), on the west side of the street, between 5th and 6th, and I felt the gaze of someone (or something) looking down at me. When I looked up I saw a much taller person than me, dressed identically; his mask was exactly like mine. We stared at each other for a number of seconds, unable to see each other's facial expressions  before going on with our own party-business. (That rather startling moment has remained with me all my life, for reasons unknown). These street parties lasted up until around the early 1960's. It was about that time when the old traffic patterns began to change in town - as with the development of the new Golden Gateway, Interstate highways, one-way streets, etc. Downtown streets had to be returned to normal automobile traffic, even for Halloween. What a shame!

When I reached high school age, Halloween had become a bit more boisterous than in the war years, so it was decided to direct all that youthful energy into painting store windows downtown. Certain schools were designated to paint certain store windows, and I am sure that the art teachers had a ball getting their classes to take this on as a project. The designs were so good that they could not have been done in an impromptu manner. Some real advance planning HAD to be done.  There was no such thing as spray-paint as of yet, and such would have been inappropriate, as all paint used had to be water-soluble. Scenes painted were a lot more imaginative than simply a lot of grave-stones with "RIP" stuff. Themes and draftsmanship were sophisticated and equally good.  My school did not get to participate in this window art, but I saw a lot of it. One Halloween I remember watching how the kids from City High School scrambled all day shifting ladders and accidentally getting paint on themselves, elbowing each other out of the way - and then at last standing back to admire their group creation. It was really impressive, and too bad how all the paint would  have to be removed by the next day - especially if it were a business day!  Best windows were at Miller's and Loveman's department stores, and most likely by City or Central high schools' art departments. It was all a wonderful and fun competition, where the work was judged and prizes given. It would be wonderful if some photo archive (like Deep Zoom Chattanooga) could find a treasure-trove of those window photos to publish on their site. I remember that the Chattanooga Times printed some excellent B&W pictures of them.

One Halloween about 1950 a young, self-taught "magician" (with a whole bag of excellent tricks) -  and two or three years older than me - had a gig to do for a church Halloween party in North Chattanooga. Carl Huggins, the magician, had asked me to be his assistant, and we had rehearsed the routine several times before Halloween came. Carl and I left Brainerd in his restored vintage Model "A" Ford, which attracted almost as much attention in 1950 as it would today. Every "spook" in town - sometimes large numbers of them, their inhibitions down for a few hours, tried to get at us as we drove through town, across the Walnut Street Bridge, and then up the steep hill that night - a feature we had only vaguely anticipated! It was actually a pretty harrowing experience as the car windows were wide open and the spooks almost caught up with us a couple of times. Carl had to use some real ingenuity to evade them. That ride through town in that open "A" Model Ford is easily my scariest Halloween experience ever!

"Trick or Treating" did not arrive until the later 1940's. It was about 1945 when an older, and childless, couple with roots in the Indiana-Illinois area, moved into our neighborhood. They liked kids and made friends with us easily -  George and Elsie Magnin. This couple told us a lot about what the Northern kids were doing and playing. "Tricks or Treats" was one of them. We had never heard any mention of such a thing and could not wrap our brains around the idea. Then, suddenly, out of the blue, the Trick or Treat craze hit Chattanooga, never to go away. But it all started here locally in about 1946.

As you can probably imagine, Halloween costumes have seen the biggest changes through the years. New products - plastics, foam rubber and flexible rubber (as for highly detailed masks) have all added greatly to the repertory. Back in earlier decades a full-length costume would probably only be a "skeleton" or a "ghost" representation, whereas today we have "Superman" and a whole host of Hollywood - and political - celebrities. You can now find Dollie Parton, Elvis - and even Justin Bieber!

My parents, vintage 1900 and soon after, never mentioned Halloween. My dad grew up in the country, and mother in the city, but, if Halloween existed in those days, it never made a lasting impression on either one of them. Times HAVE changed!

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net )

 

Chester Martin
Chester Martin


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