BENEATH THE HEIGHTS:

GROWING UP AT QUEENSTON AND BEYOND

Chapter 7

 

HALLOWEEN DRAG

 

Next to Christmas, Halloween was the most fun for kids in Queenston.  But no tricks for me, I wanted a Halloween that was all treats.  I looked forward to October 31st when I could indulge myself in two of my favorite fantasies.  First, this was a time when I able to satisfy my craving for sweets, a time when I could amass a candy fortune all for myself.   Secondly, Halloween was a time that gave me opportunity to dress up and live out a different fantasy role each year. 

 

At first my costumes were secondary to the first and far sweeter goal.   I would dress as my favorite cowboy, the handsome Roy Rogers, or some Indian in war paint and old blanket.  One year I got to wear the family treasure, the Scottish kilt and tunic my Grandfather purchased for my Uncle Doug when he was just a boy during the Great War.  But whatever costume I wore, I clutched the biggest bag I could find to hold my treats. 

 

Queenston was small enough that we could hit up almost every house in the village before our parent's witching hour.  One year, I lead a greedy band that was still out at 10 o'clock collecting our due from each and every home.  My young pal Michael Jones tagged along behind me.  Close to the end of our trek, his Dad caught up with us and angrily ordered us off the streets and home to bed.  He had no idea of the importance of the fortunes we were amassing for ourselves.

 

Some houses were always sure bets.  I had a distinct advantage over my friends since I delivered papers to most of the homes in the village.  Once my customers recognized me I was warmly welcomed.  We soon learned who were the rich and generous folk, well stocked with the best of treats.  Candy was our goal and homemade fudge, chocolate not maple, the ultimate prize.  We always groaned when we received apples or more healthy fare.

 

We would never waste our precious hours on places like the “Polish” house where the dreaded “D.P.s” roomed in one of the very few tenements in the village.  Prejudices learned early kept us away.  These Displaced Persons either were unaware of our Halloween customs or did not have the wherewithal to deliver the goods.   Actually, few regular Queenston residents ever associated with what we considered the ignorant “European peasants” in our midst.  We also carefully avoided those few sleazy houses where dirty kids poured out of a battered door and an unpredictable and often drunk father lurked unseen inside.   By the end of our run each year we returned to our own homes with bags full of treats.  For many days thereafter, back in my own bedroom, I would parcel out my treasure trove trying to satisfy my overwhelming taste for sweets. 

 

Then one year, my choice of Halloween costume suddenly became as important to me as my ongoing quest for hording candy.   For some time I had indulged in another more secret passion.  I loved to dress up in my mother's and grandmother's old clothes for play with my younger brother Ralph and his friend Gerald Ruttan.  We had built up a supply of castoffs that we carefully stored away.  On dress-up days, we would get out the sacred box, don a costume and begin a fashion show.   My favorite outfit was a black slinky dress (or was it a slip?) that once belonged to Grandma Lawrason.  It had little shoulder straps and was made some sort of silky material that clung.  I always topped it off with a ratty white rabbit stole of unknown origin.  Along with an old cloche hat and a pair of Mother's high heels, I was transformed in our childhood fantasy games.

 

One year, our usual Halloween treasure rounds through the village were interrupted by a new, and fortunately, short-lived tradition, the Volunteer Fireman's Costume Party.  Did the firemen decide to throw this party to ease our parent's dentist bills?   Or were they trying to cut down on the damage throughout the village inflicted by the older rowdies who used Halloween and Mischief Night as an excuse to wreak havoc?   The outhouses that were overturned, the soapy scrawling on our school windows were all a part of the yearly ritual.  Whatever the reason, we were all invited to the school auditorium for a children's party with games and prizes for the best costume.  I was going to come in first, no question!

 

I must have been about seven or eight that year and  I decided to go to the Firemen's Party in my favourite slinky black outfit.  For this special night, Mum was going to let me use lipstick and rouge as well.  Yet, what about my hair?   My annual summer auburn crew cut was growing out, but it was not nearly long enough to disguise my boyishness.  Then Mum remembered that when she was a girl she once had long hair done up in a braid.  Like Thoroughly Modern Millie she had bobbed her hair to join the ranks of all the other young secretaries back in the Twenties.  All these years she had kept that braid packed away, wrapped delicately in white tissue paper.  She retrieved it from her lingerie drawer and laid out the beautiful auburn braid that matched my own hair perfectly.  Unfortunately, the match was too perfect.

 

My costume seemed to be a smash at the Halloween Party.  Everyone who knew me thought I was so clever and so glamorous.  Unfortunately, the judges were all strangers who did not live in the village.  The little overdressed tart in a black slip and white rabbit stole apparently did not impress them.  When the winning costumes were announced, I was crushed.  “How could they not pick me with my original and perfect outfit?”

 

Only after the competition did I learn the reason why some boring ghost had won instead of me.  My disguise had worked too well.  The judges had thought I WAS a girl who was wearing her own natural hair piled up in an elegant braid.  So they gave the Award to a kid in a tacky sheet!  How unimaginative these firemen could be!

 

Yet that masquerade had exhilarated me.  Not being first this time hurt a little less since I had fooled those simple adult judges.  Our local newspaper, my own Niagara Falls Evening Review, was at the party and wanted photos taken in front of our old jitney fire truck.  In the paper the next day I was right in the middle of the photo sitting on the front bumper and aping foolishly for the cameraman. That photo in the very newspaper that I delivered each day made up for both my Halloween losses, missing out on the annual candy grabbing trail and being first in the costume competition.

 

Within a few months, after continued efforts to repeat my triumph in that black silky dress, my parents grew uneasy.  I had sensed their growing wariness, but still persisted in continuing with my dress up games.  Ralph had by now opted out of these pursuits and found other pastimes.  Only one single friend would still give in and agree to sharing these fantasies with me.  Gerald, who had long and lovely curls until he was at least ten, was still willing to be my partner in dress up times.  His mother for too long was unable to bring herself to allow his flowing curls to be cut, but after several years of torment at the hands of tougher village kids, she finally had relented.  Even after "she" turned into another regular boy, Gerald and I would play dress-up from out of my box of fabric feminine treasures. 

 

Then suddenly, without warning, the fantasy objects disappeared.   I begged for their return to no avail.  Some needy friends with young girls in the next village had happily received all my prized playthings.

 

“You're too old for dress up now,” Mother chided when I lamented their loss to her.  The triumph of that Halloween would soon be forgotten, since now I could no longer recreate my supposed triumph.  Like Linus without his comforting blanket, I trembled and grew panicky.  Nothing was left for me in the dark hall closet.

 

I mourned my loss for weeks and could not forgive my parents for the cruel banishment of my prized playthings.  But through my gloom I sensed a kind of shame attached to my longing for these strictly feminine fantasies.   And why did I receive no sympathy for my obvious loss and pain?  I heard only reminders in hushed tones that normal young boys did not play such games so fervently, or at least not so openly.  And so I stored away my feelings and the terrible loss.  I had begun slowly to learn that I must deny the fun they gave me even for so short a time.  Never again would I ever dream about dressing up in women's clothing.   Shame for me was even more powerful than forbidden pleasures.

Next year the Volunteer Fireman's Costume Party was cancelled and nothing interrupted our traditional candy trail.  I was more than happy to return to the trick or treat circuit and contented myself with just one indulgence, my sweet tooth.  That year I forsook my drag and dressed safely for my rounds through the village as a boring but more macho pirate.  My costume that year would be no threat to my confused psyche or anyone else.

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