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Night of the Transistor Radio

By On Oct 29 2012, 11:19 am

You’ve got to understand Halloween back in the day—a long gone time in a previous century, when trick-or-treating was kids’ stuff. When you never opened your door to gangly six-footers with unshaven faces, mumbled greetings, candy-stuffed pillowcases and ironic grins. Or to thirtysomething couples dressed up as punk rockers and slutty princesses, cradling newborns as props and excuses for their pillowcases.

It was different back then. At least in Des Moines, Iowa when I was in the sixth grade and it was me and my friend Peter out that cold, windy, rain-threatened evening. I was already feeling wistful, as well as cold and sweaty in my plastic mask and thrilled at being out in the dark with a buddy and a pillowcase growing heavy with stash.

This wistfulness is something of a natural reaction of mine, a premature attack of nostalgia for a time not yet gone—but inevitably headed for the exit. I’ve felt it while leaving every stage of life, and at its worst as my now teenage son, Evan, cheerfully ambles toward the end of his own childhood.

The cause of my wistfulness this particular blustery evening was the certainty that this would be my final Halloween out. Once you got to the point where you’ve had a couple years out with friends instead of parental escort, the end was near. Time to grow up and out of the hobo rags and to wash off the charcoal whiskers, pal.

Or at least that’s how things stood back in the day.

We were doing well in the loot department that final evening, our pillowcases sagging under the weight of Baby Ruths, Three Musketeers, Milky Ways, Hershey’s miniatures, tiny Tootsie Rolls from the cheapskates and my personal favorite—Butterfingers.

Then we came up to this one door. The woman of the house scattered goodies our way while her husband grumped in the background. He held a large transistor radio up to his ear as he rotated a dial.

“Who wants this?” he said to the two sixth-graders at his doorstep.

For Halloween you get chocolates, Gummi Bears and the occasional apple from the nutrition hard-asses. You don’t get radios. The man was obviously joking, so I answered in kind.

“I’ll take it,” I said brightly.

He dumped it in my sack, no doubt crushing Sweet Tarts and candy bars under its impressive weight.

The radio! The latest in transistor technology, it was as large as a man’s shoe and twice as hefty. The shiny dials looked like chrome and it came with an authentic brown cowhide leather case that snapped in place around the hardware. And it played. Well, sometimes. Functionality was iffy, which was obviously why the man had given up on it that night. But still, when it worked you could catch every note of The Archies, The Zombies, Bobby Sherman, BJ Thomas and The Cowsills.

I couldn’t wait to show it off on my next stop. Peter and I had decided to take up Mrs. Tiernan’s invitation and pay her a visit. Mrs. T., as she sometimes called herself, was our sixth-grade homeroom teacher at St. Augustine on Grand Avenue in Des Moines. While we certainly knew where the nuns lived—in the convent in front of the school—we kids only knew the home address of one other teacher.

Mrs. Tiernan was a tall, slender, handsome woman (which is what you called reasonably attractive females of a certain age) who dressed and talked regally. It wasna glamorous yet inviting appeal, which made her the absolute only teacher we would have considered visiting that evening.

Before we knew it, Peter and I were standing, in costumed glory, in our teacher’s living room along with four or five female classmates who’d similarly taken Mrs. Tiernan up on her invitation on what would almost certainly be all of our final trick-or-treat. We’d all been born twenty years too soon.

“Oh my! And who’s this?” Mrs. Tiernan would call out, and we’d, in turn, flip up a plastic mask to expose a sweat-stained face.

It was when Mrs. Tiernan asked how we’d done that evening that I staked claim to one of my very few youthful moments of attention and acclaim. (The last time being years earlier when I’d taken a formaldehyde-preserved frog to show-and-tell. Don’t ask.)

“I got a transistor radio,” I said casually, loving the disbelief on the female faces surrounding me.

So I hauled the thing out and turned it on. The radio chose that moment to go silent, but still. It was quite a Halloween haul, that big, state-of-the-art transistor radio with its shiny chrome face and real leather snap-on case. Who else had gotten anything even close?

Didn’t think so.

That was, indeed, my final trick-or-treat. At least until my now-teenage son was a year old, and I could head out with him on a house-to-house pursuit of Butterfingers and pretend it was for his benefit.


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