Any kid who didn’t have a haunted house in his neighborhood probably also missed out on Three Musketeers bars, chewy wax Coke bottles filled with sugary syrup and those rock-hard colored dots on a strip of paper … about twelve inches worth for a penny at Hotkin’s drugstore. It was a time when holidays were a season, not just a single day. Halloween, for example, was at least a week’s worth of dangling witches, cardboard skeletons, carved pumpkins and costume parties at school, replete with tri-colored ‘corn candies’ and scary cookies baked for the occasion by somebody’s mom. You could do that back then, without fear of getting sued if a kid happened to get sick or something.
Mischief night, of course, was a blur of soaped windows, T.P.’d trees and doorbells rung by giggling pranksters sprinting away into the night. Whenever we got tired of the usual games, a pilgrimage to see the old mansion on Harrison Street always put the spring back in our step … but somehow, on Halloween, it was a spiritual obligation. We’d line the curb, with wide eyes riveted to its mysterious peaks and spires.
I was about eight and very impressionable when it came to stories about ghosts, goblins and creaky old houses. I frequently slept with a night light on around that time of year. Then there was the gang: JoJo, Lenny and Joanne. JoJo had a problem saying his “L’s” so lemon would come out “Yemon” and yellow became “yeyyow”! Lenny was born with one leg little shorter than the other and walked with a limp, which elicited a flood of compassion from his schoolmates … you know how kind kids can be. He sort of hung out with us because we didn’t seem to notice … at least we never said anything.
Joanne had kittens. Joanne always had kittens, since one of her three cats was perpetually pregnant. Where most little girls pushed dolls around in their baby carriages, she wheeled a carriage of kittens through the neighborhood. They were her children … just ask JoJo and Lenny who were frequently corralled into playing “house” with her. Fortunately, I always had something more important to do when the mood turned domestic.
Probably most of the fascination with the old house on Harrison had to do with our parents warning us never to go inside because it was dangerous. While parents were concerned about their children crossing a busy street and a hundred year old house that was on the verge of collapse, word spread among the kids that the place was haunted.
There were even stories about more adventurous souls who dared to go in but never came back out. Legend held that, as the sun was setting, you could sometimes see the silhouette of an old man with a long beard in one of the windows. Of course, no one knew any of the kids that disappeared nor had anyone spoken directly to a kid who actually saw the silhouette … but quenchless curiosity and limitless imagination kept dauntless explorers like ourselves coming back, albeit glued to the near curb, hoping for a glimpse of what might lie beyond the far one. We faithfully kept what was judged to be a safe distance, until one particular Halloween eve when a ‘double-dog-dare’ issued by a sneering cowboy and a snickering nurse, plus some prodding from a witch’s broomstick, moved us to the other side of the street.
It was almost dark and our trick-or-treat candy runneth over, as we clasped hands and made our way between curbs. We said it was for safety during crossing but, with the old house now growing as large as its legend, each of us secretly needed assurance that someone else was there. A single streetlamp dimly lit our way, casting four crouching shadows on the lawn. We kept low and crept quietly to the porch steps. I remember thinking that I never realized how much noise dry leaves could make.
We stood there for a while, just staring at the splintered wooden door with the large rusty knocker and a gaping hole where the knob used to be. By now, even the murmur of the small band of onlookers gathered across the street had stopped and all we could hear was the dancing, wind-stirred leaves. To our amazement, Joanne pulled a kitten from inside her coat and hugged it tightly. No one even asked … we were too busy trying to screw up the courage to climb the steps. Finally, on the count of three, we all went together. They creaked under the weight of our odd little quartet, just like in the movies.
With another three count, JoJo eased the door open and we shuffled slowly off the porch and went inside. It creaked, of course, as haunted house doors do … but it was more of a groan that lasted forever. A web of some sort brushed across Joanne’s face! She dropped the kitten and muffled a scream with her hand. Shafts of moonlight streaming through shattered windows, were just enough for us to trace the little feline’s path down a long hallway and we decided to follow. The difference in the length of Lenny’s legs produced a strange cadence that echoed on the ancient wood floor.
As we reached the end of the hall we froze in our tracks, saucer-eyed and slack-jawed at the specter that confronted us. In a windowless room off to our right, there sat an old man in a rocking chair next to a blazing fire. His face looked like leather and his scruffy white beard hung clear down to his belt. Despite his well-weathered personal appearance, he wore a neatly pressed bright red coat with a double row of shiny brass buttons down the front. His beige pants were tucked tightly into a pair of shiny black boots and the whole ensemble was topped off with a very colonial looking tri-cornered hat. Joanne’s kitten sat in his lap, purring louder with each stroke of his gnarled old hand.
At the sight of his terrified young visitors, the leathery old face broke into a nearly toothless smile. In a very proper sounding accent he said, “I’d like to offer you children some tea, but you see, I seem to have run fresh out!” His bright blue eyes and gentle manner were an unexpected surprise and soon put us at ease.
He said his name was Benjamin and the five of us talked for a very long time. We shared our Halloween bounty with him and he told us stories about the Revolutionary War and the founding of America. I never liked history very much, but Benjamin made it interesting. He assured JoJo that he would someday grow out of his speech problem and explained to Lenny that he was probably a heroic soldier wounded in another life … that’s why his one leg wasn’t quite like the other. All in all, we had a pleasant visit but it was getting late and we were already going to catch heck from our folks for staying out past suppertime. We said our goodbyes and smiled and laughed all the way home, with our temporary secret tucked away safely inside.
The next morning, having confessed the details of the previous night under threat of permanent grounding, four eight year-olds stood along the curb with our parents across from the old mansion on Harrison Street. They were determined to get to the bottom of this ‘old man’ story their children had concocted to explain their lateness … and to make matters worse, Joanne’s kitten was nowhere to be found and the mother cat had been going berserk!
Somehow the house didn’t look so haunted in the bright light of day, as we opened the creaky front door and led the adults down the hallway. Even Lenny’s off-kilter cadence seemed silent. The room where we had met the leathery old man was empty, except for the kitten playing with a huge cobweb on the seat of the rocker. The fireplace ashes were cold and so were the looks from our parents. “Benjamin!” we called. Again and again, “Benjamin!” but there was no reply … only the scuffling of Joanne’s kitten playing in the dusty chair.
Then, as the inevitability of ‘house arrest’ forever began to sink in, I noticed a wooden peg just to the left of the fireplace, and on it hung a very familiar tri-cornered hat! I subtly pointed to the hat so only my friends could see. One by one they noticed it and smiled a smile of understanding. After all, when a kid has shared something that special with his friends, forever isn’t really such a very long time.
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