A guest post by Jack Bonawitz
My mother wanted a hero: one of her brothers had been a star athlete in small town Montana, and she believed that the genes which had propelled him to greatness would, when combined with my father’s eastern European genes, create another hero, another star.
Her observations of my father must have been cursory: he lettered in basketball because he was the manager of the team. He could throw or catch a baseball or a football like rather proficiently in the open expanses of our back yard, but he had never done that on the playing fields of his youth. He spoke of academic success in high school, but after my grandmother died I found his report cards: he was a slightly better than average student. And certainly he was no Adonis. But these flimsy facts had no chance against the hardened steel of my mother’s dreams.
She wanted a hero, but in me she got a rebel. As if I had been programmed, I resisted her in every direction she pushed. Academic success—no, class clown. Athletic ability—no, half-hearted efforts. Popularity and adulation—no, mild amusement. Cocky self-confidence—no, gnawing insecurity.
So just prior to Halloween 1957, my mother and I engaged in one of our annual duels: would I wear the Halloween costume I’d been eyeing for weeks at the Ben Franklin store, or would I be forced to don some ridiculous creation of hers? Since my pouting had done nothing to achieve my goal, I hinted to my paternal grandmother that I’d like to have a costume I’d seen at the store. Normally, nothing would make my grandmother happier than doing something to upset my mother. But I forgot that my grandmother had herself been a young mother during the Great Depression, and commercial costumes were as foreign to her as Halloween was to her immigrant parents.
My anger and frustration grew, however, when I learned that not only would I be wearing a home-made costume to go out with my friends, but I would also be going to a party put on by some club to which my mother belonged. I would have the opportunity to be a laughingstock in two venues rather than one!
I thought of simply refusing to go. But I knew that I’d be spanked for that sort of insubordination. And if I feigned illness, I’d be given a teaspoon of cod-liver oil—the panacea in our home. As much as I could pray, I asked for a snowstorm of cataclysmic proportions. At the very least, a steady drizzle. I got cool, dry weather—even God seemed aligned against me. I was trapped.
The afternoon of Halloween brought wonder: What special hell did my mother have in mind for me? When I couldn’t stall any longer, I found out: I was to be hobo.
Homelessness and unemployment had no reality in my world; I saw hobos as the ultimate in freedom. They traveled where they liked for free; they followed no one’s rules; and they cared nothing for society’s opinion. While I may have found them romantic from the safety of the backseat of our family’s Chevrolet, I didn’t want to be one of them. They looked vaguely dangerous, and ten-year-old rebels don’t care much for real danger.
The actual costume, however, left me in shock: my father’s old clothes. A pair of pants, rolled up so they wouldn’t drag on the ground and trip me, held firmly around my waist by a piece of twine; an old shirt; a worn-out sports coat; my father’s old shoes with newspaper stuffed into the toes; and a slouch hat of unclear origin. It was odd, but it seemed authentic. But I wasn’t ready just yet: my mother said I’d need whiskers. Since I was almost a decade away from the necessity of daily shaving, I had no idea how this was going to occur. My mother had apparently thought about it: she smeared some sort of white cream on my face, then she applied liberal amounts of coffee grounds.
I don’t remember the ride there or much of the party, only that there were prizes for the best costumes. I knew the boys and girls with soldier and princess costumes were going to win, so I daydreamed during the awards. If some adult hadn’t taken me by the arm to the front of the room, I would have missed my Best Costume award. As I recall, it was a book, which seemed like a cruel trick to play upon a boy.
When my mother arrived to take me home, I knew that I was the hero she had sought, if only for a moment, and it wasn’t the worst thing.
Jack Bonawitz is a retired high school English teacher who--when he's not playing Pickleball--lives a life of quiet desperation in Boise, Idaho.
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