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O CHRISTMAS TREE

December 9, 2018

For nearly fifty-three years Clare and I have enjoyed having a freshly cut, fragrant evergreen to grace our home during the season of Advent. Over the years we have had Scotch pine trees, Canadian spruce trees, and red cedar trees for our Christmas tree.  We have tried living trees with the root ball intact placed in a large galvanized tub. Only one of those lived when we planted it in our yard. That was a Colorado blue spruce grown in the mountains of North Carolina.  By far, our favorite kind of tree is the Fraser fir grown above three thousand feet in the North Carolina highlands.

Many families in the Upstate participate in the tradition of decorating for the holiday season with a Christmas tree. Right before the first Sunday of Advent, we begin our decorating for Christmas. A wreath with a red ribbon on the front door and a Moravian Star on the front porch are usually our first decorations. Those are followed closely by several nativity sets on available surfaces in various rooms of the house. The Christmas tree is up and decorated a little later.

Last year, a fresh Christmas tree was hefted into our home by a strong young teenager. Once the Fraser Fir was in place I followed a long-standing tradition. Years ago I developed the habit of tying the tree to a hook in the ceiling using a length of parachute cord. That extra precaution was deemed necessary after one of our sons tried to climb the limbs. That is just one of many Christmas tree perils.

Once our tree was properly aligned, watered, and anchored to the ceiling, it was time to adorn the fir.  Clare found Christmas music on the radio. The tree was beautifully decorated by more teenagers. First, 1000 white lights were tucked into the thick green branches. Next, ornaments accumulated over more than fifty years of marriage were suspended from every available spot. Then, crocheted and tatted snowflakes along with crystal icicles and stars were added. Finally, a small Moravian star supported by a crystal angel was affixed to the tip top.

When the entire project was completed, one teenager asked, “Where did the idea of bringing a tree into the house begin?” Great question!  Dead needle accumulation, clogged vacuum cleaner bags, and the hazard of fire are other Christmas tree perils. Read more…

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THE BELLS OF CHRISTMAS

December 1, 2018

Many hardy souls across the Upstate have ventured out in these chilly days of November and December to do Christmas shopping. These folks have been greeted by the familiar sound of bells ringing. The Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Campaign is 125 years old this year. Willing volunteers were on the job ringing with gusto to help celebrate their anniversary and collect money for the needy in our community. I know members of the Rotary Club have offered to take a turn ringing the bells.

This is the season for bells. Inside stores and shopping malls, the strains of a Christmas song welcomed eager customers to the cathedral of capitalism. “Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?” Never mind if the temperature outside was in the sixties.

Several years ago I wrote a Christmas story entitled “A Bell for Victoria.” The tale was set in Hendersonville, North Carolina, and featured the bells of St. James Episcopal Church. The church is one of a few in the Carolinas to feature change ringing.

The tower of St. James houses eight bells arranged according to the progression of a musical scale. They are rung by a team of eight with a tower captain calling signals much like a football quarterback.  Each member of the team rings one bell by pulling a rope attached to it high in the tower above.

Change ringing derives its name from the varying patterns in which the bells are sounded.  The number of sequences possible for eight bells, like those at St. James, is 40,320. The art of ringing these changes originated in English churches several hundred years ago. Read more…

ADVENT AND HANUKKAH: A SEASON OF LIGHT

November 24, 2018

A motorist was trapped in his automobile on a lonely stretch of a North Dakota highway during a December blizzard.  As the snowfall subsided, the traveler ventured out of his car.  In the bitterly cold night, he trudged through the drifts toward a faint light in the distance. The light grew brighter as he approached a farmhouse. The home was that of a Jewish family who offered the warmth of hospitality to the stranded man: a chair by the fireplace and a bowl of hot chicken soup.  The light that saved the stranger’s life came from the glowing candles of a menorah displayed in the window of the farmhouse.

A menorah is a candelabra with nine candles used in the celebration of Hanukkah.

Often, Christmas falls within the eight-day observance of Hanukkah. This year the Jewish observance begins on the first day of Christian Advent, Sunday, December 2, and extends through December 10, 2018.

Christians mark the days of Advent by lighting candles in an Advent wreath. They gather for worship in churches on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Also known as the Feast of Dedication or the Festival of Lights, the days of Hanukkah are marked by Jewish families as they light candles in a menorah each evening.

The origin of Hanukkah dates to 164 B.C.E. (before the common era) when Syria dominated Israel.  Antiochus Epiphanes, the king of Syria, was a harsh, cruel tyrant.  Jewish worship, including the observance of Passover and the Sabbath, was forbidden under Antiochus. Idols representing Greek gods were set up in the temple, and the scrolls of the Torah were burned. Antiochus slaughtered a pig on the altar of the temple, committing what the Book of Daniel refers to as the abomination of desecration.  The Syrians murdered thousands of Jewish dissidents who were steadfastly loyal to their faith.

Three years later, under the leadership of Yehuda the Hammer, better known as Judas Maccabees, the Jews defeated an army of 40,000 Syrians.  Judas and his band of four brothers, known by their family name as the Maccabees, liberated Jerusalem. They entered the temple and cleansed it of idols. They also built and dedicated a new altar to replace the one desecrated by Antiochus.

A part of the dedication was the relighting of the eternal flame representing the presence of God in the temple. However, they had only enough consecrated olive oil to keep the light burning for one day. By Jewish law, consecrating new oil would require eight days. Miraculously, the small cruse of oil continued to burn for eight days.

Hanukkah, which means dedication, commemorates this divine blessing.  It is an eight-day festival of thanksgiving and rededication for the Jewish community. Jewish families light candles in the menorah each evening. The center taper, known as the servant candle, is used to light the other eight, each in turn as the days pass. By the eighth night, all candles are burning.

For Christians, the celebration of Christmas includes symbols of light: the star of Bethlehem and the candles in an Advent wreath. For Jews, the symbols of divine light are the Star of David and the candles of the menorah. In this season of light, we recognize and respect both traditions.

In 1973, Clare and I moved our family from Louisville, Kentucky, to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It was in that good place that we learned about the Moravians. Church historians regard the Moravians as the first Protestants. The denomination originated in Czechoslovakia around 1415. Started by a Catholic priest named John Hus, the fledgling group became a persecuted church until they found refuge on the estate of Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf.  They moved across the border from Moravia to Zinzendorf’s property, thus giving them the name Moravians.

The Moravians made their way from Czechoslovakia to Germany to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. A contingent settled in Salem, North Carolina, on 10,000 acres known as Wachovia.  Today many of the area attractions preserve the history of these settlers and educate visitors about their origins and influence. Our family adopted several of the Moravian traditions while we lived in Pfafftown, north of Winston-Salem.

A Moravian star is the very first Christmas decoration to appear at our home. I usually hang it on our front porch the Friday after Thanksgiving where it remains in place until Epiphany. From the beginning of Advent until the Day of Epiphany, our Moravian star represents the light that pointed the way to Bethlehem.

The Christmas Eve candlelight service, sometimes called a Moravian love feast, features the sharing of Moravian coffee and a sweet roll. Each worshipper receives a candle from a server. The beeswax candles, trimmed in fireproof red paper, remind worshippers of the gift of light in a season of darkness.

An Advent wreath is another way to mark the approach of Christmas. Four candles are arranged on a table in a circular wreath.  Each Sunday during Advent a new candle is lighted. A white Christ candle is in the center. It is lighted on Christmas Day.

We enjoy several Advent wreaths in our home. One was made for us by Dr. Bob Cooper, a dear friend and fellow pastor, in his workshop. Constructed from simple wooden blocks, the sturdy wreath is at the center of our breakfast table. Another wreath, handmade by Sid Luck, a potter in Seagrove, North Carolina, graces our dining room table.

From the time our children were preschoolers, we have displayed a wreath on a table in our foyer that we purchased in Old Salem.  We found the decoration when we lived in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It was a simple circle with four red candles around the perimeter. A tall dowel wrapped in red ribbon lifted a tiny paper Moravian star above a manger scene created entirely out of cornhusk doll Nativity figures.

Each Sunday in Advent we gathered our five children around the wreath to light the appropriate candle. One year, on the third Sunday of Advent, we lit the peace candle. After reading a Scripture passage from Isaiah about the promise of peace, we sang a Christmas carol.

As I was offering the closing prayer, there shone a great light! Our Advent wreath with cornhusk figures burst into flames!

Holy smoke!

I grabbed the burning wreath and started to dash toward the front door. Clare shouted, “Throw it in the bathtub!”

I stopped in my tracks, turned on my heels, and detoured to the guest bathroom just across the hall. I jerked back the shower curtain, dropped the wreath into the tub, turned on the faucet, and doused the flames with water.

The smoke alarm was blasting. Younger children were crying. Older ones were laughing. All of us were greatly relieved.

Some of the cornhusk figures were burned to a crisp. A few were charred but still recognizable.

To this day, we display a wreath with the manger scene of cornhusk figures. Some of them are replacements. Others are scorched survivors of the fire. I have reworked the wreath. The paper Moravian star has been replaced. We still have candles on the wreath, but, for obvious reasons, we never light them. The figures singed in the fire are a reminder of God’s protection.

Whatever your holiday traditions may be, the wisdom of a Chinese proverb offers sound advice for this season of light. “Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

True, but please, be careful with those candles!

THE MAYFLOWER STORY

November 18, 2018

From the time I was a child, I heard the story of Plymouth Colony and the Pilgrims who settled there. I have learned more about their story in the intervening years.

More than thirty-eight years ago in Boston, our family visited a replica of the Mayflower, the vessel that brought the Pilgrims to the shores of the New World. I was struck by how small the ship was. The thought of crowding 102 people on a boat 128 feet long and enduring an ocean voyage of sixty-six days boggles the mind.

In the middle of the Atlantic, the small Mayflower was swept into a fierce storm. A tremendous wave broke across the deck of the ship, splintering boards and fracturing one of the main beams. With Captain Christopher Jones shouting orders above the roar of the raging sea, the crew employed a large iron screw jack to lift the broken beam and the sagging deck back into place. After inspecting the repairs, Captain Jones decided that the ship’s hull was sound. The journey continued.

The storm at sea was yet another event in a long history of difficulties faced by the Pilgrims. A decade after removing themselves from the Church of England, the Separatists lived as exiles in Holland. The Puritans, as they were also known, negotiated for three years before obtaining the necessary sponsor to establish a colony in the New World.  Only eight Separatist families were prepared to make the pilgrimage across the ocean. They were refugees from Europe seeking a secure homeland that afforded them religious freedom.

Thinking that the group was too small to survive, the Virginia Company recruited volunteers to join the voyage.  The Puritans referred to these recruits as strangers. The passengers — strangers and Pilgrims, soldiers and sailors, recruits with their families, and eight Separatist families — made the perilous voyage together. Read more…

A VETERANS DAY REFLECTION

November 11, 2018

Sunday, November 11, is Veterans Day. I have reflected on how we as Americans will honor those who have served our country. Scout troops and veterans will march together in parades. Some will hold flag retirement ceremonies. Our national leaders will mark the day with pomp and ceremony. People of faith will gather for worship and will remember those who died in service to our country and their families. Many will simply breathe a silent prayer. I will conduct a graveside funeral for a ninety-seven-year-old man who served in the United States Marine Corps during World War II.

Five of my uncles served our country during World War II. Two were in the Navy, two were in the Army Air Corps, and one was in the regular Army. Uncle Buzz was in the Normandy invasion. Uncle Bill was assigned to the Pacific. Two were in bombers that were shot down over Germany. Uncle Bury parachuted into Switzerland. Uncle David was taken as a prisoner of war.  Uncle Robert endured the harsh life of an infantryman and then was captured as a prisoner of war. From these uncles, I learned a major truth. In war, there are no soldiers without wounds.

November 11 is designated as a day of gratitude for the brave.

Mark Twain wrote, “The patriot is a scarce man, and brave, and hated and scorned. When his cause succeeds, the timid join him, for then it costs nothing to be a patriot.”

This serious quote from a great humorist speaks an important truth. November 11, Veterans Day, soldiers and the citizens join in a time of remembrance. Elmer Davis said, “This nation will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave.”

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, an armistice ending World War I between Germany and the Allied nations went into effect. The treaty signed at Rethondes, France, ushered in an era of peace.

In 1919, President Wilson proclaimed that Armistice Day, November 11, should be “filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory”. There were parades and public meetings.  Business activities were briefly suspended at 11:00 A.M.

In 1926, the United States Congress declared that the anniversary of the armistice should be commemorated with prayer and thanksgiving. The flag of the United States was to be displayed on all Government buildings. On November 11 observances were to be held in schools and churches, or other suitable places.

This day was originally intended to honor veterans of World War I.  In 1954, by an act of Congress, November 11 became a day to honor all American veterans. The day became Veterans Day.

Traditionally a two-minute silence is observed on November 11. It is two minutes well spent because we too easily take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude.

I remember playing Army with my friends when I was a boy. Our battlefield was usually Dead Horse Canyon, over the creek and through the woods behind our house. One of my buddies insisted that he play the part of Audie Murphy in every skirmish. I didn’t know who Audie Murphy was until much later. I can understand now why my friend wanted to play the part of the World War II hero.

Audie Murphy was the son of a poor Texas sharecropper. The farm boy earned fame as the most decorated United States combat soldier of World War II. Among his 33 awards was the Medal of Honor, the highest military recognition for bravery that can be given to any individual in the United States of America.

He also received every United States military medal for valor, some of them more than once. He was recognized with five awards by France and Belgium. Credited with killing over 240 of the enemy while wounding and capturing many others, he became a legend within the 3rd Infantry Division.

Beginning his service as a teenage Army Private, Audie quickly rose to the enlisted rank of Staff Sergeant. He was given a battlefield commission as Second Lieutenant. Murphy fought in nine major campaigns across the European Theater. He was wounded three times.

During his three years of active combat service, Audie became one of the best fighting soldiers in history. Many believe that his accomplishments will never be repeated by another soldier, especially given today’s high-tech warfare.

On September 21, 1945, at the age of 21, Audie was released from the U. S. Army. His picture appeared on the cover of Life magazine.

Actor James Cagney invited Murphy to Hollywood. The next two years were hard times for Murphy. He slept in a local gymnasium until he began receiving token acting parts.

In 1950 Murphy got a contract with Universal-International where he starred in 26 films. Most of those films were Westerns.  His 1949 autobiography To Hell and Back was a best seller. Murphy starred as himself in a film biography released by Universal-International in 1955 with the same title. The movie, “To Hell and Back,” held the record as Universal’s highest grossing picture until 1975 when it was finally surpassed by the movie “Jaws.”

Murphy married actress Wanda Hendrix in 1949. They were divorced in 1951. He then married former airline stewardess Pamela Archer. Pam was the love of his life. They were parents of two sons.

Despite his success in Hollywood, Audie never forgot his rural Texas roots. He returned frequently to the Dallas area where he owned a small ranch. He also had ranches in California and Arizona. He was a successful thoroughbred and quarter horse owner and breeder.  His films earned him close to 3 million dollars in 23 years as an actor. But Audie loved to gamble. He was an avid high stakes poker player. He won and lost fortunes.

Murphy wrote some poetry and was successful as a songwriter. Dozens of his songs were recorded by Dean Martin, Eddy Arnold, Charley Pride, Porter Waggoner, and Roy Clark. His two biggest hits were “Shutters and Boards” and “When the Wind Blows in Chicago.”

Audie suffered from battle fatigue, now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. After the war, he was plagued by insomnia and depression. During the mid-60s he became dependent on prescription sleeping pills. When he recognized that he was addicted to the prescription drug, he locked himself in a motel room, stopped taking the sleeping pills, and went through withdrawal symptoms for a week.

Audie was always an advocate for the needs of veterans. After his addiction, he broke the taboo about discussing war-related mental problems. In an effort to draw attention to the problems of returning Korean and Vietnam War veterans, Murphy spoke candidly about his personal problems. He publicly called for the United States government to give more attention to the emotional impact war has on veterans and to extend health care benefits to include the mental health problems of returning war vets.

While on a business trip on Memorial Day Weekend, 1971, Murphy was killed at the age of 46. He was a passenger in a private plane flying in fog and rain that crashed into the side of a mountain near Roanoke, Virginia.

On June 7, 1971, Murphy was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

Pam Murphy, wife and widow of Audie Murphy, established her own distinctive 35-year career working as a patient liaison at the Sepulveda Veterans Administration Hospital. Every soldier who was a patient in the hospital was treated with respect and dignity by Pam Murphy.

“Nobody could cut through VA red tape faster than Mrs. Murphy,” said one veteran. “She was our angel.”

When Audie died, he was broke, having squandered millions on gambling, bad investments, and other women.

“Even with the adultery and desertion at the end, he always remained my hero,” Pam said.

Pam Murphy died on April 8, 2010. She was ninety years old.

One year Dennis McCarthy of the Los Angeles Times asked Pam to be the focus of a Veteran’s Day column for all the work she had done. Pam declined. “Honor them, not me,” she said. “They’re the ones who deserve it.”

Let’s do as Pam Murphy said and honor our veterans.

THE BLESSING OF ADOPTION

November 4, 2018

A month or so ago, I spoke with a young couple about their futile attempts to have a child. They literally had tried everything from homeopathic treatments to fertility measures, all to no avail. Quietly weeping, the young woman said, “Our time to be parents is slipping away. We would like to consider adoption but our parents object. My father says adoption is taking a big chance. You never know what kind of child you’ll get.”

“Your father is correct,’ I said. “But that is also true for parenting in general. Parenting is always a risk without any guarantees. If you decide to adopt, the one thing that is somewhat certain is that you will get a child.”

During the Civil War, Zachary Taylor Hutson fought in the Wilderness Campaign with Robert E. Lee. When the War of Northern Aggression ended, Z.T. Hutson was mustered out of the Confederate Army. He took a train south to Spartanburg. From there, he walked all the way to his family farm in Barnwell County. He made the 130-mile journey hobbling on a wounded leg and suffering from tuberculosis. The trek took a full week.

In time, Z.T. and his wife, Simpie Getsinger, had two sons, Willie and Joe.  Willie eventually took responsibility for the farm. He served as a representative from Barnwell County to the State Legislature.  Joe, the younger son, left Barnwell County and moved to the Upstate. He attended Getsinger Business School founded by his uncle Joseph Jasper Getsinger. There he met Belle Haynsworth from Darlington.

Joe and Belle lived in Spartanburg. They were the parents of five sons and one daughter. Joe changed the spelling of his name from Hutson to Hudson.

After his first wife died, Willie married Mollie Woodward.  Her father was Robert E. Lee Woodward.  Willie gained a stepdaughter from Mollie’s first marriage. Willie and Mollie had four sons and then a daughter, Louise.

When little Louise was only six weeks old, her mother, Mollie, died.

Joe and Belle traveled from Spartanburg to Barnwell County for the funeral.  Following the burial in the cemetery of Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, Willie handed his infant daughter across Mollie’s grave to his sister-in-law, Belle.

Willie said to Joe and Belle, “I don’t b’lieve I can raise this little girl on a farm with these four boys.  I’d be obliged if you’d take her with you to Spartanburg. I’d ‘preciate it if you’d rear her as your own.”

That baby girl was my mother.  Her aunt and uncle, Joe and Belle Hudson,  adopted her.  Because her adopted parents and her birth father were so closely related, she always regarded both families as hers.  In essence, she was the youngest of twelve children in the two families combined.  Throughout her life, she had a good relationship with all of these older brothers and sisters the two families.  She thought of both Willie and Joe as her daddies, calling them Little Daddy and Big Daddy.

I knew my grandmother, Belle Hudson, as Granny. In her Last Will and Testament, Granny included these words, “And to my niece Louise, whom I have always regarded as my daughter, my desire is that she share and share alike with my other children.”

My mother wept tears of joy.

Granny’s estate was very modest. Her love for her family was extravagant.

My mother’s inheritance was not wealth. It was acceptance and a sense of belonging.

On October 31, 2011, Clare and I became grandparents of two precious children, a brother and sister, adopted by our son and daughter-in-law. These two children are counted among our thirteen grandchildren. We love and cherish all thirteen of our grandchildren. Each is a unique individual; each is created in the image of God, and each one is a blessing in our lives.

In family court on adoption day, I saw a group of caring adults gathered around these children. There were smiles all around. The judge was all business until the legal proceedings were concluded. Then he posed for photographs along with adoptive parents and two sets of grandparents. Because it was Halloween Day, he offered our new grandchildren the first trick-or-treat gifts of the day, Tootsie Pops.

When I shook the judge’s hand to thank him, he commented, “In family court, I hear many sad, even tragic, stories. A case like this where two children are placed in their forever family is what brings me joy. This makes my work worthwhile.”

In our family, we regard adoption as a blessing, but it is not that way for some. At http://www.adoption.com there are numerous stories of people for whom being adopted has been a painful experience. Nearly every person who has been adopted has questions about their birth parents. Many know that their adoptive parents have loved them and provided for them in ways that their birth parents could not have. However, for some, adoption carries a lifelong stigma.

In the church that I served for eighteen years, we were fortunate to have several adoptive families. It has been my privilege to dedicate children who are chosen through adoption at birth. I have baptized young people who were foster children and were later adopted by their foster parents. In these situations, adoption is a blessing to the child, the parents, and the church.

Those, like my mother, who are adopted, have a special place in the world. In a very real sense, they are the chosen ones.

A list of famous people who were adopted includes people of diverse backgrounds and occupations. Moses, the biblical leader of the Jews, Lakota war chief Crazy Horse, and comedian Art Linkletter are on the roll.

Among the politicians on the list are John Hancock and Nelson Mandela. Civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson were adopted.

The list includes inventor George Washington Carver, naturalist John Audubon, Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s, and Steve Jobs of Apple computer.

Philosophers Aristotle and Jean Jacques Rousseau are included. Authors Edgar Allan Poe and Langston Hughes were adopted.

The Associated Press published the story of Captain Scott Southworth of Wisconsin. Scott knew he would face violence when he was deployed with his Military Police unit to one of Iraq’s most dangerous areas. What he didn’t expect to find was nine-year-old Ala’a, a boy suffering from cerebral palsy. Ala’a, abandoned on a street in Baghdad, had been taken to the orphanage of the Sisters of Mercy founded by Mother Teresa. On a visit with his unit in 2003, Scott met the black-haired and brown-eyed Ala’a. The boy dragged himself to the side of the 31-year-old American Captain and won the soldier’s heart.

Over the next 10 months, the unit returned to the orphanage several times. A bond developed between Southworth and Ala’a. The boy began referring to Scott as Baba, Arabic for Daddy.

Iraqi law prohibits foreigners from adopting Iraqi children. Immigration laws in this country are also prohibitive. Homeland security in the United States was another hurdle.

The process took several years. Undaunted, Southworth prevailed, and Ala’a became his adopted son.

Adoption is indeed a blessing!

MAMA’S CANDY APPLES

October 27, 2018

I went into a local store the other day to pick up a few groceries. I was amazed at the vast display of Halloween candy. Judging by the sheer volume and variety of the seasonal confections, many of the folks in our neck of the woods must certainly have a sweet tooth.  Seeing all that candy brought back memories of boyhood days when trick or treating was eagerly anticipated.

One of my favorite Halloween memories is the candy apples that Mama made for the many trick-or-treaters that came to our house. I shared the story in this column several years ago. Since then I have received a request for a repeat. Some want Mama’s recipe for the sugary fruit on a stick; others just enjoy the story.

On Halloween night, our grandchildren, along with great-nieces and great-nephews, visit their great-aunt Beth’s house to trick-or-treat. My sister Beth follows the tradition started by our mother. She makes candy apples for the costumed little ones who come to her door seeking treats.

The bright red candy apple was an entirely new experience for our grandchildren. After a time of intense licking, they were a sugar-coated sight. Cheeks and lips were crimson, chins and hands were sticky. In their first encounter with a candy apple, they never did get down to the fruit beneath the candy coating.

When I was a boy, back in the days before the Grinch stole Halloween, October 31 was one of the most anticipated evenings of the year. All Hallow’s Eve was second only to Christmas Eve when excitement, for kids, permeated the night air. No sooner had the sun gone down, than costumed kids of every age flooded the streets of the neighborhood, knocking on doors and shouting “Trick or treat!”

Parents escorting their children stood a few yards away, guardian angels watching over small gremlins and goblins. The trick-or-treaters carried plastic jack-o-lanterns or paper bags to collect their bounty.

My friend Rusty always dressed as a pirate, carrying a large pillowcase to stash his booty. He stuffed the second pillowcase into his pocket, just in case the first one reached capacity. Rusty’s Halloween range was far greater than mine. He worked his neighborhood of Ben Avon before dark and then came to my street about the time I walked out of my house dressed as a hobo.

We ventured from one house to the next collecting treats. Rusty carried a spray can of whipping cream as he made his rounds. If the treat he received at a home was particularly generous, Rusty marked the driveway with a whipped cream star. A full-sized candy bar – Hershey, Snickers, Milky Way, or Three Musketeers – merited a star.

I learned a lot from Rusty. His advice was to avoid large groups. Two beggars at a time were enough for any home. Five or six together usually got smaller gifts.

Occasionally, we would have meetings with other trick-or-treaters to discuss which houses gave out the best goodies. Rusty was like a crafty angler, concealing his best fishing hole. He never told about the houses with the whipped cream star. On the other hand, he gathered as much information as he could.

Sometimes Rusty would trade treats with other consultants. He always came out on the better end of the deal. I saw him trade three packs of Juicy Fruit Chewing Gum for a Hershey’s Chocolate Almond bar and a pack of Topps Baseball Cards. The pack had both a Mickey Mantle and a Willie Mays card inside.

One dark night, at one of the roadside conferences, an unlikely clown revealed that “a guy on the other side of Duncan Park Lake giving away silver dollars.”

After the meeting broke up, Rusty said, “Let’s go!”

I knew he meant we were going to the other side of the lake, but the trip was beyond my range and would have taken me long past my curfew. We headed back toward my house.

Rusty stopped at a driveway with a whipped cream star. He took off his pirate’s eye patch, removed the bandana from his head, walked to the door, and collected a second 3 Musketeers candy bar from the same house. He added a second whipped cream star to mark the driveway.

“I’ll see you later,” he said as he left for the other side of Duncan Park Lake, and I continued toward my home.

My mother knew how to throw a party. She believed every holiday deserved to be celebrated to the fullest. St. Valentine and St. Patrick got almost as much attention as St. Nicholas.

Halloween was one of her favorite occasions. Orange pumpkins adorned the front porch. Inside our home, glowing jack-o-lanterns and gossamer ghosts were everywhere.

Mama’s contribution to trick-or-treaters was a candy apple, the treat everybody wanted most of all. Mama dipped apples, each fitted with a short sharpened stick, into a hot candy coating. If you have ever burned your hands with a hot glue gun, you know how dipping a candy apple feels.

Every Halloween, Mama made hundreds. Children came trick-or-treating at our house from all over town.

Mama bought apples by the case from the old Community Cash grocery store at the end of our street. The family took turns at a hand-cranked pencil sharpener putting points on the dowel rods Dad had cut at the lumberyard. The apples were washed and the sticks inserted before Mama cooked the candy. She made many batches, hundreds of candy apples, every Halloween.

My sister Beth, now the queen of candy apples in our family, was willing to share Mama’s recipe, which makes 12-24 candy apples. She said the technique for making the treat can be tricky.

Ingredients:

2 cups sugar

1 package cinnamon candy drops (Mama stockpiled these.)

1 tablespoon red food coloring

1 cup water

1 teaspoon vinegar

Directions:

Cook all ingredients to 265 degrees – somewhere between soft and hard crack stage – on a candy thermometer.

Dip apples.

Place on a marble slab greased with real butter.

Wrap in plastic bags when cool.

Several years ago, I conducted a funeral service for a man who grew up in our neighborhood. Following the funeral, the brother of the deceased fondly told me of coming to our house on Halloween. He said that Mama always invited the children into her kitchen so that she could see their costumes.

“We would get a candy apple, go home, change disguises, and come back for another.” Then he made a confession. “One year, my brother and I came trick-or-treating at your house four times. We got four candy apples!” Then he added, “Your mother knew. She called us by name and said, ‘You boys have been here four times. I think that’s enough this year.’”

“What made you think you could get away with that?” I asked.

He grinned, “There were four whipped cream stars by your driveway.”