It’s said that we tend to only remember the good things and forget the bad, but the Twentieth Century Express transits through all territories no matter how bleak. It is October 30th, the eve before Halloween, 1960-something, and a small group of youthful miscreants is preparing a commando-style attack on an unsuspecting blue-collar neighborhood in a small suburban town in northern New Jersey. It would be their first, and their last ever, special-ops mission.
The event: Mischief Night, an unsavory affair that first surfaced in England around 1790. In the United Kingdom the practice shifted a few days later to be associated with Guy Fawkes Day, also referred to as Bonfire Night. Several hundred years later, in 1960s Claremont, NJ, it had no historical precedent and was just an excuse to raise hell. Encouraged by my own grandfather’s stories of tipping over occupied outhouses when he was a kid, I willingly opted into the organized mischief .
To put some of this in context, it was long before the advent of video games, and several of the neighborhood guys and I routinely acted out imaginary stories based on television shows like Combat! and The Man From Uncle. The initial plan was to protect our neighborhood from a rival group of guys a few streets over. In previous years we had been hit pretty hard on Mischief Nights, and it was our turn to strike back.
I brought in a school friend from another neighborhood named Matty, short for Mathew. He was far more worldly than I was, mostly because he had older brothers who could answer life questions that young guys just don’t take to dad. We anxiously listened to his sage advice on a plan of attack.
Matty’s first advice was, simply, “Don’t do it.” The other guys eyed him suspiciously and jibed me about bringing in “some pussy” to our courageous crew. Briggy Brain was the smart one in our group and because he was slender with blonde hair, he always got to be Ilya Kuryakin when we played Man From Uncle. He rightly sensed that calling the larger and stronger Matty a “pussy” would end badly, and quickly changed his tone. Matty’s status shot up however, when he revealed that he had brought along rotten duck eggs, always a sure fire way to get respect among your peers.
There was really only one house in the next neighborhood that we wanted to hit, a ripe target with three giant carved pumpkins outside the front door. Inside the house lived the meanest, nastiest kid in our school, Peter the Putrid.
That was our private name for him, and of course no one had ever called him that to his face and survived. Peter was also the leader of the Milton Avenue gang and had orchestrated a Mischief Night hit on our neighborhood the previous year.
It was also an indisputable fact among us kids that Peter had murdered his parents and was keeping their bodies frozen in a large freezer in the cellar. It was decided among us that Peter’s pumpkins had to go.
Everyone contributed armaments for the mission. Matty would handle the duck eggs, which were far too potent for us regular guys to deal with. I had explosives in the form of “ashcans,” very large firecrackers in the shape of a can. Briggy had a Zippo lighter so he and I would run a two-man assault on the pumpkins. Big Doug had several bars of Ivory soap and Drew the Screw had two bottles of ammonia.
The Putrid house, as we called it, faced Milton Avenue but backed up to a house on our street a block away. Our plan was to circle around to the front, attack the house from the street, fade into the darkness of the open back yards and lawns, then navigate back to safety. We were careful to map out any houses with fences, dogs or teenagers, and would meet back at Big Doug’s driveway as soon as possible.
At precisely 8:13 PM on October 30th, the bombardment began from across the street as Matty hurled egg after egg at the roof of the house. Within moments a gooey mess was dripping from the eaves onto the front steps. Drew struck next and thoroughly doused the front steps with ammonia. Doug went to work on soaping windows, while Briggy and I went for the pumpkins with the ashcans.
His Zippo lighter, which supposedly had seen action in the Pacific with his veteran sailor uncle, worked flawlessly. Within seconds three large pumpkins were blown into tiny, slimy, mushy bits and pieces all over the front porch and sidewalk, and fortunately all our fingers and toes remained intact. The Putrid house now lived up to its name. It was, well, putrid.
Part of our planning for the mission was to swear an oath that we would never tell anyone about it or be struck dead by a bolt of lightning. We also expected some reaction from Peter at school, but he never showed up in class the next day. After a week we tried to find out where he had gone, but none of the teachers would say anything except “mind your own business.”
We avoided Milton Avenue like the plague and day after day the tension mounted within the group that something was seriously wrong. Our best guess was that the police were investigating and that we would be finishing school that year in the penitentiary. We were all familiar with Dragnet and how quickly a detective like Joe Friday could get the truth out of a bunch of punks, which we surely were by this point.
About a week later a visitor came to my house. My mom answered the door to a well-dressed man wearing a jacket and tie who politely introduced himself as Mr. Russell, a neighbor who lived a block over on Milton Avenue. I peered around the wall from the dining room and could see the man clearly, but he hadn’t yet seen me. At first I thought it might be Peter’s father, but it was instead their next door neighbor.
I stepped around the corner into full sight of the man. He recognized me, I’d been made, but he didn’t give me away to my mother. He asked if I knew Peter and I responded that I did. He explained briefly that Peter’s grandmother had died and the family was away in Wisconsin for the funeral. He had offered to take care of their house while they were gone.
He turned back to my mother and laughed as he told her that he found the lighter when cleaning up after a bunch of “goofy kids” had come around and made a “little Halloween mess.” He looked right at me when he said that and I’m sure he noticed that my face turned crimson. He asked if I recognized a name that was inscribed on the lighter. I said I did, but didn’t offer any other detail, and he asked if I would be a “good boy” and return it to the rightful owner. I agreed, Mr. Russell said a polite thank-you and left. My mother brushed it all off and went back to doing mom stuff.
The following week Peter returned to school looking morose and despondent. He never indicated that he knew anything of what happened at his house that October night, and we stopped calling him “putrid” behind his back. Mr. Russell had kept the whole incident quiet. It was as if the great raid had never happened.
Another week went by and the guys and I decided we would rake all the leaves off Mr. Russell’s lawn one Saturday while he was out shopping with his wife. The yard looked neat and tidy when we finished and the leaves were raked into the street for pickup. I don’t remember ever talking to Mr. Russell in-person again, but he always gave us kids a big smile and a wave whenever he drove by our street.
Many years later, in college, I wrote a paper about “good mischief” versus “bad mischief.” I got a “B” and a comment that it was a silly topic because the word “mischief” itself derives from an Old French word meaning “to bring grief.” Okay, fair enough, but thanks to Mr. Russell, my friends and I learned that sometimes the best remedy for grief is kindness. To my knowledge there has never been another Mischief Night escapade anywhere near Milton Avenue.
“I used to be a little boy
So old in my shoes
And what I choose is my voice
What’s a boy supposed to do?
The killer in me is the killer in you…”
Smashing Pumpkins, Disarm, 1993.