Midnight on Brocken
by Jake Block
Another year’s passed and here it is, getting close to Halloween. As usual, I wax nostalgic as the day draws near, and once again I think of the “good old days.” Maybe they weren’t all that good, and I’m viewing the past through the hazy vision of adolescence, but the memories of that time flood the senses with a lost innocence born of reckless abandon that only youth can condone.
For a lad from the Midwest, there were things that one could expect on Halloween. The first snow flurries would surely come… just wisps on the wind… uncertain and fragile flakes that wouldn’t stick, but made you aware that Winter would soon be here. Chatter and more chatter about costumes. We could rarely afford store-bought costumes, so we made our own. The most grandiose plans made it to paper, but many a robot became a ghost or a hobo or a simple mask that you could get for ten cents at SS Kresgee (K-Mart for the under 45 set) or Woolworth’s. The bags of goodies would pile up like gold in Scrooge McDuck’s vault, and you’d eat Jujubes and candy corn until you thought you’d burst. But after the traditional Midwestern Halloween fare, you knew that by midnight, you’d make your way to Brocken.
Darkness came to our area of the Midwest by 7 PM. By 6:30, all of the kids in the neighborhood were champing at the bit to be unleashed upon an unsuspecting neighborhood. Werewolves and ballerinas jostled for positions at the door, held in check by the now exasperated mother’s voice that warned, “You can’t go out until SEVEN, so sit down and watch TV.” When you’re a kid, the 6 o’clock news had little relevance in your life, especially on Halloween! Then, as if uncaged by an unseen hand, we spilled into the street looking for plunder… and mischief.
The first priority was plunder. By the time you got to be ten, you knew who gave out the good stuff, who you’d have to “perform” for and who would stiff you. The grownups never seemed to tire of kid-jokes told by costumed invaders. In your mind you performed complex calculations on how you could rattle off your spiel and hit as many places as you could before you had to make your way to Brocken by midnight. Somewhere around the thirtieth time you told the joke about why 6 was afraid of 7 (because 7 8 9), your biological clock told you that it was 9:15… time for the prerequisite Halloween prank.
Belleville, Illinois was a small town then, but you could really get into mischief. The problem was that everyone knew your dad, so you had to be careful not to get caught or if caught, swallow your cyanide capsule before you were killed. Dads could always KILL YOU, and they let you know it at the least provocation.
Now, the widow Martin had chased a bunch of us from her apple orchard, and we knew that this affront to our sovereignty as kids had to be met with the ultimate in Halloween retribution. Yes, we were going to kill her outhouse. We laid out our plans like Generals in battle. Kenny Franks would ring the bell and do the trick or treat schtick. Meanwhile, Nicholas and Mike Hasenstab were to charge the outhouse, knocking it over, if possible. I would be waiting with my brother, Butch. We’d set the thing on fire and run like hell!
It was pitch dark as we lay in wait next to the widow Martin’s house. We heard the doorbell ring… it was one of the old key-types that sort of rattled and rang at the same time. When we heard Kenny say, “Trick or treat, smell my feet, gimme something good to eat,” we sprinted for the out-door privy far to the back of the yard. We could just make out its shape in the darkness as we ran, full-tilt into the chill wind of October. We were in our glory! We ran for all we were worth, our lungs gasping for air…
The first indication that something was wrong was when Nick and Mike disappeared. They were running between Butch and I and they just vanished. Then we heard their anguished voices whining, “Aw, yuck! Hey, you guyyyys, help us out of here, will you? Oh, no! It stinks! Come on now, help us out!”
The widow was having her septic pit limed out.
By now our eyes were fully adjusted to the darkness of the widow’s back yard, We could see the outhouse about ten feet away, off its foundation. We could see Nick and Mike at the bottom of the shallow pit, quite literally in a world of shit. We reluctantly reached down and pulled them free. I’ll never forget the sound… sort of like “ssschlook!” Two less pilgrims on their way to Brocken.
Belleville had two theaters within walking distance. The Lincoln was always our favorite, as it had a balcony. When you were a kid, you didn’t think in terms of “making out” in the balcony. You knew that this was the perfect level from which to launch soggy buttered popcorn and flattened-out popcorn boxes. But on Halloween, this was where the kids all huddled for safety. This was Brocken, the mountain of witchly revelry. Every Halloween, the Lincoln had a smorgasbord of horror features from midnight until dawn.
This was where one first learned to appreciate or fear the world of the occult, the paranormal, bizarre and eerie. Those who made the grade would return again and again until the inferior quality of latter day horror films would allow the ritual to die. But while it lasted, it was an Oberamergau for the true connoisseur of horror films. Dracula… Lugosi, not Langella… The Wolfman, The Mummy and The Thing brought squeals from those who had seen them before. By the time the fifth feature flashed on that big screen, most were sleeping in those balcony seats, with visions of monsters filling their heads.
Next day, you slept until noon… seems like Halloween was always on a Friday then, and there was no school to worry about. Nick and Mike carped about how they had been ripped off. Their dad had killed them and their bags of Halloween candy had been rendered inedible by the noxious substances in the widow’s septic pit. But most of all, they’d missed their midnight on Brocken, with its stale popcorn and diluted Coke. It was a rite of passage that they’d have to wait another year for.
Today, over 50 years later, I can still look back on those days and smile, but I grieve as well. The youth of today will never know the same thrill and fear of those classics in the darkened theater with its velvet curtains and musty smells. Perhaps a new Broken exists somewhere…