Not all children are innocents, but I was. When Bobby Cruz told me a joke with the punchline “Tom, Dick, and Harry,” with extra emphasis on “Harry,” I stared at him blankly. “Get it? Like a lady’s hairy?” he said.
“Oh. Yeah, that’s funny,” I said.
“You don’t get it,” Bobby said.
“Yes I do.”
But I didn’t. No second grader should understand a joke with a punchline like that, but–in 1974 at least–it seemed that every kid other than I did.
My naivete probably ranked fairly low on the list of things that rendered me an outsider. My clothes were wrong, my hair was wrong, even my accent was wrong. Our family had only lived in the Chicago suburbs for a couple of months. We were recent transplants from Denver, vagabonds following my father around the country as he made his way up the corporate ladder. The other kids in the neighborhood had spent their entire lives–all eight years–together. They played together, rode the school bus together, and traded baseball cards together as if they were some sort of black market currency. I even joined Cub Scouts to weasel my way into their clique, but it didn’t help.
If you can’t join them, beat them, so when Halloween rolled around and my mother asked what I wanted to be I planned to take full advantage of her skills. That woman was brilliant with needle and thread. She knit, crocheted, embroidered, and cross stitched. She darned, doilied, and even hooked a few rugs. The only fiber art my mother never explored was weaving, but if someone had given her a loom she would have mastered that, too.
Every childhood Halloween costume I wore came from the skilled needle of my mother’s sewing kit; well, all but one. The prior year I somehow finagled a Ben Cooper skeleton costume. The brightly colored box promised terrifying thrills and chills for the poor suckers who opened their doors to me, but the lame plastic half mask with the little elastic strap frightened no one. The grown-ups in my neighborhood just smiled and said things like “don’t you look precious,” though admittedly that might not have been entirely the Ben Cooper company’s fault. I was a scary skeleton wearing a winter coat and snow boots, after all.
“So what do you want to be this year, Jimmy?” my mother asked. What should I ask for? Dracula? Frankenstein? I panicked the time my sisters wrapped me up like the Mummy, so that was out. My mother probably wouldn’t wrap my nose and mouth shut like they did, but still–some scars linger. “A football player? A clown?” she suggested.
I choked under the pressure. “A beaver,” I said. I have no idea where it came from. Maybe the kids at school thought it was a funny word, or perhaps a Leave It To Beaver rerun was on at that very moment. The only thing I know for certain is that I had no particular fondness for dam building rodents.
“I don’t know how to make a beaver costume,” my mother said, but I knew that couldn’t be true. She could make anything.
The next few weeks flew past in a montage of costume manufacturing. There were trips to the fabric store, much pinning of patterns to materials, and deft use of pinking shears. Good montage music didn’t come along until the ’80s, but that didn’t matter. My mother often sang while she worked, so as she ran the brown material through her sewing machine she called the wind Mariah and announced the arrival of the Wells Fargo wagon, which was perpetually a-comin’ down the street. At some point during that montage she gathered a stack of brown paper grocery bags and thoroughly rinsed a bleach bottle. What they would be used for was anybody’s guess. The woman was some sort of mad costume genius.
She finished the costume the night before Halloween. That morning I didn’t dress for school in Garanimals but rather my new costume. The body resembled a brown hazmat suit with a pair of little ears atop the hood. Behind me trailed a big, flat tail that my mother expertly quilted with diamond stitches. My mother’s face was all expectation, and mine must have been all disappointment.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
“Beavers have big funny teeth,” I said.
“Oh, darnit. I’ll be right back,” she said, and she ran to her sewing room. She returned with a pair of buck teeth cut from the bleach bottle and a fat log made from rolled up grocery sacks. “A beaver needs something to chew on,” she said.
Now, walking around an elementary school telling anyone who will listen–kids and adults alike–that you’re a great big beaver gives a kid the mistaken impression that he’s struck comedy gold, which I suppose I had–just not intentionally. I had no idea why both the teachers and Bobby Cruz found industrious woodland creatures so funny, but even as a grade schooler I was a total laugh whore. Maybe it was my big, floppy tail that put me over the top, or my thick wood.
When I learned that there was a “funniest costume” trophy at that night’s Cub Scout meeting, I was sure I had it locked up. The only question was where to put my gleaming new award. Should I clear some space on my model shelf, or stick it casually between my airplane books? All I knew for certain was that once the scout masters got a look at my big brown beaver they were sure to shower me with golden glory.
I couldn’t wait for the costume contest. We did a bunch of boring Scouts crud, and when it was finally time I was the first kid in the lineup. My friends filled in behind me, and not one sported a homemade costume. They ran the full gamut of Ben Cooper awesomeness: Fonzie, Dracula, Evel Knievel, Frankenstein–but not a single other dam-building rodent. Game, set, match.
“Okay, our first award is for the funniest costume. Let me see your funny faces,” the scout master said. I was the only one not wearing a stupid plastic mask, so I crossed my beaver eyes and chewed my wood. Down the line, Ben Cooper Fonzie pointed to his butt and made farting noises. How was I supposed to compete with that? The Fonz took home the gold.
“Next we’ll do scariest. Where are my scary costumes?” Clearly nothing is more frightening than an angry beaver. I raised my brown mittens high and roared, but Ben Cooper Dracula nabbed the trophy.
“Our last trophy is for the most original costume,” the scout master said. The Ben Cooper Frankenstein got it. Now I knew they were just fucking with me.
Halloween lost its luster after the Year of the Big Brown Beaver. The following October I took a stab at Dracula, but the costume felt lifeless. The year after that I packed up my hobo bindle for one more beggardly run around the neighborhood and that was it. I was done with the holiday for good.
In retrospect, though, I guess I got more out of that Halloween than a trophy or a bunch of candy. That may have been my earliest lesson that talent, creativity, and originality matter much less than we think.
That the world is cliquish and strange, and I’d likely never quite fit in.
That no matter what you say or do, somebody can make a dirty joke out of it.
And that in a fair costume fight, my mom can beat your mom. Every. Time.