When my son Fred was four, he was He-Man for Halloween and for several months after. The costume came together in bits and pieces. This was 1984. I worked in Sacramento’s State Capitol building at the time and often spent my lunch hours in the packed, stale-smelling Woolworth’s on the K-Street mall, dredging through the bargain bins. I scored t-shirts with He-Man decals, superhero underwear and a cape. Navy blue tights, a pair of my stretchy red knee socks and black rain boots completed the costume.
That costume became Fred’s uniform. He wore it to daycare, the grocery store, wherever life took us. It was the underwear, worn over the tights so as not to cover up the artwork that raised a few eyebrows and mortified his cousins, who were several years older. The biggest drawback was arguing with my son to take the costume off every few days so I could wash it.
Fred’s son, my grandson, now the age his father was back then, is Captain America this Halloween. Thirty years have brought changes in the superhero ranks, but judging by the costumes at my grandson’s preschool event on Friday, such characters remain the number one choice for boys of a certain age. When he dons his costume, my grandson gets that proud, knowing glint in his eye. He squares his narrow shoulders and plants his feet.
“Who are you?” I ask.
“I’m a superhero,” he says.
“What does that mean?”
“I’m a good guy.”
“What do good guys do?”
“They don’t be bad guys.”
His costume is more than a bit of polyester fabric and a mask. It’s the gateway to a world of his own imagining, though I doubt my grandson will be wearing the Captain America costume for the next several months. I don’t imagine his parents would allow it.
While my son was once steeped in the entire He-Man universe, for my grandson the notion of the superhero exists apart from any particular story. There are no maniacal evil forces, no wrongs to right, no mystical kingdoms of good and evil.
He says he wants to watch a video on my “desk” (what he calls my laptop). Sitting side by side on the couch, we scrutinize a dozen cartoon images in search of something appropriate.
“Is that a bad guy?” he asks, of an ominous cast member lurking behind a familiar action hero.
“Yep,” I say. “There are always bad guys.”
“It’s what the good guys do. They make the world safe by taking care of the bad guys.”
“But the bad guys scare me.”
“What about this one?” I hover over a benign-looking animated feature, one with animal characters.
“Is there a bad guy?”
“Well, he’s a funny bad guy,” I say.
“Does he do mean things?”
So we don’t watch the cartoons or the movies. Even most nature shows are off limits, too many carnivores that might snarl and show their teeth; this kid may be a future vegan. I don’t argue. We draw, build with blocks and get out the play dough. He scoots cars around on the floor, one in each hand.
One car asks the other car, “Are you a bad guy?”
“No I’m a good guy. Are you a bad guy?”
“No, I’m a good guy too.”
He rams the cars together, which makes a nice crunch, and he makes those roaring, gear-grinding engine sounds. Good guys versus good guys.
At the preschool “trunk or treat” event in the preschool parking lot, my husband and I hand out candy from the back of our decorated SUV. Our theme is superheroes. “You Are Super!” proclaims a felt banner crafted by my talented daughter-in-law. A Gotham nightscape of covered boxes flanks the tailgate as children dribble from car to car dragging their trick-or-treat bags. A shiny, plastic mask covers my face and hair, Captain America like my grandson, with narrow slits for eyes and mouth.
One little skeleton clings tight to his mother’s hand. She urges him to step closer so I can drop a piece of candy into his bag. Eyes wide with horror, he’s rooted to the spot. I lift my mask and smile.
“See, it’s only a mask,” his mother says.
The boy in the skeleton pajamas loosens his grip on his mother’s hand but he still won’t come any closer.
There are a few little girls in superhero regalia too, some of them glittery, skirted versions of their male counterparts. Fairy tale princesses and ballerinas predominate with a smattering of gypsies and witches. Lots of tattered netting skirts and tiaras.
When I was 9, my mother sewed my Halloween costume, a long satin dress, lime-green, with a spray of prickly tulle at the bottom and sequined spaghetti straps. I wore an old fur stole draped over my bare shoulders.
Walking the several foggy blocks to school that morning I imagined myself transformed, no longer awkward, tall for my age, with frizzy, unmanageable hair, but rather a movie star. Like Minnie Mouse, I tottered importantly on oversize high heels, held my chin high and blinked dramatically, my eyes heavy with mascara and blue eye shadow, the beauty mark beside my nose darkened with brown pencil.
All of the classrooms at Ulloa Elementary School opened onto an expanse of blacktop where we ate lunch and played. I stood beside Mrs. Burns, my 4th grade teacher, a petite woman with a tight brown perm and round, rosy cheeks. We waited at our open classroom door to join the Halloween procession that would circle the brick bench that ran the length of the schoolyard from the gymnasium to the Kindergarten playground.
It was a chilly San Francisco morning, a few blocks from Ocean Beach. Seagulls dove in search of crumbs (“Air raid,” the kids would yell, ducking and covering their heads with flesh-toned Pee Chee folders when the birds swooped in). I hugged the fur stole closer and shivered with expectation, excited to show off my costume.
“And what are you, dear,” Mrs. Burns asked.
“I'm a glamour girl,” I said, swishing my narrow hips against the slinky fabric.
“Very nice.” She caught another teacher’s eye. A look passed between them. Mrs. Burns lips twitched as if to keep from laughing, or so I imagined.
I was already well on my way to being the tallest student, boy or girl, in that school (by sixth grade, I would be) and I was not one of the girls the boys chased and passed notes to. I surveyed the other girls in my class, cowgirls, hobos, witches, and a nurse. I was too old to be a glamour girl. That was for little kids. At the ancient age of nine, and already well over five feet tall, my dress only drew attention to what I was and what I wasn’t.
The principal waved our class into the parade. My shoulders slumped. My chest caved. I kept my eyes on the turd spackled asphalt and shuffled around the brick wall, heels lazily clacking, counting the steps until I could slink home and take the dumb costume off.
A month later, the principal came to the door of our classroom and ushered Mrs. Burns out into the hallway. She was gone long enough that we grew restless and unruly. When our teacher came back inside, she didn’t have to shush us. Mrs. Burns’ eyes were red and puffy and her perfect helmet of hair had a few tufts poking out. I was still angry with her for Halloween and remember feeling glad that something bad had happened to her, that whatever it was, she deserved it. She clutched a tissue and sent us to the office in pairs to call our parents. Over the phone Mom told me to fetch my younger sister from her classroom and then walk the several blocks home.
I was surprised when our mother wasn’t standing at the corner to meet us. My five-year-old sister and I climbed the red concrete steps to the door. Mom was in the front room, eyes glued to the black and white television.
President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas.
Dorothy blogs about the challenges and opportunities of being a woman and a writer of a certain age in a youth-centric universe.