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 at night so I could wash it every few days.
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 yesterday, such characters remain the number one choice for boys of a certain age. When he dons his costume, my grandson gets that proud, strong-man 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. His parents wouldn’t 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 defined villains, no wrongs to right, no prescribed magical kingdoms of good and evil.
He says he wants to watch a video on my “desk” (what he calls my laptop). 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 an action hero he recognizes.
“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 they 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. All kids could do with a little less TV, movie and computer time. 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 two cars at each other, clinking bumpers, and makes those roaring engine sounds. Good guys versus good guys.
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.
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). It was a chilly San Francisco morning, a few blocks from Ocean Beach. I hugged the fur stole closer and shivered with expectation, excited to show off my costume.
“And what are you, dear,” Mrs. Burns asked.
“A glamour girl,” I said, swishing my nonexistent hips beneath 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 my classmates, cowgirls, hobos and witches and it hit me. 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, it 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 bird shit spackled asphalt and shuffled around the brick wall, heels 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, thinking 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 Mom wasn’t standing at the corner to meet us. My sister and I climbed the red concrete steps to the door. Mother was in the front room, eyes glued to the black and white television.
President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas.
For another Halloween inspired post, see: Deck the Art with Giant Spiders
Dorothy, author of GRAY IS THE NEW BLACK, blogs about the challenges and opportunities of being a woman and a writer of a certain age in a youth-centric universe.