|A Halloween To Forget
|October 29th, 2004
Here's a harrowing Halloween memory for you...
1985. Lynn and I were living in Kingston, New York. Those were the carefree pre-Julie days, so we weren't nearly as keenly attuned to the significance of the occasion. Still, we knew. But a pair of unexpected developments prevented us from handing out any of our stockpiled candy later that Halloween evening to the street-roaming trick or treaters.
It was shortly after lunch when I received the phone call from my mother-in-law. She was living over in nearby Woodstock, and we all knew Lynn's dad hadn't been well for a while. He had in fact been jaundiced, and that morning's diagnosis called for a gall bladder operation—and fast. She somewhat frantically informed me that she and my wife's younger brother, Bob, were going to accompany her husband on the trip up to Albany—about an hour's drive upstate—where he'd receive an emergency operation in what we understood to be one of the better equipped hospitals in the nearby area. Despite several attempts, she'd been unable to reach Lynn at work, so instead, I was given the task of passing along this unsettling news to my wife.
I'd barely had an opportunity to let this ominous turn of events sink in when the phone rang again. Initially figuring it was some sort of follow-up about Lynn's dad, I was instead surprised to hear the voice of one of my old boyhood pals--and long-time next door neighbor growing up--John McGuiness. And the tone of his voice did very little to calm my concerns. While I'd moved away years earlier, y'see, he and his family still lived next door to my dad. After my mom passed away in February of 1983, he'd helpfully kept an eye out for my aging father's welfare in between my generally monthly visits. So, I knew this couldn't be good...
I was right--he'd noticed that my dad hadn't kept to his usual, highly predictable routine. So, John went over to check on him. Looking through the back door window, he spied my father on the floor in what appeared to be an unconscious state—or worse. He quickly broke a pane in the door window, reached through, and hurriedly let himself in. Well, it turned out my dad WAS alive, but decidedly woozy, making little or no sense with what few words he was able to slur out. My good neighbor John, relieved to find the old guy hadn't left us quite yet, then finally took a good look around at his surroundings. Something was wrong—VERY wrong.
There was soot all around. The white living room walls were now a greasy gray, and the air itself was laden with visible black particles. The furnace, left untended to—and thus, uncleaned—since my mom's passing nearly a year and a half earlier, had finally backed up with noxious soot and began spewing it back out into the enclosed atmosphere of my dad's living environment.
Fred junior, Fred senior, and Helen Hembeck, along with Mittens the cat, sometime around 1980 in the Yaphank homestead. I'm the only one who managed to outlive the kitty...
|Now, you might wonder how one doesn't actually
NOTICE an ever increasing mass of sludge
floating about one's head. That's a
question. MY excuse was that my last
had been in mid to late September,
the heat had kicked in full tilt for
season. As for my dad, well, to be
he could be amazingly clueless at times
trait passed down to me, I blush to
And, just as the necessity of having
furnace cleaned didn't occur to him
my mom around to helpfully remind him—it's
apparently the women who marry into
family that possess the vast majority
any common sense allotted to the Hembecks—the
ever darkening skies INSIDE the house
appear to faze him any either.
So, John called an ambulance, had my dad taken away to a local hospital, and then, his good work done, called me. Hanging up in a stunned state, I immediately realized I now had TWO dire messages to give to my unsuspecting wife when I was finally able to track her down. While neither situation seemed life-threatening on the surface of things, SOMETHING had to be done, and it was soon decided that we'd drive down to Long Island together—about a three hour's trip going in the opposite direction of her own father's destination—since my dad had no else to look after him (Lynn's mom and brother already had the other situation covered), and the L.I. house obviously needed some tending to.
We arrived at the hospital in Port Jefferson in early evening, and was soon assured by the medical staff that my dad had suffered only mild carbon monoxide poisoning. His disorientation had already lifted, but the doctor's wanted him to stay under their care for a few days, just in case. Even though he was 83 at the time, he'd only ever been hospitalized once before in my lifetime, and that was for mild pneumonia when I was about ten. So, this being a near unique—and no doubt unpleasant—experience for him, we stuck around making small talk until visiting hours ended at 8 PM.
After saying our goodbyes for the night, we headed off to my old Yaphank homestead, still about a half-hour away. When we finally pulled into the housing development somewhat misleadingly—and pompously-- christened “The Yaphank Estates”, I noticed several groups of stragglers roaming the streets, and I suddenly remembered: oh yeah—it's Halloween. Huh. I'd plumb forgotten...
Of course, by the time we'd reached the house, it was nearing nine o'clock, and only the most stubborn of trick or treaters were still stalking about. Since we knew better than to turn on the front porch light, of the few folks left out on the prowl, none bothered us. And it was just as well—we clearly had other things to keep us occupied...
John had taped up a piece of cardboard over the broken pane, but it wasn't the broken window that stopped us dead in our tracks—it was the grime coated walls that truly alerted us to the cold hard fact that we were indeed walking into a house of horrors! My folk's home had this furnace with a metal grating that was located adjacent to and on the living room floor. The good news was that this meant that the four nearby walls were the ones getting the majority of the soot damage—the bad news was that they had gotten a LOT! So, there was only one thing left to do—get a couple of buckets full of warm water, some rags, some sponges, and—natch--some elbow grease. Scrub, baby, scrub!
To help relieve the tedious task before us some, I decided to turn on the TV, and listen to—if not watch—something appropriate. Flipping around, I finally came upon a debuting TV movie, the name of which unfortunately escapes me. But I'll always remember the opening premise to the telefilm: flashing back to a Halloween party set in the late fifties, we're introduced to a cadre of teen-aged “Grease” knock-offs, ones properly outfitted for an October 31st shindig. Eventually, a bad and tragic end comes to beautiful young girl, and she's transformed into a literal Teen Angel, who—when the action zooms forward to the present day, turns up, mysteriously and intriguingly, at a vintage 1985 Halloween costumed celebration.
Where the action went from there, I honestly couldn't tell you. I know there was some sort of doomed romance between the ghost from the fifties and a guy from the eighties, and somehow, she'd ultimately get the opportunity to avenge her demise and find everlasting peace, so on and so forth, but it was that opening twenty minutes that's somehow always managed to stay vividly stuck in my cranium. There we were, dealing with a pair of twin real life crisises, washing filthy, disgusting black goo off the otherwise white walls of the house I'd grown up in, completely missing what had always been a special day for me--and then, somehow, this dopey little flick I'd stumbled across on the tube, which I couldn't even actually watch, provided me with just enough of a dose of that hallowed Halloween spirit that it made me feel that, despite the dual calamities visited upon the Hembeck and the Moss clans that dark day, there was still a little bit of that spirited magical feeling in the air. Or maybe, just maybe, the soot was getting to ME, too!...
I talked about all this with Lynn earlier before sitting down on my posterior to commit this to posterity, reviewing the facts as best I could recall them, and basically just trying to get our stories straight. She remembered it pretty much the way I did—except for the Halloween themed movie. That, unsurprisingly, was just one of those peculiar things that stays with me, and me alone. Like I said, the ladies in this family are just more grounded in reality than the guys. And believe me, that's a GOOD thing. But, that said, I'm still glad I was able to enjoy the holiday, if only vicariously (all the while laboriously scrubbing walls!).
As for the rest of the story, well, dad Hembeck came home soon after, none the worse for wear; we had the furnace cleaned and the window replaced as soon as possible. Lynn's dad returned home not long after his operation as well. Unfortunately, the doctors found cancer when they went in for that gall bladder, and my father-in-law passed away just a few short months later in February of 1986. He was only 56. His funeral was held on Valentine's Day...
My dad lasted nearly two years more before finally succumbing to the inevitable at age 85, remaining reasonably healthy—and soot free—before being hospitalized the last several weeks of his life.
That particular Halloween was a pretty tough day, no doubt about it. But everything seemed on the upswing when November first dawned—even Lynn's dad was cautiously (if sadly) optimistic about his chances. Ultimately, however...
Y'know, underneath all the frivolity and good fun associated with the event, All Hallow's Eve is a sobering reminder that, in the end, we all eventually end up like the ghosts and ghoulies that incessantly ring our doorbells on the 31st—and like poor ol' Teen Angel, too.
Of course, generally speaking, our stories aren't nearly as predictable as those hacked out by Hollywood screenwriters, which, you could say, is just a shame. Even happy endings, when they do come at all, just don't last long enough...
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