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This is a Halloween story ... a true story that took place on Halloween night. None of us were ever able to explain what happened that night. I can only assume that it was karma.
In 1967, Halloween Day fell on a Tuesday, and we had made plans. That night, we were going to cruise the streets of "the sparkling city by the sea" and bombard pedestrians with water balloons. And that night, too, something would happen that would forever change our way of thinking about water balloons and other such pranks.
This was my first year of college and my first extended fling from the parental nest. In the last few weeks, a great deal had happened to me personally. I had graduated, the implications of which had not fully set in. I was the first, the only one of my family actually… there had been a celebration, and I had been the celebrity. I had lost count of the times I was told that I had a chance to do something with my life now, and I still had no idea what that meant.
Then, there was a hustling and shuffling of sorts, and suddenly, I was in college, living in the city. Our priest had had much to do with that. Because of low grades in two key subjects, I’d had to do remedial classes, so there hadn’t been a summer vacation. I was in a fog. But, at the time, I didn’t know that I was in a fog, because everything had a sparkle to it. I suppose one way of looking at it is that I wasn’t "on" Cloud 9, I was "inside" of Cloud 9.
A small-town kid in the big city now, I was just young and wide-eyed, beyond naïve but energetic and eager to try anything. And I was Catholic … all the members of our party were Catholic, we were attending a Catholic school, and the city itself had been named after the incarnation of Christ, by Catholics.
My empty mind was opening its shutters to whatever the universe and the world… and the city… would reveal, and I was going for a philosophy major. If anybody told me that there really aren’t any jobs out there for philosophers, I didn’t hear them.
The school kept tabs on the neighborhood habitats. There were dozens around, almost every one built over someone’s garage, walking distance from the school, from the beach and the ocean, walking distance from so many things. I hadn’t just moved away from home, I hadn’t just moved to the city… and I hadn’t just moved … I had "transitioned" into another world.
I "transitioned" into a little apartment with a close friend, Zef, who had graduated the year before me. Before his graduation and his moment of transition, Zef had been that friend back home in the little town, with whom I had shared countless moments of walking and talking. We had shared our music, our secrets of truths and fantasies, our expectations and our dreams.
It had all been so simple back then. We shared profound ideas about world issues and societal trends, and it didn’t matter if we disagreed about anything. We loved each other, because we found in one another someone who could listen and hear and understand and someone who could respond with agreeable intellect.
And, of course, we never used the word "love," except when we talked about girls. But in those days, love was not what it came to be later.
We had a third housemate, Robert, who was somewhat of a stranger to us all. The year before, he and Zef had been matched up for housing with another student who had since moved on… and now, here I was.
Robert was older than the rest of us, and he had been around somewhat. He had shared thoughts and insights with us that had earned him a semblance of respect… not that he was our leader or anything like that, but he had become our group conscience, that other "little" voice.
Whenever any of us had an idea, he would be the one to caution, "are you sure you want to do that?" or "you really think that’s a good way to go?" And we learned to take his words with some degree of earnestness.
Not far away from our domicile, walking distance of course, lived another close friend of mine. Juan and I had known each other since sixth grade. Even though he was more of a jock than I, we shared many other interests. He had been part of the hustle and shuffle that brought us both to the city and to this particular school.
And finally, a key member of our group was a very likable fellow named Fabian. Fabian was Zef’s age, he was from the city, he had a car, and he really knew his way around. Indeed, on that night, we were counting on his skills to find the populated areas, to zero in like a kamikaze pilot, and then take us safely away.
Fabian still lived at home with his parents, and so, he loved to spend time with us at our little pad. He would take us grocery shopping and to the fun places to eat or just go romping around, and we would have him over for dinners and almost anything else.
Fabian had a wonderful little car. It was a Rambler station wagon, the likes of which had been popular in those days I think, with a very distinct look and vintage coloration. We all fit in it pretty well, and looking back, I have fond memories of what that little car meant for us in those days. I can only imagine what it might have meant for Fabian.
It was distinct. None of us had seen one like it… anywhere that we could remember… except maybe on TV or in the movies. And it was certain that none of us had seen another one like it in the city, not that we had been around that much. It made us all feel distinct in a way, too, as we rode around town in it. We enjoyed the attention, the second looks that we got from people at times. But that all changed on that Halloween Night.
I suppose it was I who came up with the idea of the water balloons. It’s the kind of thing I would have thought of in those days. It’s the kind of thing, really, that most people do not readily allow themselves to experience or even consider.
Sometimes, there are social affairs in which friendly games might be contrived where young people indulge in throwing water-filled balloons at one another, all on a sunny summer’s day. But actually going out at night and randomly targeting innocent folks, that’s a different thing. And thinking about it gives me a chill now, recalling how quickly we all got so wound up around the idea.
On Friday evening, as we threw our books down and looked at one another, and Fabian and Juan having just arrived, I blurted out, “Hey, what do you guys think about going out on Halloween night and throwing water balloons at people… assuming, of course, Fabian is willing to provide the wheels?”
Fabian burst out in laughter right away, meaning he was in, and everybody’s eyebrows shot up with grins and laughs. There was an almost immediate concurrence, and we all started throwing in ideas about how to make it happen. Then suddenly, in the middle of it all, somebody’s voice boomed over the others.
“Now, wait a minute, you guys.” It was Robert. “Are you serious? You really want to do this?”
Fabian responded, “Yeah, man. Why not? With all of us in the car… you know… there should be a lot of people out that night…”
The rest of us joined in. “We’ll get a couple hundred of ’em … fill ’em up with water over the weekend… we’ll have to find a big box or something to put ’em in and to contain them in the car… we’ll wait till dark… and then… splat!”
Robert got that grin of his and shook his head. “And you’re not gonna chicken out, right? I mean, if we see somebody, no matter who, we all agree to throw… right? I mean, we’re all together on this, and we’re gonna go through with it… right?”
Robert’s tone of voice gave the rest of us cause to slow down in our enthusiasm. “Okay, okay,” I said, “I’m not for splashing little kids or little old ladies…”
Somebody else added, “Yeah, and I guess we wouldn’t want to go after somebody on crutches or in a wheelchair…”
The discussions continued through the weekend, and our excitement continued to grow. We set out to be rascals, wanting to be naughty and mischievous but restrained by the values and morals we had all grown up with.
We understood there had to be exceptions, and we agreed that if anyone of us said "no" at the last minute or second, we would not take the shot. But we were determined to follow through with our caper, and we began the preparations that very night.
By Tuesday afternoon, we could hardly contain ourselves. It was hard to focus in class, it was hard to eat in a normal manner, and it was most difficult not to tell others what we were doing for Halloween Night.
I don’t remember how many balloons we actually ended up with. We had found a large box suitable for our needs, we had set it on the floor, and we had filled balloons with water and set them in the box until the box was full. But the college boys had not anticipated how difficult that box would be to lift.
The college boys had not anticipated how heavy water is, and that in such a container, the weight shifts back and forth as you try to carry it, and that makes it even harder to carry as one is negotiating the stairs… not to mention that the bottom of the box gets damp and threatens to come undone with every step. And that’s assuming, of course, that the box could be lifted in the first place… which it could not. At the zero hour, we were faced with unforeseen hindrances, and the pace became feverish.
We had to remove balloons from the box and set them aside, until the box was deemed safe to lift and carry. And then, carrying as many as we could, we each ran up and down the stairs, until we had them all back in the box, in the back seat of the little Rambler.
We could not stop giggling, our mental focus was becoming tunnel-like, and we had each attained an adrenaline high, which was enhanced by the group or "pack" factor—a little pack of fiends out to mess up other peoples’ evenings.
We saw groups of little trick-or-treaters, chaperoned by watchful moms, and we passed them by. Then, we saw a group of teenagers on the move, with cigarettes lit and shirttails billowing in the breeze.
Robert yelled out, “Bearing at nine o’clock!” Fabian turned the corner, and four balloons sailed out of the car windows, serenely arcing through the air, and they all found a body. Fabian gunned the car and we sped away.
We heard a couple of guys go “Hey!” and some girls screamed. There were some cusswords that followed and fists shaking in the air, and it all faded in the distance. We were having fun now.
Robert’s phrase became part of our method of operation. Whoever spotted the target or targets would shout out, “Bearing at three o’clock!” Or ten o’clock or whatever the ‘bearing’ was.
We found that group targets seemed to be more fun. At the time, we had just assumed "the more the better." And it was easier to hit something in a group than a single target.
But later, I realized that it was the matter our consciences working on us. The single victim suffers his or her fate alone. In a group or even a pair, the suffering is shared, there is empathy, and the assault does not seem as personal. Or perhaps, that is just what we were telling ourselves subconsciously.
We approached a couple at a corner, dimly lit by a dirty streetlight that sort of framed them against the dark. It would have been a romantic situation, except that they were arguing. It was getting pretty ugly, too. Having splashed them and riding away, we told ourselves that we had probably prevented an all-out fight by redirecting their anger. And maybe, we had even brought them back together.
At the next turn, we saw the target from three blocks away. From that distance, we just saw two people walking along. As we got closer, it became evident that they were a couple, dressed in formal wear, possibly walking to some special festivity. We were coming up from behind, so we made some noise to get them to turn around. All four balloons hit the guy squarely in the chest.
As we sped away, we heard every cussword we knew and some others, and we could see the guy jumping up and down and shaking his fist at us. And we all laughed, but I could sense a change in the group. That last splashing, actually, had lacked the humor.
At some point, we realized that we had used up about two thirds of the box’s contents, and we noticed that targets were getting hard to find. It was getting late. Finally, we spotted a lone figure walking along at a pretty determined pace. He was on a block where a tall fence had been installed to contain the business within, possibly a salvage yard or large equipment storage.
To see him walking with the fence in the background like that, we were all reminded of dodgeball. We approached slowly, Fabian wanted to take a shot, too. And just as we were all about ready to make some noise to get the guy’s attention, he suddenly turned and saw us… and then, just as quickly, he bent down and picked up what appeared to be a couple of hefty rocks. And then he faced us and stood his ground, hoisting one rock like a baseball. We quickly sped away.
On the surface, we all agreed that none of us wanted to see Fabian’s car get dented or marred. But eventually, somebody pointed out what we had all seen.
“That guy knew what we were going to do.” “How could he know?” “He was already wet.” “Somebody got him first.” “But we haven’t seen anyone else…”
Then, we turned another corner, and there it was. There was another Rambler, just like Fabian’s, just like the one we were in. And, in the full light of that intersection, we all saw something that startled us as one. We saw ourselves riding in that car.
I cannot speak for the others, but I felt shivers and a cold sweat as I peered into that vehicle. I saw the faces of the others, looking back at us, and I saw myself. There I was looking right back at me, looking straight into my own eyes. I assume it is what we were all doing in that moment, even Fabian, for it was a very brief moment.
The thing that each of us had to have seen in that brief moment was that, as each of us stared into that anomaly, with surprise or shock or perhaps even a degree of terror, our eyebrows raised, our mouths wide open—the entities in the other car looked upon us with what appeared to be indifference, or perhaps something more like a blankness or a non-presence.
Fabian found a place to pull over, and then we sat there in silence for a while. Finally, he shifted into first, and we rode home in silence.
We did not talk about Halloween Night until the following weekend, when we all got together again… and we ate together, and we walked out to the beach, and we played and joked and laughed… and the memory of that night and that brief moment faded in the night like the sound of the waves.
r. nuñez, 4/2013