Dark Deeds in October
Rediscovering Good Ol Fashioned Mischief

By Rick Epstein

Originally appeared in October 2011

Yknow what me and Melissa did at school? my 9-year-old daughter Sally asked, with a wicked grin. We went into the Girls Room and put all the toilet seats up so people would think boys have been in there.

As we enter the October mischief season, my wife and I are feeling fairly secure. Sallys pranks tend to be harmless; her little sister is kept on a short leash (figuratively); and her big sister is a model citizen. Were guessing this will not be the year that the neighbors find flaming bags of dog poop on their doorsteps, courtesy of the Epstein girls.

For children who manage to slip out after dark, October is the month in which they define their moral boundaries. In my youth, the scale of mischief began with the harmless sprinkling of dried corn kernels on doorsteps and ranged upward through pumpkin-smashing to the bending of car aerials.

I knew one teenager who totally lost his way. He sneaked out on Mischief Night to egg some houses, but his feelings were in such disorder that he threw the raw eggs at his own front door  and then went inside and confessed to his mom. What a caper! From any viewpoint, you have to marvel at the perfect wrongness of each move!

My own mischief comfort-zone was in the middle range  ringing doorbells and soaping car windows. On the night before Halloween in a presidential-campaign year, my big brother Steve and I roamed the streets, using bars of soap to write the name of our favorite candidate on car windows. I was 9 and felt that our nation was at a crossroads. We felt really good, having hit upon a harmonious blend of mischief and civic involvement that is hard to achieve outside of elected office.

But the next night we paid for our activism. Steve was dressed for trick-or-treating in a baggy Army uniform. I was in a wig, skirt and beret, with a string of fake pearls at my throat. Receiving word that the Martins were giving out full-sized Hershey bars, Steve and I rushed right over, only to be told sternly by Mrs. Martin: No candy for the Epstein boys.

She might as well have smacked me in the head with a 2-by-4. How come?! I asked.

Mr. Martin didnt like scraping the wax off his windows this morning before he went to work, she said. What makes you think we did it? Steve asked at the same moment I blurted, It wasnt wax; it was soap! Mrs. Martin gave us a look and closed the door.

You go out under cover of darkness, you strike with swift precision, you offer valuable guidance to your voting-aged victims, you knock yourself out putting together an outfit that conceals your identity while bringing out the green in your eyes  and to what avail? Wordlessly, we shuffled back into the night to collect gingersnaps, apples, candy corn and other treats that were not full-sized Hershey bars. That night I learned two lessons: 1. Political involvement demands personal sacrifice and begets little gratitude. 2. For understated elegance, you cant beat pearls.

Now, we are into an era that has even less patience with mischief. Mischief used to have wholesome connotations  red-cheeked lads tipping over out-houses, fraternity boys putting goats in the deans office, giggling girls calling tobacco shops to ask if they have Prince Albert in a can, etc. But modern life is filled with so much really destructive and nasty misbehavior that weve lost our tolerance for mischief. So when a kid makes a crank call, you think of stalkers, and when a teenager hoists a road-killed possum up the high-school flag pole, you think there might be something seriously wrong with him.

Zero tolerance of mischief has come about because so many kids dont know right from wrong. They need adults to guide them. So this year Im offering a roll of toilet paper to any kid willing to sneak over to our towns World War I monument and turn the bronze soldier into The Mummy for Halloween. Im sure the boys who marched off to the Great War would appreciate the gesture.

Rick is a journalist who tries to stay out of trouble.

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