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We are at a juncture when icky things are being hauled out from their dank, dark recesses and thrust into the harsh glare of daylight.
But enough about the news. We are also in the season for All Hallows’ Eve, a Christian holiday that is celebrated with pagan symbols and rituals. None of these rituals is more hallowed than the tradition of hollowing out a pumpkin and giving it a face that’s similar to the “before” image in an ad for a hemorrhoid medication.
The primary prerequisite for carving a jack-o-lantern is possessing a pumpkin. Ever since I was a lad, I have been the main pumpkin grower for our family. Raising pumpkins is a snap if you don’t mind a summer filled with hoeing and watering and worrying about premature pollination.
If all goes as planned, at the end of October the fruits of your labors will be lobotomized without any anesthetic. They will then be defaced with a face that would scare the pants off even the most brain-dead zombie.
But this was always the goal. You gleefully take part in the pumpkin butchery, hacking away at the orange orbs you so lovingly tended during the long, hot summer.
There is a perpetual debate over what age a child should be before he or she is entrusted with a pocketknife. In other words, at what point should you give a kid the ability to inflict scars on their digits? And how else can you teach the child the truth behind the axiom, “more fingers are cut by a dull blade than a sharp one?”
I was about 9 years old when I was given my first pocketknife. It had a faux wood plastic handle and had Barlow stamped on its bolster.
I used that knife for an infinite variety of important boy-related tasks. It cut baling twines, cleaned under my fingernails, scraped the mud from my boots, and served as a toothpick. Although not necessarily in that order.
The Barlow gave me a sense of security. If I were captured by pirates and tied to the mainmast of their frigate, I could sneakily reach for my pocketknife and saw through the ropes. Or if a ferocious animal such as a t. rex were to leap out of the shadows while I was doing evening chores on our dairy farm, I could fend off the fiend with my jackknife. Although my attacker would need to extend the courtesy of giving me several moments to fish my knife out of my pocket and unfold its blade.
I also used my Barlow to prune pumpkin vines. And when the pumpkins were ripe, the knife was handy for separating the stems from the vines.
My Barlow was pressed into service when my siblings and I conducted our annual mass murder of pumpkins. It somehow seemed fitting that a jackknife would be used to carve a jack-o-lantern.
The first step was to cut a lid on the top of the pumpkin. This required no small amount of finesse if the rind was especially tough. Extreme care had to be taken during this process as the Barlow’s blade wasn’t the kind that locked in place. A miscalculation could result in the blade closing on a finger. On the plus side, a trickle of blood on a jack-o-lantern definitely adds to its aura of creepiness.
Next came the icky part, namely, removing the pumpkin’s slimy innards. Extracting the guts from a pumpkin is like being part of a vegetable-based horror movie.
I would separate the seeds from the guck and spread them on newspaper to dry. These seeds would then be planted the next spring. Some people like to snack on roasted pumpkin seeds. For me, this would be akin to eating one’s children. The horror!
We weren’t very crafty when it came to our carving; none of our gourd-based sculpting would have been deemed High Art. Eyes and noses were lopsided triangles. Mouths were asymmetric grins, an orthodontist’s nightmare.
Once the face was carved, a small hole was bored in the bottom of the pumpkin’s cavity and a candle was installed and lit. Even though our carving was crude, the effect of a grinning skull that glowed from within still looked pretty creepy. Plus, the heat from a flickering candle created the aroma of cooking pumpkin.
The jack-o-lanterns would be left outdoors after Halloween was over. After a few freeze-thaw cycles, they would shrivel down into a puddle, like a witch who had been splashed with a bucketful of water.
In the end, the pumpkins looked much more horrific than anything we could have imagined. Just like the headlines nowadays.
Jerry’s book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at workman.com/products/dear-county-agent-guy.