secret_history (2006-40)

October’s Bright Blue Weather

Is it too late to reclaim a favorite month?

by Jack Neely

The first day of October I went with my daughter to a West Knoxville neighborhood to feed a friend’s cat. It was a lovely cool sunny fall Sunday morning when you roll down the windows because you can smell the leaves changing. Her friend lives in one of those neighborhoods where, almost as if by enforceable edict, the lawns are kept perfectly trimmed and perfectly green. Never mind crabgrass, there wasn’t even a dandelion in sight. Not a stray leaf.

Often, in spite of all the trouble they take to perfect them, you don’t see people using their front yards much. In some neighborhoods, sitting in your front yard is regarded with the same suspicion as violets.

As we approached, though, I heartened to see that someone was sitting out in her front yard, enjoying the sunshine and the perfect day. It looked, at first, like an older woman.

But as we got within waving distance, I could see that it was not a woman. It was not even a person, exactly, but what appeared to be the skeletal remains of a person, or part of a person, planted perhaps by its spinal column into the perfect lawn. What appeared to be bits of rotted blood and flesh clung to the discolored bones. Dismembered arms and legs were jammed into the manicured grass nearby.

As I remarked to my daughter, it does seem awfully early for Halloween decorations.

She explained to me, patiently as you’d explain to a foreigner, that people are proud of their Halloween decorations, and they try to be earlier every year just to be festive. “They think it’s nice,” she said.

Maybe it’s a way to show that they’re creative and community-spirited. Affluent people used to learn to play piano, or paint in watercolors, or make a clever quiche. Now they mainly try to gross each other out.

Someday sociologists will describe the two-month suburban lawn festival we call Halloween in a way that makes more sense than that.

Halloween wasn’t always celebrated in Knoxville at all. As we can tell, the Knoxville Halloween started kind of suddenly in 1893, as a droll dinner-party in Maplehurst, at the home of Edward Terry Sanford, a young urban professional who would much later be a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

In the early days, Halloween wasn’t much a celebration of evil and violence—that was the Victorian Christmas—but October 31 did have some superstition to it. Halloween was actually considered the most romantic of holidays. On Halloween, it was said, young singles would try various tricks to find clues about who they might marry someday. But it was always just a single day.

The grim discovery on Sunday morning reminded me of another October several years ago, when my daughter was little, and I took her to a corn maze. We’d never been to one, and it seemed as if it could be good October fun, getting away from the city’s obsession with a gruesome holiday that was still two or three weeks off, getting out into the pure country and reconnecting with something having to do with the harvest.

We set out under sunny deep-blue October skies; only after we got there did we discover that our corn maze was actually a “Haunted Corn Maze.” We’d driven about 25 miles to get there, and I wanted to be a good sport. I explained to her that “haunted” meant there were ghosts, and that they might seem spooky, but can’t hurt you.

We paid our money and went in, taking a few twists and turns, far enough in that the way out wasn’t clear. We heard some screams amidst the corn, and the puzzling sound of a revving gasoline motor. We were alone in one twisty corn corridor when suddenly a heavyset man, dripping with blood, jumped in front of us, pulled the cord on a large chainsaw, and made slashing motions at us.

I suspect the new path we blazed exiting the maze probably wasn’t easy to fix.

What’s “haunted” about a psychopath with a chainsaw? There is much about your American ways that I do not understand.

I wrote it off to experience. It’s just what you get for trying to do something fun with your kid in October, which everyone should know by now is the official month of violence and joyous dismemberment.

The holiday gets odder and longer every year. It has swallowed the once-proud month of October whole, and is in the process of masticating the latter portion of September, as it eyes August hungrily.

But I remember a time not all that long ago when October was still intact, still an actual month of its own. It had a melancholy to it, but it was dependably the most pleasant month of a season that was still known, in those days, as Fall. Or by what seemed like a more euphonious term, with an onomatopoetic hush in it: Autumn.

It was a subtle season, introspective but brisk in spirit, a time of leaves turning and falling, and the harvest, and especially of apples. Raking leaves with an actual rake took all afternoon. But it was quiet, and gave you time to think.

Halloween was great fun, but it was just one evening at the end of an interesting month. Somebody’s mom or grandma would be making apple cider or apple pie, and somebody else’s mom would be making caramel apples. They were too sticky for me to care for much, but they were one of the smells of October.

October was famous for a lot of things, among which was the conviction voiced by old ladies, and believed with a certain awe by children, that for some unexplainable reason, the sky was always bluest then.

Some old ladies of Knoxville could quote the Victorian poet Helen Hunt Jackson:

O suns and skies and clouds of

It was once a complicated month, “the lonesome October” of Poe’s “Ulalume,” the “cover of October skies” of Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” and in William Bliss Carman’s “Vagabond Song,” “There’s something in October sets the gypsy blood astir.”

Of course, the mention of gypsy blood might just give the modern suburbanite new ideas for lawn decorations.

October’s still out there somewhere. The leaves still change colors, even as we’re buying cobwebs for the dogwoods. I suppose if I really wanted to make a Kraft caramel apple treat, I could. 

You can still enjoy October. But if you don’t include some sort of genuflective nod to dismemberment, it may be an October lonesome as Poe’s.