I was all set to be a raven for Halloween and don a long black cape and a beak and feathery wristlets, but I got stuck that afternoon at the neurologist's, who I'd gone to see about chronic headaches, and I sat in his waiting room reading old Peoples until finally he put me through the neurology dance -- tap tap tap, touch your nose, stand on one foot, close your eyes, hop hop hop -- and by the time he'd decided he didn't know what caused the headaches and I had driven home, Halloween was mostly over.
All the little kids dressed up as princesses and animals and superheroes were done for the night and only the sullen teenagers remained, who don't bother with costumes -- they simply go as teenagers. I suppose I could've put on the raven suit and lurked in the shadows, but a 6-foot-4-inch raven could send a sensitive child careening down the slippery slope toward a life of therapy. So I put away the raven outfit for next year. I come from a town where people celebrated Halloween by digging graves in their front yards and dressing up as corpses and lying in the holes, waiting to snatch at children's ankles, but that was long ago and everything was scarier then.
Life was dark back in the day. We listened to car crash songs like "Teen Angel" and "Tell Laura I Love Her" and imagined skidding off the highway into a tree and going up in a ball of flame. When not imagining that, we thought about polio or nuclear war with the Soviet Union. You grow up on morbidity and when you see a neurologist about your headaches you expect him to say, "I'm afraid it's not good news" and of course it's a brain tumor the size of a hubcap and you have a month to live, which you spend in a dim overheated room that reeks of Lysol.
I feel fine today, thanks for asking. But I have a healthy sense of dread, due to having grown up when I did. You children missed out on Richard Nixon: He was Halloween personified. An unctuous creepy figure who had not a shred of the genuine in him and yet, say what you will about him, Richard Nixon was never in favor of torture. He never strutted on a stage and said, "If I knew that America was in imminent danger of being attacked by a million rabid fruit bats and that one particular horrible evil person was in possession of secret info about that attack, I would not hesitate for one moment to drive red-hot needles under that person's fingernails" -- that sort of thing did not pass for political discourse back in Nixon's day. But times have changed.
Back then, when newspapers were printed on paper, or what we now call "treeware," they were full of heinous stuff, a cold-blooded killer and his girlfriend Caril cruised through Nebraska murdering innocent people and you just knew he'd fry for it and he did, but long afterward you saw him lurking in the shadows behind the gas station, smoking a Lucky.
The mob was around, gangsters with pinky rings and tommy guns, and they'd just as soon shoot you as look at you. There were cougars, old sick cougars with nothing to lose that lay in the low limbs of trees over the sidewalk and waited for a small person to pass and you felt a drop of what you thought was rain but really it was cougar spit, and then (yikes!) it was curtains for you, pal. On the radio, Dad and Mom and Buddy and Sis huddled in the deserted barn where they'd sought shelter (fools!) when their car broke down while taking a shortcut (idiots!) and you heard the psychopath walking slowly across the gravel. He was a mouth-breather. He was excited. He lusted for blood. This was terrifying because radio, as you know, does not give off light. It was pure darkness. And now I have missed out on Halloween, the only chance to open my evil beak and screech at people -- brrrraaawwwwwkkkk -- and now we're on to Gratitude for Nature's Bounty and then it's Gloria in Excelsis Deo and it's nonstop Praise & Adoration from now right on through the end of the year.
That raven had something to say to you. He was going to croak, "Nevermore." A prophetic message. Interpret it any way you like. Brrrraaawwwwwkkk.
(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)
© 2007 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.