Friday, October 29, 2021

How great was the pumpkin

When I was in 8th grade, my best friend and I went out soaping car windows on Halloween.  It happened to be a year that Halloween fell on a Friday.  So we made our way through the neighborhoods, soaping windows as we went, on our way to the high school football game.  

The stadium was a classic Midwestern football setting.  Tucked between the high school on one side, a housing development and a church on the opposite side, and corn fields and woods to the north, it's where all the kids hung out on Friday nights in the Fall.  On our way, however, we began being chased by a red Chevy Blazer we soaped earlier.  

In hindsight, my guess is the driver was just having fun.  Though he was tenacious in his fun, and waited for us to leave the game an hour or so later and followed us some more.  We knew it was him because he had dropped his muffler and you could hear his truck five miles away.  

Fun for him or not, for a couple of fourteen year olds, it was mighty exhilarating. While trying to outrun our pursuer, we ran through back yards, jumped fences, hid behind wood piles, got clotheslined on invisible balance wires, fell over retaining walls next to driveways - the usual.  

If it hadn't been soaping, it would have been TPing (that's toilet papering, or throwing toilet paper rolls into trees and other objects of those you know - often girls you liked).   Likewise, it just as easily could have been running through fields, hiding behind hay bales, sneaking around barns, TPing bridges over small creeks on dirt roads in the country, and other fun shenanigans that came with Autumnal life in a small Midwestern town. 

All of this came to my mind when pondering the Peanuts special It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown.  Following fast on the footsteps of Schultz's magnum opus A Charlie Brown Christmas - which I have called the Citizen Kane of Christmas specials - the Great Pumpkin is only second best because of the brilliance of the first special. 

Some say Pumpkin was Schultz's apology for the heavy handed preaching of the Christmas special.  In that special, Linus - Charlie Brown's sage advisor - delivers one of the greatest readings of Luke 2 ever  He makes it clear to Charlie Brown that Christmas is about nothing other than Jesus Christ.  From there, Charlie Brown realizes the true meaning of Christmas and all is right with the world.

In Pumpkin, Linus becomes an almost half baked UFO cult conspiracy theorist.  Obsessed with the idea that the Great Pumpkin will come to his sincere pumpkin patch with toys and treats, he makes a spectacle of himself and Charlie Brown's sister Sally.  

Whether the old stories are true, or Schultz was already walking back Linus due to his own waning Christian faith, or he was apologizing to the TV execs who inexplicably still didn't like such an overt Christian message no matter how successful, I don't know.  I just know that no matter what the reasoning, Great Pumpkin still manages to smack it out of the ballpark, and remains - IMHO - behind only A Charlie Brown Christmas and A Boy Named Charlie Brown in the Peanuts catalogue.

A huge factor behind its ranking is the second reason that made the Christmas special so wonderful. Beyond the Christian message, the Christmas special hit every nostalgic image and icon of mid-20th Century Americana Christmas, for good or ill.  The commercialism and the secularism for sure.  But also the snowball fights, the skating on frozen ponds, the old school auditoriums complete with a pageant play based on the Gospel narratives, the tree lot (complete with spotlights), building snowmen - why the list goes on and on!

Same with Great Pumpkin.  More than the Thanksgiving special, and leaps and bounds beyond the broken Easter special, Pumpkin manages to pull on those old nostalgia chords in a way few specials ever do.  From the tricks or treating under a bright autumn moon, to the Halloween party complete with cardboard decorations, to the homemade costumes, to the pumpkin patch, to bobbing for apples, to that wonderful season of football, to the autumn leaves in a pile before Linus (again) unwisely jumps in with a wet sucker, it just reeks with old Halloweens of bygone years. 

And, of course, the instalment of Snoopy and the Red Baron.  The key part there is Snoopy's imagined trek through the French countryside of WWI.  As any child of mid-century rural Midwestern town living could relate, the fun is trudging through fields, behind barns, through brooks, around haystacks, and generally getting into no end of mischief in an age before the mischief became all too serious. 

Each year we watch this as part of the annual traditions  And each time I can instantly remember tricks or treating as a ghost when I was in elementary school, or going to Halloween parties at friends' houses or at the school, or playing in the leaves, or running through the French Midwestern countryside on our way to yet another seasonal adventure.  

Any special that can release so many good memories and feelings of pleasant nostalgia is going to rank high on any list.  Though Schultz's brilliance would wane over the years, in those few years in the 1960s, he was firing on all pistons in terms of awesomeness.  And one of his best contributions was this delightful little charm from an age long past. 

Four images of what Halloween in a rural Midwest town felt like


  1. "Four images of what Halloween in a rural Midwest town felt like"
    Same in Upstate New York (where I grew up).
    Running through peoples' yards on Halloween night as a shortcut to other streets & neighborhoods reminds me of the same "French countryside".
    Schultz really hit a never with this one (in a good way).

    1. Yep. I'd say he even tweaks a little with his Thanksgiving special, but nowhere close to this or the Christmas special. And in this one, I have more experience that I can connect with than the Christmas (never having skated on an icy pond, but certainly having run many miles around neighborhoods and fields at Halloween).

    2. What part of Upstate NY? I'm from the Albany Area

  2. @ unknown, town near Rochester, NY
    @ David, we had a large backyard that would sometimes flood in the back and potentially freeze solid by the month of December. Kids would skate on it, so another nerve hit with the “Icy pond” (no dog though).


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