Most Idahoans remember J.R. Simplot as the Idaho Potato King. The man who emerged from the front door of the mansion on Simplot hill every Halloween, however, more closely resembled Santa Claus.
Boisean Shelley Smith Eichmann remembers a jovial Simplot wearing a red sweater and handing out envelopes to trick or treaters.
“If you got to his house early enough, you got an envelope with a silver dollar and a poem,” she said. “A well written poem and a shiny silver dollar. He’d tell the trick or treaters to invest it well and to let him know if they had any good investment ideas. It was so special for the kids.”
Simplot is gone, but Halloween remains a special time for kids today. It’s an almost universally positive experience for them.
And a relatively tame one. Treats are abundant, tricks all but forgotten.
We didn’t have a J.R. Simplot in the neighborhood where I grew up. We had a Halloween Grinch. And a trick he played on me one year is one my most vivid Halloween memories.
Howard the Halloween Grinch lived across the street from my parents’ house in North Boise. He was the nicest of men 364 days a year, a friend and mentor to those of us lucky enough to have him take us under his wing.
The man could fix anything. His garage and basement workshop contained as many tools, nuts and bolts and miscellaneous parts as a Home Depot store. It was Howard who built our soapbox derby racers, fixed the flat tires on our bicycles and was ready and waiting with the proper tools and knowhow to repair anything from a BB gun to a ham radio.
He enjoyed few things more than teaching kids the basics of hunting and fishing. It was from Howard that I learned to cast a fly, lead a bird on the wing. A hunting or fishing trip with him seldom failed to result in a duck or pheasant dinner or a cooler filled with trout.
An exception to that was a duck hunting trip on a below-zero morning. We had just pushed the boat into the river when the expression on my face told him the trip was over.
“Are your boots leaking?” he asked me.
It was so cold that river water splashed on the sides of the boat instantly froze, so cold that the water in my boots felt like fire. If he hadn’t immediately helped me back to shore, built a fire and massaged my feet, it would have meant at the very least a trip to the emergency room.
The incident exemplified the compassionate, caring man who was like a second father to every kid in the neighborhood.
Except on Halloween.
No treats from Howard the Halloween Grinch. Instead of handing out candy like all the other grownups, he turned off all the lights in his house and pretended he wasn’t home.
This did not sit well with trick or treaters. Why he disliked Halloween so much was a mystery, but it was irritating enough that one year I decided to get even. I would soap his windows.
For those not familiar with the practice in the age of treats without tricks, a word of explanation. Soaping windows consisted of using an ordinary bar of soap to write on window glass. It was a harmless trick, as the soap easily washed off the day after Halloween.
What I would have written on the Halloween Grinch’s windows has long since been forgotten, but there wasn’t the slightest doubt in my boyish mind that it would have been devastatingly clever and cutting.
If only there had been a chance to write it.
To make sure the grinch wasn’t lurking his darkened living room watching for trouble, I crept to his front porch and rang the doorbell. This was when his Halloween trick was revealed. He had wired the doorbell to shock any trick or treaters brave or foolish enough to ring it.
It wasn’t a serious shock, but definitely enough to get your attention.
And to make me even more determined to get even.
Soap in hand, I crept around the corner of the darkened house to a picture window and was reaching to write on it with my soap when a voice scared me more than any ghoul or goblin could have.
“Don’t touch that window!”
I turned to look, and there in the crook of a tree, silhouetted against the Halloween moon, was the Halloween Grinch – brandishing a shotgun!
It didn’t help to know that Howard loaded some of his shotgun shells with rock salt to make their effect merely painful rather than lethal. I took off like a rocket.
It was a fright remembered for life.
To this day, I don’t know whether Howard recognized me in my Halloween getup that night. If so, he never mentioned it. We remained friends until his death many years later, in his late 90s.
Maybe it’s a good thing that Halloween tricks are less prevalent now. Some of them went too far.
That said, there was something to be said for a deliciously scary prank. Getting scared was half the fun. Simplot’s silver dollars and the Halloween Grinch’s electrified doorbell both had their place on what was once was the creepiest, most enjoyable night of the year.