By Jonathan Crimmins
To say that my father loved pranks would be an understatement. He was absolutely wild about practical jokes. Back when my parents were still dating, he tried convincing her that he was a vampire. As this was decades before sparkling pretty boy “vampires” were the in thing among teenage girls, my mother was less than impressed by this. So one night while they were alone, he dressed all in black and excused himself from the room. Sneaking off into a dark hallway, he slipped some plastic fangs into his mouth and waited. When my mother got curious over his taking so long to get back, she decided to investigate. That’s when he leapt out of the darkness and, well, I think you can guess the rest. I hate to say it, but the fact that she eventually married him after pulling numerous stunts like that is a mystery to me.
I have long since forgot where he had acquired the old man mask, let alone whether my younger brother and I were with him at the time, but I do remember our being both surprised and impressed by his purchase. Why the surprise? Well, for starters, my parents never really dressed up that much for Halloween when they went trick-or-treating with us. Mom would wear the same black witch’s hat every year, while dad would wear a plastic hunting mask with a black leather jacket. Although his humorous justifications for why he was actually wearing a different costume each year, the mask remained the same. Although he called it a hunting mask, I have never seen anything with the same design in any of the numerous hunting and sporting goods stores that he took us to over the years. It probably was not a paintball mask, as there were no lenses over the individual eye holes. It was a dark olive green and had several air holes (at least, that’s what I assumed they were) positioned near each cheeks, with the holes forming the mouth area creating an odd, almost robotic look. As a facemask, it was held in place by heavy-duty elastic straps and had several patches of gray foam on the wearer’s side to increase comfort. Looking back, it was probably some sort of military surplus item, presumably designed to be worn over a balaclava or some other type of cold weather gear. In any case, I had no doubt that he used it for hunting no matter what it had been originally designed for. During the first few Halloweens, he claimed he was an alien or mad slasher, but his justifications got more and more ridiculous as time went on. One year he had gotten his hands on a battery-powered vacuum cleaner and incorporated it into his costume. For the next few years, he’d exclaim that he was a “mad gasser” or “mad vacuumer,”all while speaking in one of his numerous silly voices and gesturing at you with the hose, with the loud sound of the vacuum adding to the effect. With all that in mind, it should be easy for you to see why my father’s decision to retire that gimmick in favor of a new mask was so unexpected.
Besides it being the first rubber mask in our household after years of thin plastic shells held in place by elastic bands and fabric “domino” masks, there was much about the old man mask to be impressed with. Although it covered the wearer’s face, it was not a typical over-the-head rubber mask that you can find in countless stores in October. If you tried imagining what Waldorf from “The Muppet Show” would look like as a human being, you would have an excellent idea of what the mask looked like. It looked incredibly real, from its tufts of white hair to its detailed wrinkles. It was also very tight fitting, which allowed for more realistic facial movements. This was a key part of dad’s plan.
“I want this to be a surprise, so I need you boys to keep this a secret” said dad, “Don’t tell anyone about this mask, not even your mother.” Both my younger brother and I eagerly agreed, as getting to assist in one of our father’s legendary practical jokes was truly an honor for us. The plan was that he would come up with some sort of excuse to leave the party at our neighbors down the street’s house and stay away long enough for people to not connect his absence with the sudden appearance of an unexpected guest. Said guest would be my father wearing his new mask and disguising his voice. He would also change into a new set of clothes. Or, to be more accurate, a set of very old clothes he had dug out of the back of his closet. To complete the ensemble, he would also don an old hat and one of my mother’s old running vests from one of her road races. Thanks to the vertical strips of yellow reflective tape on the orange mesh vest, he looked like an elderly crossing guard. Given the rural nature of our neighborhood, that additional touch made him seem even more out of place.
Although we had to occasionally fight off the temptation to tell someone, my brother and I kept our father’s secret. After what seemed like ages of waiting, October thirty-first finally arrived. Not only would our anticipation of candy be rewarded, but now we would enjoy our dad’s prank! While at the pre-party at our neighbors’ house, he was successfully able to excuse himself. Thanks to all the snacks and getting into our costumes, everyone quickly forgot about his disappearing act. We decided to wait for him outside so that we could trick-or-treat as soon as possible and, naturally, us kids were more eager to hang around in the cold evening air than the adults. While admiring how all the decorations looked at night, the oldest of the neighbor’s children pointed to a strange figure at the head of their driveway. Although unknown to them, the shape of the hat on the figure’s head immediately tipped us off that the fun was about to begin. As he made his way from the top of the hill down to their long, tree-lined driveway, speculation as to who it was began. Although it was assumed to be my father at first, anticipation turned into confusion as the visitor’s the elderly nature became more apparent as he got closer, with the darkness only adding to the realism of the mask. To see an adult without any children in tow on Halloween night was an unexpected sight in our neighborhood. If we hadn’t seen the mask for ourselves, we would have sworn he was some strange old man too. When he was only a few feet away from us, he greeted us all by name. Not recognizing his voice, our friends began nervously asking us questions as to who he was and how did he know our names. Both my little brother and I feigned ignorance and waited for our father to reveal the joke. We did not have to wait long, as he soon peeled off the mask with a laugh. After everyone’s laughter died down, dad took a quick glance at the windows to confirm that the adults had not seen us. Satisfied they were none the wiser, he put the mask back on and casually strolled up to the front door to successfully repeat the gag.
The hunting mask also made an unexpected appearance that year. After trick-or-treating, we got to operate a homemade haunted house that we had set up in the upper level of our neighbors’ garage. My younger brother had invited a friend to attend, but said friend had showed up assuming that he would be spending the rest of the night acting in the haunt. On top of that, he had come without a costume assuming that we would provide one! Thankfully, dad came to the rescue by retrieving his hunting mask. With the addition of a friend’s plastic hunting knife, the last minute addition to our haunt gained a role as our second mad slasher. After the awkwardness died down, my younger brother would swap both his glow-in-the-dark Jason Voorhees mask and toy samurai sword with his friend throughout the rest of the night.
That was ultimately our last Halloween in that neighborhood. My parents eventually divorced and our mother took custody of both children. Even though he moved to another state, we still stayed in touch with our father. In 2003, tragedy struck when he suddenly passed away from an aortic dissection. While taking an inventory of his possessions, I was pleasantly surprised to find the old man mask! Sadly, its time in storage in his barely insulated storage trailer with rotting food left it too moldy to be of any use. Still, it was a very welcome surprise. I never did see that hunting mask again, though…