Horrors! Grounded on Halloween night

My oldest son has always been a real life actor. This is the kid who, when he was not much taller than the kitchen table, insisted on clomping around in a big old pair of cowboy boots and a 10-gallon hat that we'd found at a yard sale.

On any given day throughout the year, and especially when guests were coming to visit, he'd dive into the dress-up box and come out as a magician in a cloak and top hat or King Arthur with a sword and chain mail. He'd even bully his friends and younger brother into playing along, transforming them all into construction workers in hard hats and clumpy work boots as they headed out to excavate the sandbox with big Tonka bulldozers.

So Halloween at our house is not just an excuse to wander the streets shaking down neighbors for treats. It's a major celebration my kids anticipate for months in advance with as much anxiety and preparation as for a wedding or bar mitzvah.

Their costumes are never the wimpy excuses lesser mortals buy at WalMart. They are elaborate creations that spring fully formed from imaginative vision and the wealth of possibilities that can only be found at the Salvation Army Thrift Store.

But one yearI think he was about 12my son made the serious mistake of pushing his mother just a little too far and ended up being grounded on Halloween night. It was the worst punishment he'd ever had to endure. For weeks he had schemed how he would patrol the neighborhood like Martin Sheen through the jungles of Apocalypse Now, face painted brown and green, wearing military fatigues and brandishing an automatic weapon. Now I was the bad guy, making him stay home on the biggest party night of the year, and man, was he mad!

When the fateful night rolled around, though, he wasn't about to let this little inconvenience squash his excellent adventure. Since he couldn't go out of the yard, he decided to put on his camos anyway. He climbed the small maple tree that grew in front of our house, and every time some poor, unsuspecting child started up the path to the front door, he'd fall from the tree as if he were dead.

The scam was a huge success. It scared everyone who dared venture near our house for treats that night. Timid little girls in sweet pink tutus shrieked and ran back to their mothers waiting at the sidewalk. Big green aliens and rubber-faced hunchbacks probed the fallen body with uncertain toes, or cut a wide swath around it as they continued on their way to our door.

My son ended up having more fun that Halloween than ever before. The next day in school, friends congratulated him on his outstanding performance, and months later neighbors stopped me on the street to tell me stories their kids brought home about the boy who fell out of our tree on Halloween night.

We didn't have much candy around the house that year, but boy was that Halloween sweet.

A version of this essay was broadcast on WVTF, Roanoke, VA on November 1, 2002