The Double-Dog Dare!

The Double-Dog Dare!

It’s been said that fools rush in where angels fear to tread? In East Chicago, they’d find some of us already there waiting for them to show up.

East Chicago, Indiana

“MO-OM…Ralphie won’t stop hitting me.” My brother Randy had been a pest all his life; the Luke Appling of Annoyance, he worked in whining the way Michaelangelo worked in gesso and oils…he was to meuling what Fermi was to the atom.

“Mom…He keeps grabbing the candy!” Randy consumed chocolate like it was going out of style; he was in his glory in the season, having been prepared for Halloween for weeks. My mother, usually on top of things, had been distracted by a write-a-jingle contest for Oxydol, and had lost track of the last few days, wondering what rhymes with detergent. She made the mistake of buying the candy too early.

As you may know, purchasing candy for Halloween is a science; the talent lies in the timing. Too soon, and it’s all gone before the big day rolls around. Too late, and all the stores are nearly bereft of anything worth while. Both mistakes leave you with Mary Janes, stale marshmallows and golden delicious apples.

“Let your brother have a Baby Ruth,” she yelled from the kitchen. Baby Ruth…the standard by which all other candy is measured, despite what some say about that pretender O’Henry. In East Chicago, Baby Ruth was known as the Queen of Candy; I was destined too soon to discover the irony of that title.

But I digress. We were a Baby Ruth kind of family. Flick and Schwartz on the other hand were enamored with lesser confections. Schwartz actually once ate an entire Charleston Chew without breathing. Ah…the things legends are made of. And Flick? Good n’ Plenty, for God’s sake!

My mother walked into the living room, redolent with the scent of red cabbage and potatoes, the Eau du Toilette of East Chicago. She wiped her hands on a dishtowel and tosseled Randy’s hair before turning to me.

“What are you going to go as, Ralphie? Have you decided?”

She smiled a knowing smile. At thirteen, my only motivation for ‘going out’ on Halloween was mercenary. And of course, my mom was her ever-perceptive self, since my yearly bout of indecision almost assuredly consigned me to being either a hobo or a ghost. Of course, we never had the money for those little packs of greasepaint crayons, so my dishevelment as a Rider of the Rails came from coal soot from the basement. And of course, as an ever-fashionable ghost, it was always a threadbare bed sheet with holes for eyes and my grandfather’s old derby to top it off.

“I don’t know, Mom,” I yelled back even though she stood three feet away; thus demonstrating my inability in times of stress to discern between my inside voice and my outside voice. I really didn’t know or care what I ‘wanted’ to wear for Halloween; my plan for the evening would be to feign a cold or some similar ailment. Then I’d be left to sit at home, dispensing candy in a fairly judicious manner.

“You could go as a pirate?” She said. She always suggested that. Errol Flynn, maybe, but me? Nah…Pretend parrots and hooks seemed so de classe’.

“MO-OM…I’m gonna be a pirate…you promised.” Randy whined, earning the quick retort,
“Now Randy…you let your brother be a pirate.”

“Awwwwww. Mo-om! Awww gee whiz….” Randy whined so much that when he finally stopped when he turned sixteen, my mother couldn’t understand him, like he was speaking Latvian or Urdu.

“Randy…let Ralphie be the pirate.” She snapped at him. More cabbage and fewer potatoes were destined for his plate that evening until I said calmly,

“That’s okay, Mom…he can be the pirate.” It was a very small and unnecessary but impressive concession, which on most occasions would have garnered praise. My mother was over-saturated with Halloween, however, and just said,
“You could always go as a ghost or a hobo, honey.” Thank God for cotton flannel and good old anthracite.

* * *

“Whatcha goin’ as?” Flick asked as he savored his baloney sandwich. We actually had debates over the timing of casing removal. Sandwich preparation demanded serious consideration. Some schools of thought lean toward removing the casing prior to the assembly of the sandwich, thus preventing the accidental consumption of cellulose. Flick was a post-assembly man; preferring to pull the thin casing remnant off the slice right before consumption, believing it kept the sandwich fresher; not to mention the impressive spin it gave the sandwich while lying on the lunchroom table. Schwartz skipped the debate entirely and instead ate chicken salad sandwiches nearly every day.

“Oh…I don’t know…maybe a hobo?” I said cleverly as if it were a novel idea; like taking credit for fire or the invention of the bicycle.

“Aaaah…you said that last year! Hey…Ronnie Kubelski actually has a store-bought costume with a mask and everything. He’s gonna go as Dick Tracy.”

Schwartz looked up from his chicken salad and said, “Store-bought is for sissies. I’m going as an Army guy.”
Ah yes…the store-bought costume…cheap rayon imprinted with a clothing-like design and an even cheaper plastic mask…or, if you could afford it, a hard fiber mask stamped with the facial design of a clown or a cowboy or princess, complete with the ubiquitous half-hat on top.

Our chief nemesis, Grover Dill, on the other hand, eschewed costumes altogether, going as himself each year, like a pint-sized George Raft, complete with a silver dollar. Another time he was Jimmy Cagney-like complete with a real revolver (we thought) and a grapefruit which he shoved in Doris Mikovski’s face…which was followed by a week of detention in the principal’s office, which he of course skipped having failed to attend class that year anyway.

Flick leaned toward the center of the table and put his hand to his mouth to cover his words.

“Don’t tell anybody….but Mindy Jessups told her brother Louie and he told me that Jimmy Patterson is going to go as a ….” He paused to draw out the drama of the moment before saying,

“A cheerleader.” Randy, a pain as always, had wandered over from the elementary cafeteria to join us uninvited. He started giggling hysterically, which was a welcome change from his usual whining. Schwartz snarfed his half-pint of milk; it went all over his chicken salad and Randy as well, who returned quickly to his normal noon-time mewl.

Jimmy Patterson was an enigma; one of those kids that you never seem to quite get…His parents drove a Buick, and as near as I can tell, he was the first kid in East Chicago to live on a Cul-de-Sac. He was very popular with the girls. It was a time when we were all coming to realize that there are just some things that are worth risking cooties over; girls being the major compensation. We could never seem to figure out Jimmy since he always sat at the girl’s table, earning him the description from an eighth-grader as “one of those…”

“You know…” Flick said, a grin growing on his face.

Whenever Flick said ‘you know’ he was up to something. You could almost see the three gears in his head move with precision.
“I wouldn’t dress as a girl if you paid me a million dollars!” He lived in a two story walk-up and his father drove a very old and dirty Hupmobile. Believe me…he’d do it.

“Oh yeah? Well, I wouldn’t do it if you paid me a billion dollars.” Schwartz thumped his chest like Tarzan; his pores were oozing testosterone.

“I don’t know,” I muttered, failing to discern Flick’s obvious ploy, which set me up for the worst case of self-inflicted doom in the history of Thomas Harding Junior High. “A billion dollars is a lot of money.”

That it really was a lot of money was beside the point and completely superflous to boot. He had thrown down the gauntlet and my honor now was in peril.

“Oh yeah? Like you wouldn’t wear a dress for a billion dollars?” Flick laughed maniacally, like Colin Clive in Frankenstein. “I DON’T THINK SO!”

“It is a lot of money,” Schwartz uttered blithely; he remained the once and future King of the Forgone Conclusion.

“I wouldn’t…I wouldn’t do it if you paid me a gazillion dollars!” I said with confidence. Had I actually been compensated for a venture into girl’s clothing for that sum, my great-great-great grandchildren would be sorely pressed to spend it all.

Randy interrupted his whine and asked, "Not even a gazillion dollars?"

“Nope…Not even a gazillion dollars,” I said again, tripping headlong into the pit of my own digging.

“What? You scared or somthin’?” Damn straight I was scared…but sadly, not scared enough.

“Who me? I’m not scared at all,” I tossed his challenge off even as the metaphysical shovel in my hands dug the pit deeper still.

“Oh yeah?” Flick said once again.

I responded with “Yeah,” a phrase that will go down in history along side such sayings as, “Peace in our times,” and
“Iceberg, what iceberg?”

“I dare you!” The first lunge, which I deftly parried with,

“No!” Brilliant; I spoke with such aplomb as to leave Flick speechless. The debate was taking on the proportion of myth.

Having honed his forensic skills from observing Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes on Saturday afternoons at the Rialto, Flick was more than prepared.

“I double dare you!” He was true to form; predictable and two-dimensional. I on the other hand, was spontaneous; a characteristic that was well-suited to football (American) and checkers, but lent itself poorly to debate when one is ill-prepared, which I was. Carried along by a wave of overconfidence, I mistepped, co-opting his catch-phrase.

“Oh, yeah?” I said. Uh, oh! Bad form. I should have used the Sicilian defense, which simply consists of a glare and the queen-mother of swear words. There was that word again.

“I double-dog dare you!” He actually smirked. One step below Triple Dare and nearly a mile beneath the killer Triple-Dog Dare, the Double-Dog Dare still remained a highly effective weapon in Flick’s arsenal, catching me off guard. My wave of confidence lifted me up one last time before I came crashing against the rocks with,

“Okay, you’re on!” Schwartz was just beginning to drink his second half-pint of milk, and his snarf caught Randy full-face.

“Awwwwww….” He whined his own catchphrase. Little did I know I’d soon be co-opting that as well.

* * *

“Awwww, Mom…,” I begged in vain.

“Oh….Isn’t he adorable?” My mother pointed the Kodak Brownie at me and pressed the button; thus preserving that moment in time forever, as if being seared into my brain wasn’t bad enough.

There I stood, resplendent in a royal blue sweater emblazoned with a white chevron and two large white letters, ‘EC’ for East Chicago High School, along with a matching pleated skirt and black and white ‘saddle shoes.’ My cousin Hilda, a graduate of old EC, was kind enough to donate her old cheer outfit.

My old man sat there, speechless. The only thing that would have been worse in his eyes would have been for me to stand before him wearing the uniform of the hated Chicago Cubs. My dad was a life-long Chicago White Sox fan, an exercise in futility as he unswervingly supported the ‘Pale Hose.’ My mother insisted that his devotion to the cause built character. Every White Sox fan was up to their eye-balls with character.

Randy, on the other hand, just pointed and laughed, which was a welcome change for my mother, since he couldn’t whine and laugh at the same time. I quickly ended her brief respite by punching him in the back of the head, which led to five uninterrupted minutes of,

“Awwwwwww….” My mother shrugged it off, surprisingly, buoyed by my enlistment, however briefly, into the ranks of the fairer sex.

Did I mention I was…cute? Not that it was something to brag about, but I was cute. Hilda was a drama major at Muncie State, and had provided me with a long light brown wig she had ‘borrowed’ from the costume department.

“You know? Standing there in that light? He looks just like Deanna Durbin,” the old man said as he placed his hands over his face; either from sheer embarrassment or in a futile effort to keep from laughing.

“Well,” my mother said ominously before continuing, “SHE looks adorable!” There it was…the final shovel of dirt in my pit of doom.

Had it not been for the fulfillment of the dare, a debt of honor I would have ignored to the peril of my marginally decent reputation in the neighborhood, I would have been firmly ensconced in the large wing chair between the front door and the radio; munching on popcorn and quaffing grape Nehi while judiciously doling out candy and listening to the Lux Radio Theater.

But as I said, one ignores a Double-Dog Dare to one’s peril. I turned to my parents one last time. My mother had tears in her eyes…joyful, she would tell me years later as I gave her for at least one short evening her fondest wish of a daughter.

And I could have sworn my dad was crying as well; it would be only the second time I had ever seen the old man cry, the first being when he lost twenty dollars to Flick’s dad on a Bears game. Somehow I don’t think he was joyful at all.

My one consolation was also my curse; I wouldn’t have to lead Randy around all night, but he had become the dispenser of confections instead of me. A case of the ‘sniffles” kept him home; my own ploy used against me as he would sit in MY chair. He reeked of vapo-rub and cocoa. I on the other hand would not only be expected to fulfill the rightful duties as the long hoped-for daughter, but as the replenisher of the candy bowl as well.

I shrugged my shoulders and took a deep breath, plunging into the twilight as I stepped out in my Royal Blue and White finery, only to be met by my tormentors, Flick and Schwartz.

Flick wore an old suit of his dad’s along with a tattered coat and hat. His face was blackened, not with coal soot, but with honest to goodness black greasepaint purchased from Newberry’s. A hobo…the hobo I should have been. And I was
imprisoned like Edmund Dantes, but the Countess of Monte Cristo instead in a jail made not of stone and steel, but wool and cotton and dare I say it? Satin.

Schwartz, my other jailer, wore a cheap yellow rayon imitation suit with matching plastic mask which vaguely resembled Dick Tracy. I drew some comfort from knowing that his mask had no mouth hole, and I would be subjected to the taunts of not two, but one incessant voice of ridicule.

The night dragged on like a Sox double-header, except without the ten cent beer and hot dogs. Each house brought “Oh…isn’t she cute?” which was quickly followed by Flick’s cackle,

“Oh…HE ain’t a girl,” which was then followed by either ‘oohhh,” or very loud laughter. No amount of Forever Yours or Milky Ways or Charleston Chews or Chunky's would mitigate the embarrassment. At the end of the night I had garnered seven Baby Ruth’s, which provided me none of the solace I had grown to expect from the Queen of Candy Bars; that word once again…an ironic descriptor that would lend some understanding only much later in life.

At one point we happened to wander over to Belford Avenue; near the heretofore uncharted Cul-de-Sac. Flick and Schwartz had taken to walking behind me; ostensibly to make fun. A few years later Flick confessed to me after a night of too many beers after our senior homecoming game that he thought that he felt that he might be aware of some feeling of thinking about something that indicated to him that he might have been attracted to me that Halloween, but only because as he said,

‘You looked just like Deanna Durbin, I swear to God.’

Flick lives in Chicago these days; married with three kids, but hey…you never know.

We finally grew tired of our annual venture in the gathering of confections. As we turned and crossed the street to head for home, the sidewalk was blocked briefly by three girls…cheerleaders, coincidentally. The middle girl was dressed in the Navy Blue and Gold of Notre Dame; glorious in long blond hair, Jimmy Patterson was a football player’s wet dream. If I was Deanna Durbin, then he was Carole Lombard or Jean Arthur. His blond hair was set off by rosy cheeks, and a very pretty shade of dark red graced his lips.

As he passed, I swear to God I smelled, “My Sin,” which happened to be my mother’s favorite perfume; leaving me with a very confusing but oddly comfortable feeling as he nodded and smiled knowingly. He bore two girls on his arms, both dressed in matching Indiana Hoosiers Cheer outfits. Wendy Macaluso and Marilyn Catalano; their presence lent mystery and intrigue to an otherwise confounding night.

I could feel the blood rush to my head as my cheeks grew warm and I felt woozy. The evening threatened to be the worst of my already-too-painful thirteen years until I felt a hand brush my arm as the three walked past. Wendy smiled and nodded. Marilyn and Jimmy kept walking past Flick and Schwartz but Wendy stopped. She smiled again and kissed me on the cheek…Oh I know it was really just a girl-to-girI, sisterhood kiss, but it was as if fate had done a U-turn in the middle of my turnpike to hell, and I was carried away, losing all sense of time and space.

The next thing I remember was handing my bag of candy to my brother and smiling at my mom, who winked at me for some reason. After that it was all a sleepy haze. She told me years later that she had never seen me smile like that before. I apparently made my way to bed. I do have a dim recollection of being kissed, but I’m pretty sure that was a dream.

I awoke the next morning; still clad in my East Chicago Cheerleader’s uniform. Gazing down at my body, I noticed that the EC on the sweater stood out, supported entirely by two pairs of socks in each cup of the bra I wore; also courtesy of Hilda. My wig was still on my head; only a tiny bit askance after what I assumed was a very long night of tossing and turning. And my feet were still shod with my saddle shoes…did I say MY saddle shoes? I rose from the bed, feeling an almost warm glow in my heart as well as a not-too-unfamiliar warmth just a little bit lower.

* * *

On Monday it was business as usual. I was dressed in brown corduroy pants and grey flannel shirt, but had somehow acquired a very nice blue sweater with the white letters EC on my left breast…Did I just say MY left breast? We waited at the bus stop, following our normal morning routine as Grover Dill hit Schwartz, Flick and me in turn; both figuratively and literally as we all surrendered our spare change when he punched each of us in the shoulder. I swear that on some nights even now I can see the imprint of a small fist right next to my collarbone.

Lunchtime was an odd mixture of pain and pleasure. Flick reveled in his victory over me in our little wager, telling all who would listen about my erstwhile journey into womanhood. Schwartz did manage to avoid snarfing his milk, much to Randy’s relief. He did, however, manage to spill it all over his pants when he laughed too hard; leaving him looking...wet. Even so, it was a very long lunch break.

But one last thing? Wendy Macaluso walked by the table with Marilyn Catalano, escorted by none other than Jimmy Patterson. All three nodded at me as they strolled by, the newest member of their sorority for which I had never pledged. I learned recently that Jimmy and Marilyn got married right after college and that he’s a very successful fashion designer in Ireland.

And Wendy? Well, some nights, when the kids are at their grandparents? She’ll join me in a nice relaxing evening where we cheer on good old East Chicago High!

Fan-fic based on Jean Shepherd’s characters from Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and In God We Trust; All Others Pay Cash and the movie, A Christmas Story.

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