Tom Ross: Traditional holiday candy tough to find in 2004

Trick or treat ... got anything in your bag besides chocolate bars?

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I went shopping for treats yesterday on the odd chance that a dozen costume-clad tricksters might venture into our pitch-black neighborhood Sunday. The lack of variety was enough to make a 51-year-old kid say "boo." Back in the day, if we found a half-dozen nickel candy bars scattered amid our haul, we counted ourselves very fortunate indeed. Today, the giant candy makers dominate the shelves at the obvious places to shop for sugar handouts so thoroughly that chocolate bars have become the norm. If I didn't know better, I might think the chain retailers had made a sweetheart deal with Nestle's and Hershey's.

"If you don't stock 5,000 bags of our miniature Snickers bars with wrappers that glow in the dark -- we're going to cut you off for the rest of time!" Where's the mystery for today's pirates and princesses, ghosts and witches (those are still the favorite costumes for boys and girls, right?) when they return home from trick-or-treating with a sack full of Mars Bars, Butterfingers and Baby Ruths? Whatever happened to little candy pumpkins, black jawbreakers, peanut butter-flavored chewy candies in black and orange wrappers, chewy bats, caramels and those little rolls of sweet and tart disks whose name I forget?

Our favorite part of trick-or-treating was the ritual we went through at the end of the night. Dragging an 8-pound paper grocery bag onto the living room carpet, we would upend it and feverishly set about the task of sorting and counting the different categories of candy. Anybody with any willpower at all ate very sparingly until they were done sorting and counting because, after all, this was a contest to see who could claim the biggest haul of all, and thus the biggest potential gut ache.

Youngsters today have it way too easy, thanks to the apparently endless generosity of Steamboat's downtown merchants. Those kind shopkeepers purchase a gross of Halloween candy apiece every fall to facilitate the trick-or-treat tradition.

Not only does this allow little ghouls and gremlins to amass their Halloween horde with only a minimal amount of walking, it is perfectly safe! Back when I was your age, we had to canvas a vast suburban area to build up a respectable mountain of candy. There was always some wise guy who dropped a handful of loose popcorn in your bag, and invariably, some misguided parents insisted on weighing you down with apples. That's right, apples, as in fruit!

We didn't stroll from house to house, we literally raced to cover the most ground. And only occasionally did we waste any time on houses with no lights on, even though we suspected the occupants were in there somewhere hiding behind their couch.

My own father, rascal that he is, taught me a harmless Halloween prank to play on people who hid in their darkened homes. We would take an empty wooden spool out of my mother's sewing box and cut notches in the rims of the spool at either end. Replacing the thread, we wound a stout cord around the spool. Then, we inserted a large nail into the hole in the spool. By placing the spool against a picture window and pulling on the cord, a trick-or-treater could jolt the candy slackers out of their hiding places. My father probably didn't imagine that I would visit this torment on the biggest grouch within a two-mile radius of our home. We had to run for our lives through the back yards that Halloween night. The greatest danger in our neighborhood on Halloween was posed by several bullies who thought it was great sport to drop lit firecrackers into the paper bags carried by smaller children. This reckless practice often opened a gash in the candy bag that scattered the kiddies' booty about the sidewalk, resulting in such wailing and screaming that it probably would have frightened a ghost.

I wonder how those bullies of decades ago are spending Halloween 2004? On second thought, I don't want to know which penal institution they now call home.

Every family has its own trick-or-treat ritual, and I ran into an acquaintance yesterday who shared a custom I had not heard of. When she and her siblings returned from their rounds, she said, they were allowed to select the 25 most desirable treats for consumption in the coming days. Their parents then proceeded to bargain with them for a cash buy-out for the remaining contents of their candy bags. Usually, the kids caved in for $2.

To this day, my friend can't be certain what happened to all of that candy.

But she has a pretty good idea.

Have a safe Halloween everyone. And don't eat too many gummi vampire teeth in one sitting.

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