Noe Valley Voice October 2005

Florence's Family Album:
The Return of Frankenstein

By Florence Holub

Editor's Note: Halloween at the Holub household could be quite a fright, as Florence recalls in this essay reprinted from the November 1994 Voice.

Without children around the house, Halloween simply isn't the fun it used to be. In fact, at the moment our whole block seems to be devoid of children!

While our sons were still at home, so many children streamed up and down our front stairs that Leo and I often had to make emergency runs to the nearest candy counter to keep up with the trick-or-treat demands of the evening.

We first got into the spirit of the occasion in the early '50s. when our boys Michael and Jan were 6 and 8 years old and we were living on an alley near Mission and 30th streets.

At that time, the Davy Crockett revival was in full swing. His life story was all the rage in books, films, and merchandising, so Halloween seemed like a good excuse to buy genuine coonskin caps for our sons. To complete their costumes, I sewed mountain-man outfits out of brown denim, which they wore in the Fairmount School costume parade. After Halloween, the boys continued to don those fur hats until the moths finally got to them.

A few years later, when the paint business had slowed down in the corner store that I managed for my father, I was spurred by idleness to dream up something a little more complicated for Halloween. Many large empty cardboard boxes were piling up in the rear of the store, so I decided to utilize them as foundations for what were called helmet masks. Making a round head out of a square box took some doing, but with scissors, tape, wheat paste, paint, and a little muscle, I managed to mold two huge, wobbly heads. Then we added cardboard noses, ears, and mops of colored yarn for hair.

So that our sons could see where they were going, I cut out a large smiling mouth for them to peer through. Then I stapled shoulder straps to the boxes to keep the heads in place.

The heads were finished a week early and were such a hit with the local small fry that one boy, Frankie Jewell, rushed to his house at the other end of the street to beg his father to make him one too--more specifically, a giant robot head.

Being the owner of a watch repair shop, Mr. Jewell was accustomed to working on a minute scale. Papier-mâché was a bit out of his league, though. Nevertheless, he took on the task, eager to please his precious offspring.

The project proved to be an expensive and frustrating undertaking, however, one that brought Mr. Jewell back and forth from his house to our store for supplies and advice. (But it was a shot in the arm for our paint supply business!) First, the cardboard nose kept falling off. So I sold him some of our new miracle paste, Elmer's Glue-All. Then he added too much red pigment to the paint, and he had to start all over again with the purchase of a fresh batch.

Mr. Jewell worked on the robot head during the day while his son was at school, so Frankie had no knowledge of his father's painstaking effort. When the youngster finally saw the finished product, it was not what he had envisioned and he said thoughtlessly, "That's not very good," much to his father's chagrin.

His opinion changed, however, when he wore it to the school parade. Frankie, Michael, and Jan were the center of attention, and the success almost went to their heads!

We became so fond of those helmet masks that we kept them up in the attic until about 10 years ago, when some wheat-paste-and-cardboard-eating bugs began riddling them with holes.

After our youngest son, Eric, was born, we moved to our home on 21st Street (in 1957). Back then, it looked a lot like a haunted house--with its dark shingles, thick bushes, and legions of spiders--so Halloween continued to be a big event.

As Michael and Jan grew older, they preferred to fashion their own ghoulish costumes, which grew more repulsive with every year. I remember how Jan took an already hideous Frankenstein monster mask and added even more hideous accessories, including large warty feet and gnarled bloody hands. Ugh.

I was always happy to see Frankenstein go up into the attic to wait it out until the next Halloween. There was one year, however, when those warty feet and bloody hands came back to haunt us sooner than expected.

One evening when Leo and I returned from a night out, we found one of our built-in babysitters, Jan, sleeping soundly with younger brother Eric in our big bed. (Jan and Michael charged us the going sitter rate--50 cents an hour, plus a 25-cent surcharge for bed-warming services.) They looked so peaceful that we didn't want to disturb them, so we tiptoed out to sleep the remainder of the night in Jan's bed. When we opened the door to his room, we detected a movement from the shadows, and as the beam of light from the hall broadened we saw a sight that froze us in our tracks. There in the captain's chair, with his arm upraised, sat the hulking monster of Frankenstein.

When we had recovered from our fright, we shook with laughter at the ingenious apparition created by our teenage son. Jan had stuffed the torso of an Army-drab suit with pillows, and the arms and legs with towels, leaving those ugly hands and feet protruding. He had rigged one arm with a cord attached to the door so that whenever the door opened, the arm would rise in a forbidding gesture.

Then it all became clear. This was the reason our formerly fearless little Eric, age 3, had recently developed an aversion to going upstairs alone.

Prior to the onset of this phobia, Eric had often sneaked upstairs to Jan's room--when Jan was at James Lick School all day and I was busy with household chores--to investigate some of his older brother's fascinating possessions, such as his train sets. Jan could always tell when Eric had been in his room, but he could never catch him red-handed. So he had devised a deterrent: Frankenstein.

His plan certainly worked, but it had gone too far: Eric was petrified.

As we all pondered the problem, Jan quietly took action, by designing his own "fear-deprogrammer." First, he constructed a standing version of the monster, which he placed in the downstairs broom closet. Then he began instructing Eric on how to activate it, showing him how opening the door raised the arm, which then dropped with the door's closing. He coaxed Eric to repeat the action many times, so it would become routine.

The day of the deprogramming, a co-worker of Leo's, Oscar, dropped in. He watched the goings-on with amusement, but when he left, he remarked, "This may make him afraid of closets!"

It didn't, fortunately. And within a few days, the monster had no effect whatsoever on our youngest boy. I, however, would sometimes forget, and would experience a frightful jolt upon opening the closet door to get a broom!

Eventually, the monster was again relegated to the attic and was not called upon except at Halloween.

Last Halloween, Leo got out a stock of Snickers, our favorite candy bar, to dispense to any trick-or-treaters who climbed our front steps. But since no one came before our early-to-bed time, we turned out the lights, went upstairs to bed, and ate the candy ourselves (leaving one or two Snickers for old Frank, of course!).