Halloween 1951: Fast times in Rock Rapids, Iowa

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The tale of what really happened on Halloween Eve in 1951 in Rock Rapids, Iowa

By Bruce B. Brugmann

As I was preparing to update my annual Halloween blog, I checked the Guardian politics blog to see what the action looked like for tomorrow night on Halloween Eve.

Two years ago, Mayor Gavin Newsom shut down the Halloween celebration in the Castro, killing off one of San Francisco's most famous party events. But this year, as Melanie Ruiz reports, a local flash mob operator by the name of Amandeep "Deep" Jawa is organizing an unauthorized "Take Back Halloween" party in front of the Ferry building.He has arranged for at least two mobile DJs to spin and more than 300 people have signed up on Facebook.
But he says that he has no permits and the police may shut down the event.

Well, back where I come from in the Halloweens of my youth, we didn't get permits, didn't have authorization, and the police tried and failed to shut us down our events. This was in my hometown of Rock Rapids, a small farming community nestled along the Rock River in northwest Iowa. But we did have some fast times and created some almost famous urban legends on Halloween. I can speak for a generation or two back in the early 1950s when Halloween was the one night of the year when we could raise a little hell and and hope to stay one step ahead of the cops.

Or, in the case of Rock Rapids, the one and only cop, who happened to be Elmer "Shinny" Sheneberger. Shinny had the unenviable job of trying to keep some semblance of law and order during an evening when the Hermie Casjens gang was on the loose. Somehow through the years, nobody remembered exactly when, the tradition was born that the little kids would go house to house trick and treating but the older boys could roam the town looking to make trouble and pull off some pranks.

It was all quite civilized. The Casjens gang would gather (no girls allowed) and set out about our evening's business, being careful to stay away from the houses of watchful parents and Shinny on patrol. Dave Dietz and I specialized in finding cars with keys in the ignition and driving them to the other end of town and just leaving them. We tipped over an outhouse or two, the small town cliche, but one time we thought there was someone inside. We never hung around to find out. There was some mischief with fences and shrubs and lawn sprinklers and potted plants on porches.

After an evening of such lusty adventures, we would go home about ll p.m. and tell our parents what we had been up to and how we evaded Shinny the whole evening and they would (generally) be relieved. Shinny would just drive around in his patrol car and shine his lights here and there and do some honking. But somehow he never caught anybody or made any serious followup investigation. And the targets of our pranks never seemed to make police complaints. I once asked Paul Smith, the editor of the Lyon County Reporter, why he never wrote up this bit of zesty small town lore. "Bruce," he said, "I don't want things to get out of hand." During my era, they never did.

Nonetheless, the city elders decided to keep Halloween devastation to a minimum and scheduled a dance in the Community Building, with the misbegotten idea the pranksters would give up their errant ways and come to the dance. The Casjens Gang would have none of this. In fact it was the year of the dance diversion that we made our most culturally significant contribution to Halloween lore in Rock Rapids. We happened upon a boxcar, loaded with coal, parked on a siding a block or so from Main Street, which also served as a busy main arterial highway for cars coming across northwest Iowa.

It is not clear to this day who came up with the idea of rolling the boxcar across Main Street and blocking all traffic coming from both directions. We massed behind the car and pushed and pushed but it wouldn't budge. Then Bob Babl came up with a brilliant stroke: to use a special lever his dad used to move boxcars full of lumber for his nearby lumberyard. Bob slipped through a fence behind the yard and somehow managed to find the lever in the dark.

We massed again, now some 20 or so strong, behind the car and waited for the signal to push. Willie Ver Meer climbed to the top of the car and wrenched the wheel that set the brakes. We heaved in unison and the car moved slowly on the tracks until it reached the middle of Main Street. Willie gave a mighty heave and ground the car to a dead stop, bang, square in the middle of the street. Almost immediately, the cars started lining up on both sides of the car, honking away. Grace under pressure. An historic event. Man, were we proud.

We slipped away and from a safe distance watched the fruits of our labor unfold. Shinny, the ever resourceful police chief, soon came upon the scene. He strode into the dance in the nearby Community Building and commandeered enough of the dancers to come out and help him move the car back onto its siding. We bided our time and then went back and pushed the car once again into the middle of the street. Jerry Prahl added a nice touch by rolling out a batch of Firestone tires onto the street from his Dad's nearby store. Suddenly, Main Street was a boxcar- blocked, tire-ridden mess. Again, the cars started lining up, honking away. Then we fled, figuring we were now wanted pranksters and needed to be on the lam.

The Casjens gang and groupies have retold the story through the years at our regular get togethers at the Sportsmen Club bar at Heritage Days in Rock Rapids and at our all-Rock Rapids Cocktail Party and Beer Kegger held in the back lawn of the Mary Rose Babl Hindt house in Cupertino. We would jokingly say that the statute of limitations never runs out in Rock Rapids and so we needed to be careful what we said and ought not to disclose fully the involvement of Dave Dietz, Hermie Casjens, Ted Fisch, Ken Roach, Jerry Prahl, Bob Babl, Romain Hahn, Willie Ver Meer, and lots of others, some who were there working in peril, others who declared they were there safely after the fact.

Two years ago, just before Halloween, I was invited back to Rock Rapids to speak to a fund-raising event for the local high school. It was a a crisp clear night just like the night of Halloween in l95l and a perfect setting to tell the story publicly in town for the first time. The event was at the new community building, on Main Street, just a block or so from the old Community Building, and a block or so from the siding where we found the boxcar. I told the audience that Shinny had assured me the statute of limitations had run out in Rock Rapids and that I could now, 54 years later, tell the boxcar- across -Main -Street caper with no fear of prosecution. And so I did, with relish.

Chuck Telford was in the audience and I recalled that he had driven up to us that night, as part of a civilian patrol, and inquired as to what we were doing. When he could see what we were doing, he just quietly drove off. "Very civilized behavior," I said. Afterward, I told Chuck I would back him for mayor, on the basis of that incident alone. Craig Vinson, then the highway patrolman for the area, came up to me and said he remembered the incident vividly because he was on duty that night and came upon the boxcar blocking the highway with long lines of honking cars. "I got ahold of Shinny that night and told him it was his job to move the boxcar and get it off the highway," he said. Others said they had gotten a whiff of the story but were never able to pin it down. The high school principal and superintendent didn't say much and, I suspect, were worried my tale might lead to the Rock Rapids version of the movie "Ferris Buhler Takes A Day Off."

For years, I said in my talk, I didn't think that Shinny ever knew exactly what happened or who was involved in the caper or how we pulled it off, twice, almost before his very eyes. Shinny retired in Rock Rapids and I saw him twice a year when I came back to visit my parents. But I never said anything and he never said anything but finally a couple of years ago I found the right moment and cautiously filled him in. He chuckled and said, "Let's drink to it." We did. And we have been drinking to it ever since.

This year, for our reunion of the famous Dream Class of l953, I invited Shinny to sit in with us. He was still going strong at 89. He assured us once again that the statute of limitations had run out and we could speak openly about the Halloween caper in his presence and in front of witnesses. So Dave Dietz and I retold the story with expansiveness and gusto. Shinny supplied some key missing details. For example, he said that he didn't get his troops out of the dance but out of the nearby movie theater with the threat that he would arrest them if they didn't help him move the boxcar.

So there we were, 57 years later, working to make the fast times even faster on Halloween in Rock Rapids. Did he ever arrest anybody on Halloween? "No," he said. "I would just shine my car lights and everybody would run."
Any hard feelings? Shinny chuckled. "Naw," he replied. "Let's drink to Halloween in the good old days." And so we did. Shinny still calls me now and then in my office in San Francisco and he always tells the receptionist, "Tell Bruce, it's Shinny. I'm his parole officer in Rock Rapids." Alas, Shinny died earlier this year but I am glad that we were able to confess properly to the top cop of Rock Rapids in l951 and to hear Shinny's side of the story.

Those were the days, my friends. The days of fast times and safe Halloweens in Rock
Rapids, Iowa. B3

P.S.: Ted Fisch, one of the conspirators, called me the other day. He was the center when I was the left-handed quarterback on our 195l team. He became a colonel in the Air Force and loved to say that he was the only field grade officer he knew of who was a solid Democrat. We went over the Obama prospects and the campaign in detail. And then he said, Bruce, a friend of mine googled my name the other day and found that I was mentioned in your Halloween story. How could that be? Does that mean I am up there forever? Somehow, it made me feel good.

P.S. I love smalltown lore and will from time to time lay out the life and fast times and wild adventures of my hometown, the best little town in the territory. I invite you to contribute your smalltown stories and lore.