The tale of what really happened on Halloween Eve in 1951 in Rock Rapids, Iowa. (Reprinted by popular demand.)
As I was preparing to update my annual Halloween blog, I checked Tuesday’s San Francisco Chronicle to see what the action looked like for Halloween on Wednesday.
The Giants had just swept the World Series and Kevin Fagan’s front page story caught the spirit of Wednesday’s parade and celebration, “We’re No. 1, let’s party, Celebration likely to bring a million to downtown SF.” There was no mention of Halloween in his story and the only reference to mischief on Halloween was a dire warning from Police Chief Gregg Suhr. “If you’re coming (to San Francisco) to do mischief, don’t come.”
Well, back where I come from in the Halloweens of my youth, we didn't have parades on Halloween and the cops never issued any public warnings about mischief. But we did have some fast times and created some almost famous smalltown legends on Halloween. This was in my hometown of Rock Rapids, a small farming community nestled along the Rock River in northwest Iowa. 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 11 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 celebrated 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. As a Rock Rapids reporter on special assignment, I feel an obligation to retell this story on Halloween and bring some Rock Rapids values to San Francisco.
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 idea: 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 loosened 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 for years in a Long Beach park and then 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.
A few 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, five decades 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 told the audience. 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 in attendance said they had gotten a whiff of the story but were never able to pin it down and were glad to get the real story. 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 I finally found the right moment and cautiously filled him in. He chuckled and said, "Let's drink to it." And we did, for years.
At the 55th 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. However, Dave and I didn't pin down some key details, such as how Shinny got someone nimble and brave enough to undo the work of Willie Ver Meer, climb to the top of the boxcar, twice, and wrench loose the brake. The boxcar would not budge until that brake was undone. That would have required some expertise with boxcars, plus some physical skills, and would have been quite a feat to do at night with a gallery of a crowd and honking cars. Thus, there are some tantalizing questions that may never get answered.
So there we were, five decades later, working to make the fast times even faster on Halloween in Rock Rapids. Did Shinny ever arrest anybody on Halloween? "No," he said. "I would just shine my car lights and honk my horn 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 often called me at my office in San Francisco and he always told the receptionist, "Tell Bruce, it's Shinny. I'm his parole officer in Rock Rapids." I"m 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. We plan to go over the story again at our 60th class reunion, coming up next June at the country club in Rock Rapids. Alas, Shinny has died, but his fame as an enlightened, humane, non-arresting peace officer continues on and we will remember him and toast him properly.
Those were the days, my friends. The days of fast times and safe Halloweens in Rock Rapids, Iowa. Let's hope they never end. B3
P.S.: Ted Fisch, a key conspirator, and I talk regularly about Rock Rapids. He was the center and I was the left-handed quarterback on our 195l football 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. He lives in Redondo Beach and we talk often on the phone and I visit him and and the rest of the Casjens gang now living in Southern California. We discuss Obama’s prospects and the campaign in detail and the eternal question why there are so few Democrats in Rock Rapids. In one conversation, 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? Does that mean the boxcar story will be up there forever? Somehow, the news made me feel good.
P.S.1 I love smalltown lore and 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 others to do the same. B3