Halloween and the Sodium Balls, or The Sordid Story of the Sodium Balls
That unforgettable Halloween came in our senior year of high school, 1956. Hickey stopped me in the hall. “Mitchell! Whaddaya doin’ for Halloween this year?”
“I got a great idea. Stop by the shop after school and I’ll tell y’ about it.” Off he went in the other direction. I started to say, “English class’s this way,” but I waved a hapless hand at his back, knowing he’d cut class again.
His shop was on the way home for me, so I stopped. I stood at the open door and watched him remove a part from his old pre-war Indian motorcycle. “Come on in, Mitch.”
“This damned clutch always gives me grief.”
I shrugged. “What’s this Halloween business all about?”
He got up, wiped his hands, and showed me a half-gallon-size glass jug full of what looked to me like dark grey moth balls. I looked puzzled.
He laughed. “Don’t worry! I’ll show you what we're doin’ on Halloween night. You’ll see.” Halloween night I was quite apprehensive.
We went to houses of people we didn’t like. One such was my next door neighbor, Mrs. Messerly, an old battle-axe. She yelled at us for any infringement of her property, and built a wrought iron fence to keep us out.
We went there first. Hickey placed a small tray of water under the front doorstep, then put a sodium ball on the small lip in front of the outside storm door, placed so that when the door opens outward, the sodium ball would be pushed into the pan of water underneath. I had no idea what would happen, but Hickey knew. I’d be just as surprised as Mrs. Messerly.
When everything was in place I rang the bell. We quickly hid behind the nearest bush. Mrs. Messerly answered the bell, pushing open the storm door for a better look.
A jet flame shot up in front of her. She jumped back, dislodging her glasses, shrieking her head off. We immediately made our escape.
After three such “visits,” we heard police sirens from downtown screaming their way towards Susquehanna Avenue. Hickey hissed, “Let’s get the hell out of here!”
He cranked the old Indian into a full roar. I jumped on behind him, and we headed down Susquehanna Avenue as fast as we could go. I held the jar of sodium balls in my right arm while wrapping my left arm around Hickey’s waist, holding on for dear life. The jar was heavy—and slippery.
“Where’r’ we goin’?” I shouted over the din of the Indian.
“We have to get rid of these things,” he hollered back. “If we get caught with ’em, we’re dead meat.”
“Can’t we put ’em back? What’s Mr. Kulak gonna do for lab experiments?”
“Forget it! You wanna get caught for breakin’ and enterin’, too?”
We roared straight for the Lockport Bridge without passing a squad car, lucky for us. They must have come up another way when we went down Water Street. A wonder they didn’t hear us, the Indian was so noisy! I nearly lost my grip on Hickey and almost dropped the jar a couple of times, going over the railroad tracks and taking curves at high speed.
“Wait ‘til we get to the other side,” he called over the din. He slowed down as we approached the Lockport side, and pulled the cycle as close to the bridge railing as he could.
“NOW!” he shouted.
I chucked the jar over the side. As the jar dropped Hickey made it to the far end of the bridge and turned the machine around so we could get back to the Lock Haven side.
The night was clear but dark, no moon. As we came back to the spot where I had tossed the jar, a fireworks display shot up from the river below. Fiery balls of sodium hissed straight up to the sky, bending in giant arches back towards the river, tails of brilliant white flames in their wake. Some of the blazing balls flew as high as the bridge scaffolding high above us. Fragments sputtered down on the roadway near us.
The sky glistened with sodium balls bursting into flame like giant fireflies, streaming light behind them like shooting stars, from the top of the bridge back down to the water. Many balls fizzled out as they flew and fell back into the river only to explode all over again, creating a circus-like display of hurl-burly lights, hissing and humming through the air.
Hickey slowed down to take it all in. “Holy shit!” was his superlative for the fireworks show he had engineered. I in wonderment tried to see every flash and stream of light dancing all around us.
Suddenly a ball bounced off the machine, its fire not yet spent. Another hit me on the arm. “Ouch!” I screamed.
“Let’s get the hell out of here!” Hickey shouted. He didn’t want the cops to see this dazzling display—if they did, they’d come racing in our direction, and if they got here in the next few moments, they would cut off our escape route.
He gunned the Indian and we thundered like a rocket off a launch pad. As I hung on for dear life, now with two arms around his waist, I looked back over my shoulder to watch the display, still popping animatedly. Hickey drove across the bridge as one possessed, past the court house, and made for Jordens Alley, half a block straight ahead. He swung into it and stopped in the first shadows he could find and abruptly shut off the noisy engine.
Index finger to his lips, “Shhhhh!” as he jumped off the machine. We froze as we heard patrol cars on the streets on either side. We cringed from the swirling red lights bouncing off nearby buildings.
“Come on!” he whispered, and began to push the bike up the alleyway. He grabbed the handle bars, while I pushed from the back. We had to get over to Willards Alley, the one that went past his shop. He knew that the police would stop by to see if he were there. We had to get there first to establish an alibi.
We rolled the bike quickly, especially across main streets, but we had to stop twice in shadows to avoid being seen. Thank heaven no officer thought to check the alleys. They were not only looking for us, but listening for the boisterous sound of the machine.
I gotta hand it to Hickey—he knew—he had it all figured out. I shivered at the thought of getting caught. What would my mother say? And Dad? Forget about it.
By the time we got to his shop we were both dripping with sweat. Hickey immediately swung open the shop’s large front door and switched on every light. He quickly disassembled the hot gearbox, swearing as he burnt fingers and hands. After spreading the parts on the floor, we found rags to wipe away our sweat and sat down to try to appear cool.
As if on cue, we heard tires approaching, crunching on gravel, extra-bright head lights, sickening, twirling light atop the squad car, splashing red on sheds and trees alike. He stopped in front of the shop, his engine and lights still running, and slowly got out. Passing around the front of the car, his sidearm, ammunition belt, and badge all glinted in the headlights. His large frame overpowered the doorway. A tense eternity passed as he stood there, thumbs locked in his gun belt. He leaned against the door frame, staring at us, trying to make up his mind what to do.
I tried very hard to appear as calm as Hickey. Neither of us spoke.
Suddenly, as if he hadn’t noticed him before, Hickey looked up and flashed one of his winning smiles at the poker-faced officer. “Oh, hi there, Officer Clancy! Com’ on in!” motioning him to take a seat as if he had been expecting him all evening—which wouldn’t have been the first time an officer hung out with Hickey. He knew them all by name as well as they knew him.
Officer Clancy just stood there, stone-faced. He seemed to be deciding what to say. Slowly, a knowing smile crept over his face, but he suppressed it. Finally his body relaxed, and with a broad, OK-you-got-me-this-time smile, he raised his right hand in mock salute.
“You boys have a good evenin’.” Pointing his index finger towards us, he continued, “Stay out of trouble now, y’ hear?”
“Sure thing!” Hickey beamed.
“No problem, sir!” I offered.
Solemnly shaking his head in defeat, he retraced his steps, got in, turned off his top light, and resumed the slow crunch of tires on gravel down the alley.
We listened intently for the sound to fade into the darkness.
Only then did we heave a joint sigh of relief.