Ben Cooper costume illustration

When I was growing up we had a go-to dress up box that was pulled out every time we put on a play or marched in a parade and on Halloween. My mother was a master of making simple original costumes that didn’t come out of a package. She created jewelry-laden gypsies, downtrodden hobos with bandana sacks at the end of their sticks, Paul Revere and Peter Pan, all from scratch.

Me as a gypsy in the 4th grade

Me as a gypsy in the 4th grade

My favorite costume was in second grade when she made me into a Brownie spirit. She sewed brown felt over an old pair of sneakers that drew into a point at the toes and fully dressed me in brown. She topped it off with a refashioned stocking cap.

Our town had at least two costume parades each year and we loved them. During the annual Frontier Days celebration my mother used the thin white cardboard that arrived inside our father’s dry cleaned shirts and made prairie bonnets for me and my sisters and the next door neighbor girls. My brother had a raccoon skin cap and she helped dress the neighbor’s boy as Davy Crocket, an outfit my brother had worn previously. We all wore long skirts with aprons and carried baskets and were the most authentic looking early pioneers marching along the main street. At the end of each parade they held a costume contest and we never won. The children who did win were never better dressed than us so we wrote off our loss to poor judgment. The last parade I walked in I was alone without sisters or neighbors. It was the Fourth of July parade and I went as Lady Justice. My mother fashioned a toga with white sheets and draped a wide ribbon diagonally across my chest with “Justice” written over it. She placed two eye slits through another ribbon for my blindfold then laid a wreath of leaves on my head. I held a sword in one hand and a small scales of justice in the other. She instructed me how to march. The winner of the best costume was a young girl dressed as a bride. The girl’s mother kept apologizing to my mom for the award.

“Your costume is so terrific, I don’t why they chose my daughter. She was a bride… because it was all we had,” the woman said with a nervous laugh.

My mother shrugged it off feeling that everything she did in our town was like casting pearls before swine. It only bothered me.


Years later when it was time to dress our son for his first trick or treat Halloween, Rob was surprised to learn that I had never heard of Ben Cooper. He talked about Ben Cooper like he was a real person or better yet, a member of the family but I knew the type of costume he meant: the one with a plastic mask held on by an elastic string in the back and a polyester one piece suit that was screen painted to look something like the character you were representing. You stepped into it and held it on with two strings attached at the neck. Ben Cooper always put the face of the mask on the suit. Just in case you don’t recognize my face, I have an extra face painted on my stomach. I was having none of it. As an art teacher I knew there was no excuse; I needed to uphold my mother’s costume tradition.

For my son’s first costume I capitalized on his red hair and made him a leprechaun creating green elf shoes after my mother’s sneaker and felt model. We put gold chocolate coins inside a plastic cauldron for his treat bag representing his pot of gold. When we knocked on the neighbors’ doors he handed them a coin. He was an instant celebrity.

jack as goucho marx

The following year it poured and we skipped trick or treating and went to the local town celebration held inside the high school gymnasium. We hadn’t anticipated that there would be a costume contest yet Jackson won first place overall and received twenty-five dollars for being a wizard. Rob was now fully on board. Whatever I decided I was going to turn Jack and Quinn into, Rob prowled the stores for props to enhance my handmade costumes.jack as penguin_0003

The next year Jackson went as a young King Tut and won first prize again. I didn’t notice all the losers crying in his wake because I had a forty-year-old score to settle. I mean if you want to compete don’t put on a Ben Cooper Costume for goodness sake.

I would laugh it off to friends and strangers alike who complemented the costume as I casually fanned the prize envelope around.

“Oh it’s just a silly competition,” I would say.

It wasn’t the money it was the “First Place” written on the outside of the envelope that I needed.

The next time Jackson went as Rip Van Winkle. He was called old man of the mountain by the teenage judges, but of no consequence since we grabbed the top honor once again. Quinn went as a witch so she was pretty much overlooked in a sea of little witches and being two she didn’t seem terribly fazed by the fact she was never really in contention.jack as goucho marx_0001

The subsequent year I was working during lunch on Jackson’s costume when a colleague stopped in my art room and asked what I was doing. I was painting skeleton bones on black leggings and a sweat shirt with glow in the dark paint.

“Wow, that’s a lot of work,” she said. “I bring my daughter to the store and tell her she can be anything she wants. It takes about fifteen minutes.”

“Ben Cooper?” I asked.

“Or something like it.”

“Well I really like to do this, “ I said continuing to paint bones.

“You must, “ she said.

A few days later she returned and found me sewing the skull part of the costume to the sweat shirt.

“Still at it?” she asked sitting down.

“It does take time,” I said.

“Does Jackson appreciate it?”

“Of course he does,” I said a little too defensively.

“That’s good,” she said. “Because it’s his costume.”

The morning of Halloween as I was applying the white pancake make-up to Jackson’s face before school he started to cry. “I don’t want to wear this on my face,” he exclaimed.

“You have to,” I said. “You won’t look like a skeleton without it.”

“I don’t want to be a skeleton!”

“Of course you do. This is my best costume yet!”


“You’re sure to win first place tonight.”I assured him.

“It’s embarrassing,” he said.

“Which part, the costume or the winning?”


Quinn was happily flitting around us as a fairy casting good spells with her wand. Some of her magic must have landed on me. It was Halloween and there was no time to get another costume or improvise one since I had to get to work. I knew the time to change my ways was at least a year away. So I did what all people do when they’re in a pinch with a first grader; compromise.

No make-up was applied for the school costume parade and we skipped the entire town event that evening and let someone else win. He agreed to wear the make-up for trick or treating and the four of us went out for about an hour and called it a night.jack as penguin_0005

The next summer while walking through the New York Aquarium gift shop he discovered a plastic penguin mask held on by an elastic.

“This is what I want to be for Halloween,” he exclaimed waving a black and white mask that projected a three dimensional beak.

“Oh, I can make you a great penguin,” I said. “You don’t need a mask.”

“No I want to wear this!” he said slipping it over his head and waddling around in a circle.

“No you don’t,” I said with a laugh.

“I think he knows what he wants,” Rob said.jack as penguin_0004

With that simple purchase on a hot July day in Coney Island I passed the baton to a new generation. Although I still played a hands on role in their creations and Rob continued to be prop master they started driving the bus and the costumes became their own. When we moved to the lake house Jackson went to the school Halloween dance dressed as Phantom of the Opera. It wasn’t a big hit among his friends since he had to keep explaining to people who he was supposed to be. The next year he was in sixth grade and he dressed himself up as Groucho Marx. Rob suggested a pith helmet which we owned.

“Groucho wore one as Captain Spalding in Animal Crackers,” he explained.

Jackson donned the helmet and a plastic cigar and set off for the dance. Jackson walked around tapping his cigar and doing a great Groucho impression. “That’s the silliest thing I ever heard.”

A girl at the dance stopped him and asked, “Who are you supposed to be?”

“Groucho Marx.”

“Who’s that?”

“A comedian.”

“What’s a comedian?”

Jackson as Groucho and Quinn as Frankenstein

Jackson as Groucho and Quinn as Frankenstein

That’s a story that’s had a lot of play in our house over the years. Fortunately the teachers had heard of Groucho since Jackson again unexpectedly came home with first place in the costume competition.

Hopefully my involvement in their early costumes continued to inform their choices about how to make a great costume just as my mother’s had influenced me. Their love of costumes has been sustained to this day. Jackson dressed up for Halloween each year in college and continued to win contests. I’m happy to report none of the other contestants cried.

Jackson in college with his costumed friends all members of the TV show the A-Team

Jackson in college with his costumed friends all members of the TV show the A-Team

The original A-Team

The original A-Team

Please revisit my Halloween Post from last October: PUMPKIN LOVE


Photo by Robert Forlini

Photo by Robert Forlini

Our lake is located in the hamlet of a larger town. “Hamlet” is a quaint word to use to distinguish our district from the rest of the town. As to whether it is quaint or not is in the eye of the beholder. The hamlet itself has five businesses: a post office, funeral home, florist, landscaper, an auto repair shop that doesn’t sell gas and a deli. To get anything else you have to drive into the main town’s business district which is a mile down the road. The town itself is an expansive area spreading from one end of the county border to the other, occupying a sixth of the total county. But as I mentioned in the last post, there isn’t very much there and what we have is shrinking. The highway department spends a lot of time before every holiday driving around the county and putting up signs that say Shop Putnam First. They have signs decorated with George Washington’s silhouette, Christmas images, Labor Day icons, veteran’s day icons, Fourth of July fireworks, a Thanksgiving turkey and American flags for any occasion.

“Where?” Rob asks each time we pass a sign. “Where do they want us to shop first?”

When new businesses do open in our town we generally take bets on how long they will last. Mema’s Bakery took over ten years to open (you can’t make this stuff up) but they didn’t bake anything on the premises. They ordered baked goods and had them delivered. They also served terrible coffee and French fries. They shuttered less than a year later. We had a plant store that was terribly cute; they opened in October and closed just after the New Year. A beading store started to pack their boxes last week after opening on Valentine’s Day last year. I guess everyone who wanted to string beads had strung enough.

We had a liquor store that was run so poorly that it was inevitable it would close. You would think that if one thing could survive in a small town it would be a liquor store with no competition. Actually it was a wine store but the owner didn’t know anything about wine and the distributer panned a lot of reject vintages off on him. He rarely carried anything anyone had ever heard of.

“I drink orange-flavored vodka myself,” he boasted in a voice reminiscent of Yogi Bear. “But they say that’s pretty good stuff.” He would point at a vertical case of high priced bottles with maybe one missing.

The wine was never any good. After a few recommendations we stopped going there and preferred to do without if it was close to dinner time and we had a fleeting thought of buying wine.

“Uh, water’s fine,” one of us would say. We went out of our way to avoid Yogi, which is what we called him. Apparently everyone else in town avoided him too. Before long there wasn’t much on the shelves and he blamed the state of the town on his bad business.

“The town’s dead,” he said to anyone who bothered to walk in. He had a point.

A pet grooming salon has now opened in the old liquor store but they’re only open by appointment.

Next to the liquor store was a mom and pop hardware store which was a hard business to like.It was a long running family business that carried loose screws and replaced rake handles on request, but it came with the price of a cranky staff that shouted at you when you came inside. Like a lot of old time hardware stores it was probably run out of business because of Home Depot a little over four miles away.

hardware store 2

But the all-time winner for new occupants was A Few Good Men. They were a motorcycle club that rented one of the abandoned shops on the main street-if you can even call it that. They placed a large grill on the front steps leading into the shop and then roped off the entryway with caution tape so nobody would look in the windows. Club members entered from the back door. A few members gathered everyday to drink a beer or take apart someone’s motorcycle engine and put it back together, but they chose Wednesday nights as their official meeting night and all the “good men” would gather. They lined their motorcycles up in neat rows around the building. The barbeque was stoked and hamburger and hot dog smells wafted across the parking lot towards the hardware store. ZZ Top music blared out from the second floor windows. In warmer weather the men got restless inside the small store and spilled out onto the street. They sat on their motorcycles and revved the engines while drinking beer and leered at the townspeople who leered back at them as we passed. I think the sheriff was afraid of them or he had a brother-in-law in the club because they could do pretty much what they wanted.

During our annual Fourth of July celebration we had a parade that mostly included Fire and EMS trucks. The local Girl and Boy Scouts marched along with a tilted banner followed by the chamber of commerce sitting in a typical parade convertible. We stood on the sidelines and clapped waiting for the Town Supervisor who was wielding a bullhorn from the top of a flat bed truck decorated in red, white and blue bunting.

Photo by Robert Forlini

Photo by Robert Forlini

But before he could speak A Few Good Men roared into the parade. Their presence in the parade was a public relations attempt on their part to cull favor with the town. It was their misplaced effort to ingratiate themselves because of the townspeople’s grumbling. Somehow they felt they could be seen in a better light if they rode behind the Boy Scouts.

parade 2_0002

Photo by Robert Forlini


Photo by Robert Forlini

The Supervisor’s voice was no match for their endless roaring engines as they hooted at the crowd shouting, “We’re one of you! We’re one of you!” A line of unfamiliar woman lined the street in front of their clubhouse cheering loudly as the bearded men rolled by on their Harleys.

“Who are they?” I asked.

“A few good women?” Rob answered.

Later that year apparently two of them died and they posted a large sign in the window that read “Reefer and Boomer RIP”. It was decorated with a skull and cross bones. From the car window Jackson studied it each time we were waiting at the traffic light.

“That sign is a t-shirt,” he reported.

This prompted Rob to say, “Oh I want one!”

“Me too!” Jackson agreed. But they never had the nerve to ask or else it was just a ruse so they could joke about the missing men Reefer and Boomer. We suspected all of the Good Men had nicknames. It reminded me of Quinn’s experience in Girl Scout camp. Their tradition is to give every girl a camp name for the duration of the session like Squeaky or Chipmunk.

The complaints against the motorcycle club mounted as the Town Supervisor struggled to rid the community of the main attraction. He left office and we voted in a new Supervisor who set about to clean things up. The only way he could get rid of them was to close every business surrounding the main intersection on the premise that the town was going to build some new infrastructure and make a real main street. The recession hit and all we had was a lot of empty buildings. He also drove out the town mechanic where the flat bed truck sat for the parade and where we held the annual tree lighting. A grubby mechanic’s lot seemed an odd place to hold a tree lighting but the mechanic was footing the bill. However, the mechanic had failed to pay his taxes for the last ten years and the county seized the property. The Supervisor felt the shop would make a great brew pub.I suppose it could have if you had a lot of money and wanted to run a business in a town with high taxes and no other businesses. But on the plus side, A Few Good Men had to move somewhere else.

As for the people who live here we’re still waiting to Shop Putnam First.IMG_0406