My Captain Ahab Halloween

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(Non-fiction)

It’s one of the earliest Halloweens I can remember. About a month or so prior, I was with my mom at our local public library. It was back in the days when you’d rent VHS’s from libraries.

They had a binder that showed images from the movies they had available. I was flipping through it while my Mom was talking to a librarian. I found a picture of some old angry dude on a ship with a fake leg holding a harpoon. I was enthralled immediately.

When I told my Mom that that’s what I wanted to rent, she said, “honey, that’s Moby Dick. Are you sure you want to watch that?”

I nodded an enthusiastic yes. The librarian looked at me – a seven year -old  –  like I had three heads.

I watched the entire movie and loved every bit of it. For weeks afterwards I walked around the house chanting, “death to Moby Dick.” I can tell you why I like that movie now, and I can tell you why I love the book it was based on, but I can’t explain why I liked it so much then. I was just drawn to it

When Halloween rolled around, I knew exactly who I wanted to be: that crazy dude with the leg made of bone; Captain Ahab.  My parents – both of whom were pretty nerdy compared to the other parents in our mostly blue-collar neighborhood – thought it was great. My Dad made me a fake whale-bone leg with cardboard and white spray-paint and a fake harpoon out of God-only-knows-what, and my Mom said on Halloween she’d dress as Ishmael – the narrator and only survivor of the story.  They bought me a top hat and a fake beard.

When Halloween finally arrived I wore my costume to school. I remember walking to school, and leaving my protective bubble, happy, but I started to feel a tinge of awkwardness when I noticed most of the other kids were wearing store bought costumes of pop culture icons such as the Ninja Turtles or Batman. I think that’s when I realized how itchy the fake beard was.

The real sweat inducing awkwardness –  the kind that makes a kid want to bust through the school doors and run home in tears – came when my first grade teacher walked from desk to desk asking each kid who they were supposed to be.

“Who are you?” she said when she got to my desk.

“Captain Ahab,” I said.

“I don’t know who that is,” she said.

“He’s from Moby Dick,” I answered, in a bit of a whisper, wishing she’d leave and talk to the girl next to me about her Care Bear costume.

“I’m sorry,” she said, sympathetically. “I’m not familiar with that show.” 

Now I’m sure many people have far more dramatic stories about their loss of innocence and when they first learned of the world’s true harshness, but this is mine. I was relieved, my interrogation was over, but I was a bit mystified. How had she not heard of Moby Dick? How does a teacher not know about Moby Dick? Did she really think I was a character from a TV show?  I swear to you this is not hindsight. I vividly remember these thoughts (even at age seven I was a bit of an asshole).

I felt out of place, misunderstood, and different from everyone else. I tried logic. She’s only one person, I thought. Surely, others would know who I was. I was wrong.

That night, my Mom and I went to a Boy Scouts’ Halloween parade and costume contest. She wore a wool hat and combat boots and kept repeatedly saying, “call me Ishmael.” I wore my costume – which was pretty drenched due to my nervous sweatiness. We walked around the inside of the old elks lodge together and then stood still for judging.

 I think I just wanted to go home and play Super Mario Brothers, so I wasn’t paying attention when my name was announced. I had won something. I smiled, which I hadn’t done all day, not since the early morning grilling from my teacher anyway. When I went forward to claim my prize – a king-sized Kit-Kat bar – I learned the category I’d won: most creative. The Boy Scouts pack leader had a microphone in his hand and when he handed me the candy bar he spoke into it and said, “the award for most creative goes to … (inaudible mutter)… for his Abraham Lincoln costume.”

The smile quickly left my face.

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