Pumpkin Carving with Ken.

by Ken Malloy

I always waited until I was out of the city before I put the top down.

It’s very easy with a Miata. No motors involved. Just open the two latches on either side of the top of the windshield and throw the whole thing back. Done. The first gas station on the Cross County Parkway heading north about a half hour out of Manhattan is my usual spot to do this. It’s where the trees start, the air gets cleaner and the scenery opens up.

That’s most of what you want when it comes to driving a convertible. Although not a requirement, an interesting destination is nice, too.

On this particular sunny autumn Friday morning, my destination was Club Getaway; a weekend sports resort for adults in Kent, Ct. Think Club Med meets summer camp. I had been to both and after several weekends as a guest at Club Getaway, I’d become a member of their weekend staff. This meant that I would teach activities in exchange for free room and board.

This was their Halloween weekend. With the fall foliage in a blaze of orange, yellow and red, I drove my black two-seater sports car down windy roads cutting through the crisp New England air.

My first stop: the farm to pick out the pumpkins. Pumpkin Carving with Ken is how the daily schedule would read and I could always count on a good turn out. The guests were, after all, like me. That is, most likely quick to remember fond Halloween childhood memories. Pumpkin carving, like everything else at Club Getaway, is a highly social activity and I was looking forward to meeting new people and sharing a common passion.

I had, in fact, raised pumpkin carving to an amateur art form. Triangled eyes and toothy grins were things of the past. At my class, intricate patterns of ghoulish faces, haunted houses, scary animals and the like were cut out of the big orange fruits with saw tools hand-made out of tiny jig saw blades glued into wooden dowels. Amid the hiking, canoeing, mountain biking, volleyball and other activities that mix well with autumn air; we’d work away, huddled around several picnic tables.

As I pulled into the farm, I noticed clouds closing in on what had been a clear blue sky.

“Howdy Farmer John!”


He said it better than me. After all, he was the real thing and I was just some dorky city slicker mustering up what little “country cool” I could find. A scraggly man in his mid-seventies, torn overalls covering red-checkered flannel, he’d probably spent most of his days for the past sixty years working in the sun and his skin looked it. His face scared me a little, until he gave a quick and perfunctory smile as if being friendy was expensive and he just wasn’t spending much today.

“Think is going to rain this weekend, John?”


Small talk out of the way, I handpicked twenty-five of the best “carvers” I could find and set them aside.

Rain meant that we’d carve under a huge outdoor tent and so this was where I had the pumpkins delivered. Rain did not wait until the next morning but rather began that evening just as the guests arrived for dinner.

The next morning, we awoke to a raging downpour that lasted most of the day limiting the choices of activities. I taught my largest class ever. We carved fifty-four pumpkins in one day!

Mercifully, the late afternoon hours brought clear skies and sunshine dried the lingering dampness, lifting everyone’s spirits for the evening festivities. These included a happy hour where the lighted pumpkins would be displayed, dinner and finally a Halloween ball replete with a haunted house and prizes for the best costumes.

This year, however, would be different for me. The events of a cousin’s wedding would take me away from this evening’s fun and the rest of the weekend at Club Getaway. I was due for dinner at my parent’s house one hour’s drive south in Stamford. Relatives from out of town were staying with us the night before a big wedding the next day, Sunday in Westport and my father had made it very clear:

“Don’t be rude. Be on time. Dinner is at 7 sharp.”

Years of experience had taught me well. When your father speaks in that tone, he means it. It had been a long time since I had lived under his roof and his rule and yet I agreed to his request. This was both out of respect for family protocol and to save myself facing an angry mob at the dinner table. I’m not sure how much of each and would rather not think too much about it.

Proper planning to be on time meant leaving before dark. And THAT meant I would not get to see the pumpkins lit up. These intricately carved pumpkins look especially dramatic arranged on tables, set against the clear black of the cool October night in the Connecticut woods, and that was my favorite part.

This weekend, however, I’d be missing it all. In years past, I was no less proud than an elementary school drama teacher watching his students attempting a bow in unison. No accolades for me this year, though. By the time my fellow staff member, Jay would be burning his fingers attempting to light the pumpkins, I’d be gone like a spirit in the night.

And so, resigned to the fate of the day, I pointed my car south and headed down Route 7 to Stamford. At least I’d enjoy an hour of top down driving with the late afternoon autumn sun riding along the top of the hills beside me.

Or so I’d thought.

Not more than a quarter mile down the road, sudden pain gripped my upper back like an unexpected cold slap in the face. Under both shoulder blades came the sensations of both aching and stinging with such force that I breathed in through my teeth and let out a long and desperate:


I steadied the wheel of my car, giving thought to stopping on the side of the road. I slowed a bit and kept driving as flurry of thoughts filled my head. At first, panic:

“Oh shit! What did I do to my back? Did I injury myself? Maybe it’s a sprain, or a strain, or a spasm. How could this have happened? I DID spend yesterday and today lifting pumpkins in the cold, wet weather. Maybe I over-exerted my back and now that I’m sitting down, my muscles are cramping up. And, I’m going to a family dinner tonight and a wedding tomorrow. If this keeps up, I’ll be miserable. I won’t have any fun…”

Then, I remembered.


With a long deep breath, my panic dissolved into clarity and calm.

“Wait a minute. Look at what you are doing to yourself. There is nothing wrong with your back. You just forgot. This is just TMS, a harmless condition in spite of how painful it can be.”

Although the pain persisted for the moment, it was far easier to tolerate from this new perspective. Next, the question, which I’ve asked myself many times before:

“O.K. What am I NOT feeling?

What are the negative emotions that may be emerging into my awareness such that my brain feels the necessity to create this pain to distract my conscious mind from these unconscious negative feelings?”

Sometimes, when you’re feeling around for a light switch in the pitch black darkness, you get lucky. Or, maybe somewhere in your tissue is the knowing of where to reach, where to find, where to go. My answer came in a flash. I realized:

I wasn’t disappointed that I would not get to see the pumpkins lit up. I wasn’t annoyed that I would be missing dinner and the annual Halloween party. I wasn’t saddened that I would not be spending the evening and the rest of the weekend with my friends. I wasn’t peeved that instead, I had to go to a marginally entertaining Saturday night dinner and then a most likely, pretending-to-have-fun Sunday wedding with my family.


“The Halloween weekend at Club Getaway takes place once a year. My annual pilgrimage to the farm to buy the pumpkins, teaching the class, and the lighting of the pumpkins have become a special tradition. They’re almost sacred events for me. The sights, the sounds, and the smells — I love the whole thing.  And now, other obligations in my life are taking it away from me. Obligations imposed by other people.

How dare my cousins get married on my Halloween weekend! How dare my other cousins come stay at my parent’s house tonight requiring me to miss enjoying the fruits of my labor! How dare my father be so rigid and selfish in demanding that I leave early and miss the lighting of the pumpkins! That’s when everyone tells me what I great job did, how much fun they had carving and how spectacular the pumpkins look!  And, I’m missing all of it because yet again, I have to be the good son!

Sure there’s next year, but we’ll probably never carve fifty-four pumpkins in one day EVER again and I’m missing seeing them all lit up and that’s something I’ll never get to see…!”

I was fuming almost to a point of frenzy. Looking back, I surprised I was able to keep my car on the road as a wave of rage and sadness welled up into my chest and exploded out of my throat in uncontrollable sobs. At least I was able to keep both hands on the wheel as the wind blew away tears.

Like a sun shower in the tropics, my emotional storm drifted away as quickly as it started. I slowed my breath, taking note of the feeling of openness in my chest, the quiet stillness of my thoughts.

My back pain… completely gone.