Making Halloween

Dec 03 2012

In a two-story home nestled in the woods on the Severn River, the aroma of baking goods accents the preparations of the coming evening’s festivities.

This is Ashlee Gamble’s first time hosting a Halloween party, and she is running from food to decorations and back to food again, like a conductor’s baton, leading different parts of a symphony.

“I usually go about once a year during the Halloween time,” says Sam Dollar, who is helping Gamble prepare. “It’s typically the best time to go to a Halloween party.”

One of the basic elements of any party, and what binds us together socially, is what takes up the majority of Gamble’s time.

“I love food and I think it’s a great centerpiece,” says Gamble.  “Whenever you look at a recipe, and you look at the time it takes, I usually have to double that.”

She has a variety of ghastly hors d’oeuvres for the guys and ghouls that are going to haunt the house in a few hours.  She munches on some snacks as she cooks.

“I think my favorite,” says Dollar, “is the little weenie thingies covered in the mummy stuff.”

This mummified version of pig in the blanket plays the string section of the food orchestra.  The accompanying elements include the percussion of white chocolate-covered Nutter Butters that look like ghosts.  The woodwinds are represented by some long, thin sugar cookies with a shaved almond that looks like a witch’s finger. The brass is a fruity green juice that fills a black cauldron in the corner of the table.  The stage is arranged in such a way as to present the food in both an aesthetically pleasing and an easily accessible manner.

Gamble’s ideas came mostly from Pinterest, a social media platform where people share pictures which link to different websites.  These pictures can be organized into different groups so that parties like this one can be planned in a single isolated board.

Another important Halloween element is the costume.  “A lot of adults now have kind of a stigma wearing them,” Dollar says.  “They feel it’s childish.  Which is funny because I feel like you are more mature by wearing a costume, because you’re leading by example and you’re showing the kids that it’s okay to wear a costume and you’re still able to be a mature person.”

He may have been the only adult wearing a costume at the party.  Dollar says, “I think the one guy was wearing a costume, but it might just have been his normal attire.  It was kind of hard to tell.”

A two-year old girl is dressed as Dumbo the elephant, with a frilly red and yellow ruff bringing color to the otherwise grey outfit.  Another girl, less than a few months old, is sitting in her stroller in a fleece pumpkin outfit.

“I’m actually surprised with how much I was able to get done today,” said Gamble, chuckling.  “I wish I had started a few days ago.”

The mummy snacks are the biggest hit.  Everybody gets wrapped up in them.  The plate of ghosts disappear one by one.  A pile of rib bones builds up, no longer bearing the sweet pork dripping with sticky barbeque sauce.  The two dogs are gnawing on a couple of them.  Dollar is sipping on the green juice.

“It’s actually pretty good,” he says, “which is surprising, because I normally don’t like pineapple, and that was the main ingredient.”

After some games and a few last-minute treats, the guests leave the party, saying their good-byes.  Gamble and Dollar take the remaining two mummies as they relax, the ghosts are gone.  All that remains is a half-empty cauldron and a couple of crumb-splattered platters.

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Healthy Obsession

Dec 01 2012

“I have probably seen more dead people—” said Todd Frantom, “true story: more dead people, than I have dead deer.”

We are surrounded by darkness in the middle of the woods with no one around for miles.  This is the recipe of the typical horror movie.

For Frantom, this scene is where he finds his serenity and escapes from his own mind.  He deals with post-traumatic stress disorder, brought on from his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It wasn’t like I was shooting all over the place,” he explains.  “It was like, a grenade goes off, I hit the ground and I shoot him—and I watch him die. I know where my bullet hits.”  I hear the strain in his voice as he tells the story.  He is staring off into the distance, as if he isn’t with me.  It doesn’t quite seem like he is there either.  It feels like he is somewhere in between.

On another mission, “There was only two guys in front of me, going in the door,” Frantom said.  “So one guy goes in, goes right, the next guy goes left, and I come in straight and I’m trying to transition to my video camera.”  He is pantomiming the actions as he tells me the story.  “I just put it in its carrier and I’m pulling up my camera and this person, this big huge fat guy drops in front of me in this courtyard and we both started screaming.  He had a weapon.  He’s trying to pull his weapon and I was screaming and I grab my camera and I just swung and hit him over the head and then—ran out of there.”  He lets out a sheepish smile.  I see the relief in his face.  He is excited to tell the story, but there is something in his eyes that says he was truly afraid for his life.

It’s four in the morning.  We are tracking deer, guided by the light of our head lamps and his back-of-the-hand knowledge of these woods.  He tells me how he has spent four years in this same area, tracking the same deer.  He has even named them.

After setting up a circle of camouflage netting around a couple trees, and spraying ourselves down with a bottle of doe-in-heat, a scent that, at first, makes me step back with its putrid pungency: a mix of bad urine and stale blood.  After a while, the stench remains, but I grow more accustomed to it.  Frantom grins when he sees my reaction.

We sit there, listening  to the deafening silence.  The first sound to return is the cricket’s song.  This melody is followed by the falling of leaves.  Then the squirrels start chattering away.  Eventually, the sound of larger creatures creep through the forest.  I ask if we just heard a deer, but Frantom assures me that it was just a branch crashing to the ground.  The forest has a short memory, and now we are a part of it.

Though Frantom is an experienced hunter, his style is not traditional.  “When you shoot with a gun, you look through a scope, you pull the trigger, the animal is dead,” he explains.  “With a camera, the challenge of capturing a photograph, of, let’s just say a turkey, through woods, your depth of field is tree, tree, tree, tree, tree.”  As he tells the story, his hands are rapidly overlapping, one in front of the other, representing the forest.  He makes the motion for the camera adjustments as well. “Which means I have to manually focus on a moving subject two to three hundred yards out.”

This hasn’t always been his style.  Growing up, Frantom would frequently go out hunting wildlife with his father.  Ten years ago, he realized that he fell in love with the animals that he was killing.  He left part of that lifestyle behind, but he still finds the experience to be therapeutic.

“It’s like a double-edged sword,” Frantom explains.  “I don’t like the hunters—but I like them, because it makes the situation much harder for me to capture.”

The hushing sound comes out from between his lips.  Frantom is looking straight ahead, scanning the horizon for any movement.  He reaches down to pick up what he plans to shoot the deer with: his Nikon D3S camera.  The lens is as long as his forearm and as thick.  He waits, quietly, not moving a muscle.  The deer doesn’t come. He lets out a deep breath, and sits back against the tree.

It’s now 11 am.  The name of the buck we have been hunting all morning is Moose.

“I don’t sleep much,” said Frantom.  He takes a moment.  “But, I don’t want to miss much, either.”

After spending all morning in the woods, we start heading back to his truck.  Though we didn’t see Moose this morning, the trip was not entirely in vain.  Frantom is still stalking, calling, and scanning for the buck the entire walk back to our ride home.  The step in his bounce is more lively than when we started this adventure.  I see that, though he is searching the horizon, he is here now.

While he comes out to the woods a lot, it isn’t always alone.  He brings his daughter, Abigail, with him to see the deer as well.  As he describes it, the woods are his church.  This is where he finds his serenity.

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Nov 28 2012

Click Pumpkin to hear the audio story.


For those on Fort George G. Meade in Maryland, the arrival of Autumn brings a cornucopia of pumpkin flavored foods and beverages.

The taste of pumpkin brings with it a kick of spice, and for Ashlee Gamble, a Navy spouse, a pinch of nostalgia.

“You have this crappy season of summer where everything sticks to you, and it’s humid and gross and you wish that you were in the arctic,” says Gamble. “Finally the fall weather comes and you’re like, ‘Ah! I can breathe!’”

Gamble says that she always looks forward to this time of the year.

“It brings me back to my childhood,” says Gamble.  “I think as we grow up, we try to reach back for those memories.”

For Samual Dollar, a Navy submarine veteran, the pumpkin flavor has a different impact.

“If you’re out on deployment,” says Dollar, “those smells that remind you of back home, or those flavors,” he paused, “it’s the little things in life that makes life matter.”

The spice is what Gamble says really hits her.  “I just feel at home.”  She says that pumpkin on its own is bland. “When you add all the spices to it, it’s a very nice complement.”

Pumpkins are an essential representation of the Autumn season for both Gamble and Dollar.

“You open it up and it’s full of life,” said Dollar, “and that’s why we carve faces into them.”

“There’s the seeds, there’s the gook, the mush, whatever inside,” she said.  “Eventually it came to the point where they would carve them out and stick a candle inside.”

“That’s why we display them proudly, every year,” Dollar said, “and we go for the intricate designs, to show our true selves.  Even as living people, we can’t show people who we truly are as living beings.  But as pumpkins, we can.”

“It’s tradition,” Gamble said, “and when you’re raised in a family with that, you automatically think of Fall.”

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37 Seconds of Awesome

Nov 25 2012

You will never think of a trip to the commissary the same way again.

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Nov 22 2012

Derek Neill is an intelligence analyst for the United States Air Force.  His short coppery hair peaks out over his towering frame, offset by his dusty green eyes.  When he smiles, which is frequent, it resembles more of a knowing smirk than a full-on smile.  He carries his mass with a combination of finesse and authority.  His voice is like a canyon, deep with the same authority, but with an airy river of compassion flowing through it.

We step out onto the lawn in front of his home.  His home is not made of brick, but the wooden exterior of his home resembles such, trimmed with a white that gives a faint hint of barnyard nostalgia.  The grass is still damp with dew, and some of the moisture clings to the slick shaft of the arrow as he places them gently against the thick wooden fence.  The rough-cut square logs are lined with chicken fencing, in a feigned attempt to keep any unwanted visitors from slipping into the muddy pond, partially camouflaged by long strands of weeds, growing to reach the sky.

Neill carefully grabs one of the charcoal colored shafts and places it in his machine-crafted compound hunting bow.  With practiced precision, he pulls back, the sound of the metal arrow sliding across the curve of the bow, the string coming forming an sharp triangle.  The trigger rests gently against his cheek, with only enough pressure to hold the arrow and the string in place.  A steady breath is calculatingly pushed out, then held as Neill stares at the 2-inch yellow bull’s-eye perched on the other side of the lawn.  With barely a noticeable flick of his finger, a loud twang is followed less than a second later by a distant thump, Neill’s position unchanged, except for the lack of an arrow in his bow, and the string resting back in a straight line.  Holding this position for only a beat, Neill resumes his normal breathing pattern, and lowers his bow.  The arrow is buried two-feet deep into the yellow center, half the shaft embedded into the stack of hay behind the target.

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