Field of screams

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By Stephen Knapp

"On Halloween night, the Great Pumpkin rises from his pumpkin patch and flies through the air to deliver toys to all the children."

— Linus van Pelt

By Stephen Knapp

Staff Writer

Face it — the pumpkin isn’t exactly the Cadillac in the fruit showroom.

Bloated and unwieldy, it lacks the banana’s sleek profile. Unremarkable to taste, it has nothing of the strawberry’s natural spunk. It can’t compete with the peach’s simple elegance, the plum’s sweet portability, or the pineapple’s flamboyant curb appeal. Even the humble tomato amply makes up in versatility what it lacks in style.

You might call pumpkins the bright orange 1952 Nash Rambler Wagons of the garden.

And yet, for a brief spell each autumn, this graceless pod, not particularly interesting even by gourd-family standards, enjoys a kingly status undreamt of by lesser fruits. From ignominious obscurity it vaults into eerie celebrity, becoming the still-life centerpiece on every dining room table, the main ingredient in countless pies, and the leering source of delicious, delightful horror for millions of costumed children.

Try terrorizing a lanky New England schoolteacher with a flaming papaya tucked under your arm sometime. Bron Bones would have died a bachelor.

In the mountain area, nobody gives King Pumpkin his royal due like Mr. and Mrs. Halloween, aka John and Cathy Pfeiff of JP Total Lawn and Property Maintenance Inc. Throughout the witching month of October, the Pfeiffs’ snug parcel of Bear Creek bottom land at Highway 74 and Meadow Drive becomes "The Pumpkin Patch," a comfortably creepy, impeccably spooky, Halloween house of happy horror.

"We’re originally from the East Coast, and there are pumpkin patches all over out there," says Cathy, managing the Saturday’s bustle with genuine good spirits. "John thought we should do one here. We started this 15 years ago with just a couple pallets of pumpkins, and it’s grown into such a tradition. We get the same people coming year after year. I love this."

My, what 15 years can do to a couple crates of pumpkins. Today, the Pfeiffs’ pumpkin patch is an open-air emporium featuring everything a body needs to keep Halloween well. Groaning ghosts, wailing witches and singing skeletons dangle from trellis and tree limb, oversized spiders spin down from overhead at inopportune moments, and black cats arch and shriek in merry menace. None of that seemed to bother Brook Forest resident Barbara Balaika, much less her two brave granddaughters, 8-year-old Sarah and 3-year-old Rachel.

"We got three pumpkins and a bunch of cornstalks," says Barbara. "We come here every year to stock up on Halloween decorations. They work just as well for Thanksgiving, you know."

"Only the knife knows what goes on in the heart of a pumpkin."

— Simone Schwarz-Bart

In the Balaika household, Sarah wields the knife that reveals the pumpkin’s mysterious heart. She speaks of her craft — not as a watercolorist speaks of the canvas, but as the engineer explains the bridge. When it comes to Halloween, Sarah’s all business.

"Sometimes I make a happy face, but usually I make scary faces," she says, evenly. "It takes about three or four hours to get them done. I save the seeds for roasting, but I don’t get to do the roasting."

Aaah, the roasting. You can thank the New World’s native seed catalog that the season’s signature snack isn’t pan-fried turnips.

The histories tell us that the curious custom of jack-o-lantern carving originated with the Irish and, so, is naturally alcohol-related. According to Irish lore, a tippler named Jack once lured Satan into a tree and then carved a cross on the trunk, trapping him there. Eventually, the two reached a deal whereby Jack would release the gullible Prince of Darkness and the devil promised not to take Jack’s soul when he died. Alas, heaven wouldn’t take the intemperate Hibernian’s tattered soul either, so the poor sot was doomed to wander in eternal shadow, the burning ember of his tortured spirit glowing in a hollowed-out turnip clutched in his spectral hand.

That grim tale so enchanted the Irish that they took to carving turnips with fanciful faerie faces, sticking candles in them and wandering around after dark. In the mid-19th century, Irish immigrants were quick to perceive the pumpkin’s manifest advantages as soul-luggage, and the modern jack-o-lantern entered our treasured Halloween canon.

"I was looking for a job, and about a month ago it just hit me to apply here," says 15-year-old Conner Wood, not obviously Irish and this year’s Igor to the Pfeiffs’ Dr. and Mrs. Frankenstein. Lean and attentive, Conner keeps busy wrestling wheelbarrows full of Halloween cheer through drifts of crunching cottonwood leaves to waiting SUVs. "I love this job. Everybody’s having fun, and the little kids really love it."

The beauty of Halloween is that it offers shivery fun for all ages. While youngsters anxiously scan the long rows of hefty pumpkins and try to imagine the sinister face hiding just below each one’s smooth skin, grown-ups browse a variety of seasonal delights. Just as goblins come in a convenient range of sizes and shapes, the Pfeiffs carry a broad selection of interesting gourds, everything from bright, ornamental "Wee Bee Littles" to sweet and sassy "Sugar Pie" baking pumpkins. Also along the edible line, check out the range of fruit butters, berry preserves, blood-red nectars and, of course, Palisade-fresh apple cider. On the decorative side, they also offer a virtual rainbow of dried Indian corn and a range of attractive — and not especially spooky — seasonal crafts.

"And almost everything here comes from Colorado," Cathy explains. "The ciders are from Longmont, and the strawberry corn is from Commerce City. The preserves are from Georgia, but they’re the only things here from out of state."

Idledale resident Michelle Erickson brought her son, 3-year-old Soren, for a turn around the patch. Soren plans to trick-or-treat in downtown Evergreen this year. He’ll almost certainly be the only one dressed as a hermit crab. Michelle selected a midsize model pumpkin, and Soren availed himself of the free candy. It was their first trip to the Pfeiffs’ spooky fief, and they liked what they saw.

"We were just driving by and saw all these pumpkins," says Michelle, sipping a cup of apple juice and scoping a midsize pumpkin. "You know, if my husband was here we’d be getting the biggest pumpkin on the lot."

Men being what they are, it’s a safe bet that they’d also leave with an electric pumpkin-carving saw and a power scraper, sort of a hand-held router that removes pumpkin guts with terrifying efficiency. For his part, Soren seemed more interested in Boooo-opoly, one of several bewitching games and toys available at the pumpkin patch.

"There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics and the Great Pumpkin."

— Linus van Pelt

In essence, the JP Total Pumpkin Patch is a ghoulishly good-humored shrine to a beloved American holiday that celebrates things that go bump in the night. And it’s all a little bewildering to Denver residents Patric and Viya Timmermans. Patric’s originally from Holland, Viya hails from Latvia, and the gulf separating them from Halloween is a lot wider than the Atlantic Ocean.

"We were hiking your Three Sisters, and we stopped here on our way back," says Viya, taking a breather next to a plastic skeleton clamoring to get out of its plastic cage. "We don’t have anything like this in Latvia. But it’s seems to be fun for the children."

Indeed, the Timmermans’ son, 3-year-old Maxim, seemed perfectly enchanted with the pumpkin patch. It’s always thus — the young are the first to embrace the good and wholesome customs of a new land.

"I wouldn’t call it weird, but it certainly doesn’t exist over there," agrees Patric, eyeing a sass-mouthing mummy with barely concealed horror. "We have some friends who got married on Oct. 31, so every year we spend Halloween at their anniversary party. Now that’s weird."

JP Total’s Pumpkin Patch is open every day until All Hallow’s Eve from 9 a.m. to dark, weather permitting. To learn more, call 303-670-8414.