'We're talking complete mayhem.' What happens at the Easter Egg Hunt stays at the ...

Vinnie Penn's son, Luke, with his haul from an Easter Egg Hunt.

Vinnie Penn's son, Luke, with his haul from an Easter Egg Hunt.

Vinnie Penn

The Easter egg hunts of my youth were tremendous. We’re talking complete mayhem.

Hundreds of children — most of us knew each other — huddled in packs and jacked up on hot chocolate as we waited for a grown-up to shout “Go.” And then it was bedlam. Remember the movie “Braveheart”? Yeah. Like that.

We did full-on leaps over crouched-down kids as if there was some end-zone laying in wait. We trampled over each other, as if rushing a stage. We fought over Russell Stover marshmallow eggs like they were the antidote that could save our mother’s life, and were lectured on the way home about how blood wouldn’t come out of the jacket mom now had to wash. One year, my late mother literally said, “I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t die for that.”

OK, so maybe I exaggerate. But, there were a few years there that it did get ugly. Yet, for the most part, the annual Easter egg hunt at Fort Hale Park in the Morris Cove section of New Haven was an absolute blast. No doubt no different than yours, in the neighborhood of your youth, or even the one you’re raising your own children in today. Or, I dunno, maybe it was.

The scene: There were cordoned-off areas, of course. The area for the first-graders through third maybe, and then fourth through sixth, and so on. Something like that. The adrenaline that fueled all of us back then, and the subsequent candy-eating until passing out, renders the whole darn thing largely a blur really.

And it still goes on to this day, with me even delighting in taking my own children to it when they were little, before we left Morris Cove behind for Branford. There is something truly beautiful in seeing your children participate in the exact same event you did as a small child, racing across the same terrain, feeling the same exhilaration, maybe even doing so with the offspring of the very people you once participated in the same event alongside. Heck, the annual event has had the same sponsor for decades too: D’Urso’s Garage. (The same business that still sees to it that there is an annual Halloween parade, pandemics notwithstanding.)

Back when I was a kid someone came up with the bright idea one year to put stickers under three of the hidden eggs: mark them “one”, “two” and “three.” The numbers coordinated with prizes already-pumped up kids then got even more fired up about. You’d get to see what prize number three was, which could be a silver dollar, and number two a five spot, with the top prize being a 20.

It may have graduated from there to baskets and basketballs (and volleyballs), but this was long before the age of gift cards, which did little to lessen our collective enthusiasm. To win the top prize was more about the accolades (or bragging rights) on the playground the next day than it was whatever was actually won.

The rained-out Easter egg hunt was a real predicament back in those glorious non-virtual days. It made for grumpy moods that demanded repeated reprimands for the rest of the day; it would start with cheery “turn that frown upside down” stuff to “snap out of it” barking. A rained-out egg hunt also compelled us knowing when the new date would be and, furthermore, if it would even be doable. If memory serves, the Easter egg hunt was on the Saturday before Palm Sunday often, which would render the rain date either Palm Sunday itself or, worse, a week out and on the Saturday before Easter.

Some of the kids arrived on the scene fresh from church, already in their Sunday best, the egg hunt just one more thing to do on quite the full Palm Sunday (or they were off to Mass from there if it was a Saturday afternoon).

In the former scenario, they were typically off to a cousin’s house or a brunch straight from there and tripping them in their khaki’s and turtleneck was not a saintly thing to do. Same with if they were going to Mass.

But for those few minutes when we were all making mad dashes towards shiny cellophane wrappers glistening in the spring sun we were sinners anyway. It seemed like every last one of us. We coveted each other’s take, used the Lord’s name in vain, and even lied over who actually grabbed an egg first if there was a tug-of-war over one. Witnesses rarely spoke up. And we had a Judas in our crew, his chocolate lips proof.