Starting in the Spring, my household jumps aboard a rolling birthday rally.
In late April, our beloved yellow lab Abby hits her birthday. As we turn the page to May, Colin celebrates his Cinco de Mayo birth with a celebratory Corona or two of the virgin variety and begins etching plans for a month-long celebration. A couple weeks after Colin, our black lab Chatham hits her mark before leaving the stage open for Aria to close the month out properly with her special day. And then one week after her May 31st milestone, I bring up the rear and continue my descent to the underworld.
With two young children sharing opposite ends of the same month, my wife and I have been fortunate to plan one mega-party covering both events – inviting all of their friends (of which there is significant overlap) for a mid-May shindig.
In years past, we’ve hosted it at our house – using the occasion to call forth friends, family and Facebook for a raging backyard BBQ. While the event is always a great time, the work that goes into it is extensive. Days are spent whittling away at the wintry detritus that has planted itself in our yard after that long snowy solstice in order to get the acre Spin n’ Span for the extended clan. With the debris removed, the yard newly mowed and the weeds firmly whacked, we then turn our attention to the interior where Andi always finds some side-project that just has to be done before the kids’ party. While I am quite certain that embroidered crown molding is lost upon the pre-tween set, Andi is certain that these Backyardigans have their finger on the pulse of Better Homes & Gardens and hence we press forth with any last-minute sculpting.
Finally, the big day arrives and with it comes the rainy season. It doesn’t matter which day we plot the party on. Or even if we move it last minute. We are guaranteed a typhoon the second we ink the date to the calendar – meaning all that work dragging sticks and satellite wreckage from the backyard was all for naught – thus the party is moved to the interior and we are guaranteed an additional three days of post-party cleanup and impromptu home improvement. All it takes is for one kid to toss his cake at the wall and suddenly Andi is entertaining dreams of a frosting fresco.
Great minds think alike.
Just as I was mentally preparing myself for the Herculean task at hand, Andi popped the question. “Why don’t we book the kids’ party somewhere else – somewhere fun?” She had a fistful of brochures which told me she was serious and let my mind immediately go to its happy place – a land where I’m not pressed into indentured servitude to a taskmaster wife who needs this party to trump the Tea Party little Bristol’s Mom threw a few weeks back.
It was a great idea. Sure it was gonna’ cost a chunk of coin (a weak-kneed notion in my current climate of unemployment) but a party at the home would cost just as much – by the time we tallied the food, drink and security detail. And we’ve been fiscally responsible all the way through, allowing us to grant our children a little fun for their special day. Life’s too short, anyway!!!
We decided on Pump It Up – a party destination location that ought to be at the top of everyone’s “Why the Hell Didn’t I Think Of That?” bucket list of entrepeneurial ideas.
Having been to a few kids’ parties at Pump It Up over the last year, I knew the model. A franchised business – they basically take warehouses and convert them into indoor play zones stocked with inflatable bounce houses, slides and obstacle courses. Everything is designed around bouncing around and just expending mass amounts of energy. Forget the Prius. If we could somehow tap into the kilowatts generated by the sum total of children that duck, dodge and wail the day away in a Pump It Up emporium, we’d never need an another ounce of crude.
The kids were of course – pumped!!! They absolutely love this place. I was looking forward to the fact that the preparation and clean-up was nil. We simply sent the invitations, ordered a cake, made the arrangements and then on the morning of the party, ferried out kids to meet their friends at the Route 9 Shrewsbury location, knowing that when the clock struck 12, we were free to leave without need of a napalm strike.
Each party allows for 26 kids – meaning once you added in Colin and Aria – they were free to draft 12 of their nearest and dearest. It was a rogue’s gallery culled from school, the playground, dance class and their cousins. All together – 26 kids set loose in a massive indoor playground leads to 26 little Hobbits becoming fast friends.
For this is where the tale takes a dark turn.
You see – over the last year, I’ve escorted Colin and Aria to three or four Pump It Up parties and at each event, the adults inevitably join in. Usually, it’s just a handful and it’s always the parents of the birthday boy or girl with that occasional perennial bachelor Uncle joining in the fun – a moment’s respite before returning to his bedroom in his parent’s basement. I’ve often looked longingly at that inflatable Fountain of Youth but never got the guts to doff my shoes and join in the revelry.
But this time – on my dime – I was jacked and pumped to be a kid again. It’s the same feeling I get whenever I drive by one of those mammoth McDonald’s Playland human hamster habitats. Why couldn’t mankind figure out a way to mold plastic like that when we were kids? Back in my day, if you had a tire on a noose tethered to a tree, that was a day at the amusement park – AND YOU LIKED IT!!!
But kids these days…
Anyway, after chatting up all of the assorted Moms and Dads, I finally kicked off my Sunday shoes and got footloose. Soon after, several other parents joined suit and I immediately began mentally compiling a back-up list of emergency contacts. After all – once we all expired, who was gonna’ get our kids home safe and sound so that our loved ones could begin making the necessary service arrangements? This had all the earmarks of a “First on Fox 10:00 O’Clock News” Special Report – Bounce House Blood Bath”.
After getting my feet wet on a few trips down the largest indoor slide I’ve ever seen, I made my way to the massive tent that held this huge inflatable rock wall. Once you ascended the wall – there were two ways down – with slick slides spanning each side. When I emerged into that tent, Aria saw me and made a bee-line to hug her Daddy. The thing is – gravity is not our friend in a bounce house and through that ever-present rocking motion, she ended up sailing through the air and gang tackling her poor Papa. I thought that would leave her in tears but she was laughing hard – having the time of her life.
Her laughter was like a Siren’s Call to the other kids. They saw Aria pinning me down and decided that this would be the perfect time for a pig pile. Sensing that my little girl was about to receive her very first pile drive, I sprung up and high-tailed it away from the surging mass of sugar-injected miscreants. But everywhere I turned, kids materialized.
Then the world got all Matrix-y. Everything slowed as my reflexes tightened. I cut corners – bouncing off inflatable walls. I used the powers afforded my by those precious pumps to add loft to my normal 4″ vertical and sky over these grabbing goblins. But nothing was stopping them and I was trapped in a rapidly-shrinking enclosure.
Finally, I caught sight of my nephew Jake who had ascended the rock wall and was beckoning me to follow him towards safe harbor. With one giant leap, I bounced off the ground and grabbed hold about halfway up the wall. Looking back, I saw the kids were beginning to shake off their confusion and had fixed on my new coordinates. Their hive mind beamed new instructions – “There he is. Get him!!!”
I scurried up the wall and before I could thank Jake, I realized my folly. He hadn’t led me to safety. He had sealed my doom.
Looking down one slide, I saw 8 critters ready to grab me the second I slid down. Gazing down the other exit, 8 more moppets were waiting to manhandle me should I go that way. That left the way I came up, which was now being populated by the rest of these vile Orcs. This bounce house had become my personal Helm’s Deep, as all manner of juvenile beastie was clawing towards me.
I hadn’t a moment to spare and when I saw that first miniature claw crest the edge of the rock wall, I sprung into action. Feinting to the right, I shook off the group awaiting me on the left – who abandoned their post to join their brethren.
That gave me a split second to hit that slide. Unfortunately, I lost balance and went down head first, my elbow dragging along the hard rubber all the way – giving me the world’s worst rug burn. By the time I hit the bottom, my nerves were on red alert – klaxons blaring in my head. Pain shot through my elbow and while my brain tended to the hot zone, I suddenly remembered my predicament. But it was a moment too late. The New Zoo Zombie Revue had me pinned – with kids just piling on top from all sides. I don’t even think I invited half of these brats!
And suddenly I was no longer in Mordor. I was now living my own personal war movie as I crawled forth through that bounce house – slowly edging myself along as the seething masses clung to my back and John Williams’ mournful Platoon theme cranked on the soundtrack – or maybe The Kidz Bop CD was just having technical difficulties. In the distance I could see their parents – chatting up their compadres – blissfully unaware that at the very moment, mere inches away – their children were looking to sacrifice me to Yo Gabba Gabba, Lady Gaga or whatever infernal Hell Beast they genuflect before these days.
So I was on my own and I continued to crawl – inch by inch. Step by step. Until finally, I hit the escape hatch and slithered on out into safe haven. Of course, six-year olds never get a hint so they all hung on tight – presuming that I was simply taking this show on the road. So with one final burst of energy, I rocked back and forth and shook off the last of my parasites. And with that – I crumpled to the ground. Bruised. Beaten. Sweaty.
And having had the time of my life.
For it was at that moment that I turned back and caught sight of Colin and Aria – their faces sharing a combined grin three sizes too large for their cute little countenance and I saw that they were knee-deep in the midst of the best birthday party ever.
And that’s what we labor for. To bring joy and light to them.
And every once in awhile, steal a sip of that elixir that they covet so dearly. That sweet nectar of childhood that lets kids be kids. The Fountain of Youth that leads a child to find hours of enjoyment in a cardboard box and renders an inflatable slide more exotic than any wonderscape James Cameron could ever concoct.
I realize that with all of my daily responsibilities – there are too many days where I simply forget to stop for a second and get down to their level and just let the cares of the day evaporate. To just stop and have a little fun.
When we returned home that afternoon, a little Neosporin made the perfect Band-Aid for my birthday party boo-boo. But how I got wounded proved the perfect salve for my soul.