According to the home movies my mother took with her Kodak Brownie II, my second birthday party was held on the surface of the sun. It was 1969, and if you were going to capture indoor footage back then, you mounted that 8mm relic on the Mov-E-Lite lightbar. With the flip of a switch, four Sylvania Superflood 375-watt bulbs scorched your squinting subject with candlepower rivaled only by the Einstein Cross Quasar.
The movies were silent, so Mom would always narrate them as we watched them over the years. Every time, she’d ask the same question: “Aw, look, Honey – you blew out both candles in one breath! What did you wish for?”
My answers varied over the years. “New retinas.” “A welding helmet.” “Braille lessons.”
Ah, the memories of simpler times: Cake and ice cream, some presents, and the traditional emergency room visit after the annual piñata incident. But today, children’s birthday parties are much more sophisticated. My grandson Asher — who, just so you know, is much more adorable than your grandson — turned 2 recently, and I simply wasn’t prepared for the glitzy spectacular his parents had orchestrated.
First off, like all things of grave historical consequence, Asher’s second birthday party would require an arduous pilgrimage. Evidently, my daughter and son-in-law, after months of research, concluded that no establishment in Henderson, Warren, Knox or Mercer counties could provide the level of awesome that an occasion of this magnitude obviously requires.
The Mrs. informed me that we were off to the Quad Cities, to some place called “Jungle Bungle.” That name did not bode well, by the way. Years ago, when I was a young Marine aboard the USS Tarawa, the Navy corpsmen had us watch a rather disconcerting educational film of the same name before we were given liberty in port. But even more horrifying to me was the fact that Jungle Bungle features a giant indoor play facility. I suffer from a paralyzing fear of those.
There was a bright spot, however. The longer drive meant I would finally get a chance to break in my new GPS. Soon we were off on a satellite-guided journey to celebrate my grandson (who, incidentally, is destined to double your grandson’s score on the S.A.T.’s).
What I didn’t know about my new device was that, along with the typical language settings for English, Spanish, and French, it also had an inexplicable “D.U.I. Frat Boy” setting. I guess I should have known something was wrong the minute it started providing turn-by-turn directions with prompts like, “Left, Bro! Left right here! Seriously!” and “You know what would be, like, epic right now? Taco Bell! In 500 feet, turn right.”
We arrived at the Jungle Bungle a full 30 minutes late. Our daughter was having a meltdown, as was the ice sculpture bust of Asher she had commissioned.
“I hope you realize you’ve missed the close-order drill team, the fireworks display and the release of the doves,” she said, testily tapping her watch. Then she uttered the words I had been dreading: “You might as well just head down to the play area while I radio the Blue Angels to get ready to do the flyover.”
Now, I understand that facilities like Jungle Bungle are fun for kids, but they terrify me. I stepped down the staircase like Dante Alighieri entering the fourth round of the ninth circle of Romper Room. It was worse than I feared. I started to perspire.
A twisting network of tubes was filled with screaming children. They were merely enjoying an afternoon of play, of course, but in my agitated state I saw a generation condemned to an eternity in hamster hell. The ball pit – well, they call it a ball pit, but it’s really a meningitis incubator – looked like a cage match featuring the characters from “Lord of the Flies.” Raffi had been singing “Baby Beluga” over the sound system, only to morph into the mocking shriek of Axl Rose: “Do you know where you are? You’re in the Jungle Bungle, baby! You’re gonna die!”
Relief is too small a word for what I felt when I was finally summoned back to the birthday party. I got there just in time for the big song, only to find that rather than have us sing “Happy Birthday” to the boy, my daughter had flown Susan Boyle in from Scotland for the task.
It was quite an affair. But when I finally was able to make my way through the paparazzi to get a moment with the guest of honor, as I held him on my lap, I realized two things. First of all, once I looked into that little face, I no longer minded the journey to get there or the horrifying descent into the play-place maelstrom. And secondly, I realized that my grandson could totally beat up your grandson.