I woke up and I knew it was a special day, my birthday PARTY day! My real birthday was two days ago, but mom said today was a better day to have the party, because it was the “weekend”, and more people could come.
Yesterday, mom and dad had an argument about where to have my party if it rained. Dad said he could “borrow some folding chairs and card tables from the frat house” and have it in the living room, and us kids could play in the basement after we did cake and presents. Mom said she didn’t like that, and it was a “problem until we could afford to buy furniture for the living room”, and that this was the “same argument we had last year”. She would say “I don’t want to argue with you Eric”, but then she would argue anyway.
I didn’t like arguments. Mom would usually feel better when they were done, but dad would feel worse. But if dad felt better after, then MOM felt worse. And the one who felt worse would figure out how to have another argument later.
I was now four years old, the same number as Molly. She was really happy about that, because she didn’t like it when we were a different number. Not that I felt like I had changed because I was that new number, but grownups thought it was important, and older kids too.
I had my space helmet by my bed that I had gotten for my last birthday, when I was three, which seemed like a long time ago. Dad was reading me, Tom Swift and his Outpost in Space, at bedtime, and David was hearing it too, though I don’t know if he could figure it out. Tom and his “team” were building a “space station” up “in orbit”, that is flying around the Earth up in space. It was kind of like a fort except it wasn’t on the ground but way way up in the sky. To build it, they shot twelve rockets up to the middle circle part and hooked them together like “spokes”, those metal stick things inside my tricycle wheels that dad showed me.
I liked making my own Tom Swift stories, and like with other stories Dad read to me, or I was now watching on TV, there were two ways to do it. I could do it “small” with toy soldiers, or I could do it “big” by pretending. They were different, but both fun.
If I did it “small”, then Tom would be that green good-guy soldier who was standing with both hands on the middle part of his body and his elbows sticking out. That’s how I figured Tom would look when he was trying to figure things out. The gray soldiers could be bad-guys or Martians, whatever I needed for the story. Then I could use the new rocket ship I got for Christmas. And the Tinker Toys were great to make just about everything else. Other rocket ships, robots or even a space station for playing “small”, and ray guns and space tools for Playing “big”. Though I never seemed to have enough Tinker Toys to build everything I needed. Even the Lincoln Logs could make regular buildings on Earth, though I figured out that I didn’t need to put the top “roof” part on so I could move soldiers around inside those buildings. And then I could either play this in the basement, using all the different quarters as different places - Earth, Space, the Moon, Mars - or in the backyard. Dad and I had gone to get more dirt at Killen’s Gravel Pit, and I could use my fresh dirt pile, or mom’s garden, as Earth, the moon or Mars; and all that grass part in between as Outer Space.
Doing it “small” with toys, I could set everything up and look at it from far away, so I could see how it all worked together and figure out new ideas to change the story to make it different, maybe more interesting or more fun. I wasn’t part of the story myself, but more watching it happen in front of me and in charge of making it all happen.
If I did it “big”, pretending, then I would be in the middle of the story and it would be happening all around me. I could make it feel more like it was REALLY happening, and be scared, or mad, or brave, whatever was part of the story. I was Tom and our house was the space station. My room (well it was David’s room too) was my “cabin”, and the basement was that main middle part of the space station. The laundry room quarter of the basement was the “control room”, since it had the big metal furnace and washing machine, which had a dial and buttons, lots of pipes and that giant sink too. The TV quarter of the basement was where I talked to the Earth and saw what was going on down there. Dad’s office quarter was the “plan room”, where I figured out what to do and gave “orders” to the “crew”. Finally, the quarter of the basement with my toys was the “lab”, where I did “experiments” and I made things that I needed, mostly out of Tinker Toys. Then outside would be Outer Space, and I’d always have to put on my space helmet if I wanted to go out there.
If Molly came over when I was playing “small” with the toy soldiers, she would do it too, but she REALLY liked to play “big”, by pretending. She called it playing “with bodies”, instead of “with soldiers”. That’s how we always played at her house, because she didn’t have any soldiers.
So today for my birthday I wanted to be Tom. So when I put my clothes on I put on my Space helmet too. David was already up and in that “playpen” thing in the living room. It was like his crib but it was right on the floor and it was bigger. He was trying to stand up, and when he saw me he said “goo”, which was how he said my name. Nobody said my name the same way, but I kind of liked that.
“So hey there spaceman”, mom said, “Today’s your birthday party!”
I nodded and frowned.
“Is it going to rain?” I asked. I didn’t want any more arguing.
“Thank GOD it’s not supposed to”, she said, opening her eyes big, “It’ll be cloudy and cool, but I’ll take it, so long as we can have your party out in the park.”
Then she looked at me, pushed her lips together and her eyes looked sad. “I’m sorry you have to listen to your dad and I always arguing about furniture.” She looked up at the ceiling and shook her head. “It’s really not important in the scheme of things, but I just wish we could invite some people into the house and sit on real chairs with real tables. Someday!”
She shook her head again and did that laughing thing that grownups did where they didn’t open their mouth and the laugh kind of came out of their nose.
“Help yourself to breakfast, you know where the cereal is”, she said as she leaned over the stove and rubbed the top of it really hard. Then she stopped, stood up straight, groaned, and reached over her shoulder to touch her back.
“Jeez”, she said, shaking her head, “They need to invent something to help you scrub burnt food and other crap off the stove. This sponge is just not abrasive enough and the steel wool will damage the finish!” She looked at me, her eyes fierce.
“You’re smart”, she said, “Figure out something between this sponge and a Brillo pad and you’ll be rich!”
I wondered if I could figure something out. I was sure Tom Swift could.
Mom put the bowls and the big box of Cheerios out of the cabinet and put it on the kitchen table so I could make my cereal without asking her or dad for help. And I could open the fridge by myself too to get the milk. If you put the milk in the bowl first and then poured in the Cheerios, they floated on top. But if you put the Cheerios in first then they soaked up the milk you poured on top of them and didn’t float up so much. So that’s what I usually did, though sometimes I’d do the milk first again, just to make sure they still floated.
I finished my cereal and gave the bowl to mom and then ran down the stairs into the basement. I was hoping that Molly might come over to play with me after my party, so I wanted my quarter to look like Tom Swift’s lab. So I started building things with Tinker Toys.
After a while I heard our car come back and the noise of it crunching the little stones in the driveway, and then seeing the wheels in the basement window above that looked out to the driveway from my quarter of the basement. Mom came down the couple stairs from the kitchen to the side door and opened it. I heard feet crunching on the driveway stones.
“Mission accomplished?” mom asked.
“Yeah”, it was Dad’s voice, “I told you it wouldn’t rain.”
“Like you control the weather, Eric”, mom said laughing, “Not a warm sunny day but I’ll take it. I borrowed Joan’s thermos so we should have enough hot coffee for the adults, and the beans’ll be warm.”
There was a pause and then dad said, “I picked up the things at Stein and Goetz, and I got a great deal on wrapping paper at Arlan’s. Where’s…” His voice stopped.
There was silence, then I heard dad say, “Okay perfect”. His feet crunched on more stones and I heard the trunk of the car open. Then a couple minutes later the front door opened and I could hear feet on the floor above moving about the house. Finally, it was dad who came down the basement stairs with David in front of him, holding David’s hands and helping him try to take steps down the stairs.
“Hey Cloob”, he said, “You ready for your party?”
I nodded, my space helmet still on, though the visor was up so I could see better. He looked at the things I was making out of Tinker Toys. He sat down on the floor across from me and let David try to stand between his legs, with all the Tinker Toys between us.
“So what are you making?” he asked.
I wasn’t sure what to say, because he usually didn’t ask me about what I was doing when I was playing and I didn’t like to talk about it with grownups. I knew they could be sneaky, even mom and dad.
“Things”, I said, looking down at the things I had built with the colored rods and round connectors.
Dad and David looked at them too for a minute. I could tell dad was thinking what to say next.
“So I see you wearing your space helmet today. I’m thinking you really like that Tom Swift book we’re reading.”
I nodded. He was right.
“Jack, Molly’s dad, says the science in those books is all right on. It’s pretty amazing stuff.” He paused to think some more. “Boy, you’re growing up in an entirely different world than I did. We’re going to have men in space soon, for real, not just in sci-fi stories. Maybe even you some day, who knows.”
I nodded again. I hoped he was right. More thinking by him. He looked up at the ceiling, puffed his cheeks and blew air out of his mouth. David, who was facing me, turned his head to look back at dad.
Still looking at the ceiling dad said, “I’m getting close to having that damn dissertation done and then I hope to get a job, you know, a real job, teaching. Then I hope we’ll have more money and we can get your mom some furniture for the living room and some new clothes.”
I nodded, though only David was really looking at me. Even though dad was used to talking to me when I didn’t answer, I figured I should say something because that’s what you do, have a “conversation”, that’s what grownups call it.
“I think she’d like that”, I decided to say. He lowered his eyes to look at me. He smiled, shook his head and his eyes twinkled. I could tell David wanted to grab one of the things I had built with Tinker Toys.
“You know, you’re mom and I are so proud of you”, he said. “Look at you! Four years old and figuring things out. So much ahead of you. A brand new world of rocket ships and robots. I can’t even imagine what you’ll be doing when you get out of college. They probably don’t even have a name for it yet!”
Now I was supposed to say something. Sitting across from me on the basement floor with his legs crossed, he didn’t seem that much like a grownup, though I knew he still was, and I should say something good. I remembered that show on TV where that grownup guy asked kids what they wanted to be when they grow up then pointed that talking thing at their face. Some of the boys said they wanted to be astronauts.
“I want to be an astronaut”, I said.
“Well”, he said, nodding his head, “That makes sense. You’re pretty smart Coop, and I know you’ll do well in school, and you can be anything you want to be.”
There was that “school” thing again, where you sat at those tables and that grownup asked you questions that they already knew the answers to and told you what to do. It really didn’t sound like someplace I wanted to be, but I never said anything about it because both mom and dad and all the other grownups they knew really liked school a lot, and the older kids I knew, like Danny and Ricky, went to school.
Mom came down the stairs from the kitchen.
“Well here are my three very handsome guys”, she said. “Cooly, I put a shirt out for you on your bed. Or you can pick another one from your closet if you want.”
Dad stood up, keeping one hand on David’s hand so he wouldn’t fall down. David’s other hand reached out to me and he said “goo”, which I figured was my name. I grabbed his little hand which was warm, and he looked at me. I could see in his eyes there were things he was thinking but he couldn’t say them yet.
Feeling full of energy, I let go of his hand and ran up the stairs before mom or dad headed up, and ran through the house to my room. My green “Campbell tartan” shirt was lying on my bed all spread out. That was the one that mom liked the most, and whenever I wore it she said something about how “Campbell” was my middle name. But today I didn’t want her to think that she could pick out my clothes and that I was “her little guy”. Yeah she still had to tie my shoes, but I wanted to figure out how to do that myself soon. I left that shirt on the bed and I pulled another one with squares on it off the hanger in my closet and put it on, struggling with the buttons some, but determined to put it on all myself. When I got to the last button, there was no hole on the other side to put it in. I could feel myself getting mad that there was something wrong with the buttons on my shirt, even though I had worn it before and it was okay.
Then mom was there at the door to my room looking down at me. She did just a little bit of that laugh thing through her nose and I knew she was looking at the buttons on my shirt.
“So you chose a different shirt, okay”, she said, “Would you like help with the buttons?”
I didn’t want her to help me but I didn’t say anything. I was feeling angry but I didn’t want her to know that. If she knew I was angry she might ask me why and then I would have to say something and that might make her get mad at me. I didn’t like it when she got mad. She kneeled down in front of me and started to unbutton the buttons.
“You just missed one at the top”, she said, finishing unbuttoning the buttons, “What I learned to do with my shirts is to find the lowest button with one hand on one side and the lowest buttonhole with the other hand on the other side.” She showed me with her hands on my shirt. “Then I fasten that button and work my way up to the top.” Her fingers moved slowly as they slipped each of my shirt’s buttons into the hole next to it. When she got to the last one she moved around the top part of my shirt and said, “That’s what works for me!”
She headed back into the kitchen and I stayed in my bedroom. I was still angry inside, but I decided that next time I would button my shirt the way she had shown me. But I would also make sure I did it when she wasn’t watching so she didn’t think I was doing it her way.
It seemed like it took forever for mom and dad to get everything ready in the kitchen to go over to the park. They had put David back in his playpen where he kept standing up and trying to walk. Mom asked me to help watch him so she and dad could finish getting ready. I heard them talking back and forth about who was bringing what, including “all those other important items”, and dad said they were in the trunk of the car which he was going to drive over and park on the street by the picnic tables. Mom would walk over to the park with David and me. I figured “all those important items” were my presents, which dad had hidden in the car trunk, because if they were anywhere in the house I might find them, even in the attic, which you got to from the opening in the top of my closet.
Dad left first with the car, gravel crunching in the driveway. Mom already had her jacket on, and David’s little one on him, and I knew she would ask me to put on mine, but I didn’t want her to tell me to do it so I ran to the closet, pulled it off the hanger, and put it on before she could. Still she smiled at me, like I was doing what she wanted, which made me a little angry again.
We finally headed out the front door with mom carrying David in one hand. She asked me to carry David’s diaper bag which I did. David was kicking his legs and pushing away from her body and she lowered him to the ground so he could try to walk. She held one of his hands and asked me to hold his other. We slowly walked up the sidewalk to where you had to cross the street to get to the park. Mom stopped and looked at me.
“Cooly”, she said, “Do you want to show David what you do to cross the street safely?”
I didn’t like her telling me what to do again, but I did want her to think that I knew how to do important things by myself. So I nodded, stuck my head out and looked in both directions and said, “No cars coming”, and stepped into the street.
Mom smiled, and we helped David step down the edge part into the street. We walked across and stepped up the edge part on the other side.
“Oh look guys”, she said, “The Lilacs are getting ready to bloom. Come see.”
We walked David over to the clump of bushes which had been just branches all winter but had grown new leaves since winter ended. Still holding David’s hand, mom got down on her knees and reached into the tiny branches and held one in her fingers.
“See the tiny purple circles inside the green bud”, she said, her fingertip touching it very gently, “Those will all become the most beautiful and fragrant purple blossoms any day now. It’s nature’s magic. All the plants around us are coming back to life.”
David and I looked. I could see the very tiny little circles and imagined them waiting to explode out. Mom got back on her feet and brushed the dirt off the knees off her pants.
“Syringa Vulgaris”, she said, “That’s Latin, or maybe Greek. ‘Syringa’ means ‘pipe’ and ‘vulgaris’ means ‘common’. That’s how a ‘botanist’, a plant scientist that is, says the plant name. Genus first, ‘syringa’, then species, ‘vulgaris’.”
She looked at me and smiled. “You know there’s a scientific name for us too. ‘Homo Sapien’. Our genus is ‘homo’ and our species is ‘sapien’, which means one who understands.”
“But we’re not plants”, I said, not sure that was really true.
“No we are not”, she said slowly, nodding with a smile, “We are in the other ‘kingdom’, ‘animals’.”
We continued to walk slowly across the grass part of the park toward the trees on the other side of the park with all their new bright green leaves as well. There were boys with their baseball gloves and hats standing in various spots on the field. One boy was pitching a ball to another boy with a bat.
“Looks like a pickup game”, mom said, “We better walk around this way so we don’t get in their way.”
The boy with the bat swung at a couple pitches but could not hit them. Then he finally hit the next one and it came in our direction.
“Hang on to David”, mom said, letting go of his other hand. The ball was bouncing now and getting close to us. She moved forward, bent her knees and caught it with her hands. The boy with a glove and hat that was closest to us had been running towards us but now he stopped, looking surprised.
“Wow, sorry lady”, he said.
“No problem young man”, mom replied, taking the ball in her right hand and throwing it to him.
“Wow”, he said again, “Good arm lady!”
“Thanks”, she said, her eyes twinkling.
She took David’s hand again and we continued to do our slow walk, so it wasn’t too fast for him.
“You know”, she said, still watching the kids playing baseball, “When I was a kid their age and I played in the pickup games with the neighborhood kids I always got chosen first when they picked teams. I swung a bat before I swung a tennis racket. I think it helped my tennis swing, because to be a good hitter you got to look the ball into the bat, and I applied that to tennis.”
I remembered her telling me this story before.
She sighed. “I miss playing sometimes.”
We were getting close enough to the trees on the other side of the baseball area to see dad by the picnic tables. He was talking to a woman, and a kid who looked older than me was next to her.
“Oh there’s Lennice and Danny”, mom said.
When mom, David and I finally got to the picnic table, she was carrying David because his legs had gotten tired. Dad had put out a blanket for David and brought some of his toys. Lennice said she would play with him while mom helped dad get ready for the party. Danny looked at me wearing my space helmet and shook his head.
“Oh, so you’re an astronaut now”, he said, “Where’s your space ship?”
If a grownup had said that to me, I might have just said nothing. But Danny was a kid like me.
“Over there”, I said, pointing to the monkey bars. Now Danny nodded and smiled.
“So take me somewhere more interesting than here”, he said, “Give me a tour of outer space.”
Before I might have gotten shy around an older kid like Danny, but I didn’t feel shy now, because I knew him and he wanted to pretend.
“You got a ticket?” I asked.
He stuck out his empty hand holding his fingers together like he was holding one. I pretended to take it.
“Follow me”, I said and we walked over to the monkey bars.
I climbed up to the top middle part which was the control room of the spaceship. Danny climbed in just below me. We were soon taking off to circle the Earth before we headed to the moon, and from there on to Mars. As we created our pretend story other kids coming to the party came over to join us. First it was James, then Paul, and Kenny. Danny took the job of asking for their pretend tickets. Finally I saw Molly running towards us from the grassy part of the park between our houses and where we were now in the trees. She had left her parents behind as they walked, her dad carrying a wrapped box which I figured was a present for me. She approached the monkey bars, still running, finally stopping, Danny standing on the lowest bar facing her from inside the thing. She was wearing one of those “dress” things that grownup women wore sometimes and her parents made her wear when she went to parties.
“So if this is the moon you must be some sort of alien moon girl”, he said. Molly looked at him and wrinkled her nose like she was kind of angry.
“I’m Sky King”, she said.
“You mean Sky Queen”, Danny said. Molly shook her head hard side to side, her lips pressed together now too.
“I’M SKY KING”, she said again, louder.
“Okay, okay, jeez”, Danny said, waving his hands in front of him, “But what the heck are you doing on the moon.” Molly had her hands on her hips now, elbows out, like my green good-guy soldier I used for Tom Swift.
“I flew here in my plane”, she said. Danny did one of those laughs blowing air out of his nose like grownups did.
“Planes can’t fly in outer space”, he said, shaking his head.
“Mine can”, she said.
I decided I better to make sure Molly was part of our pretend adventure.
“Sky King. Glad you’re here on the moon”, I said from the top of the monkey bars, my helmet on and putting the visor up to make sure she could hear me, “We need you on board to help us get to Mars. You know the way and we don’t.” I pushed the visor closed again. It made the pretending more fun when the visor was closed.
Danny moved aside and Molly stepped through the outside bars and began climbing up the inside bars until she was facing me in the control room up top. Paul was right below her.
“Hey Molly”, he said, “I can see your underwear!” Molly looked down at him and her nose wrinkled again.
“So what. Stop looking!” she said with her fierce voice.
We continued flying through space on our trip to Mars, Molly telling us which way to go to avoid space bad-guys. All the grownups were sitting over at the picnic tables talking and eating. Finally, Danny’s mom walked up to the monkey bars carrying two paper plates full of hotdogs.
“Y'all space explorers need sumpin to eat”, she said, “Danny will you be a dear and give one to everybody?” He nodded but didn’t say anything, and handed everyone else a hotdog and took the last two for himself.
“If ya want mustard or ketchup or beans, or sumpin to wash it down with, you’ll just have to come back to Earth to get ‘em”, she said, “Otherwise… carry on!” She turned and returned to the picnic tables with the empty paper plates. The grownups went back to their talking, the men’s voices getting loud sometimes.
“This space chow isn’t half bad”, Danny said, still chewing his hotdog, “But keep an eye out for bad-guy aliens. They’re everywhere, and that one that just brought us food might be trying to trick us!”
We all got quiet and finished our hotdogs. After that, with Molly’s help we made it to Mars, and though there were a few problems that the crew had to fix, we landed.
“Oh my god”, James said, pointing at the merry-go-round next to the monkey bars, “It’s a bad-guy alien spaceship! Let’s capture it before they come back!”
“Good idea”, I said from up in the control room.
“It might be a trap”, said Danny, climbing up the monkey bars and leaning out to get a better view of the alien ship.
“I’ll go”, Molly said, moving to the edge of the monkey bars and jumping off to land on the ground on her hands and knees. She grabbed the bars of the merry-go-round, planted her feet and started to move it, then jumped on, trying to keep her head looking at us as it slowly went around in a circle.
“Looks okay”, she said, “And it still flies good!”
“I’m with Molly”, said James, climbing out from his spot in the bottom part of the monkey bars. He ran toward the big slowly spinning wheel, grabbed the bars still running and pushed it around harder so it was going a little faster before he jumped on. Soon Kenny had done the same thing.
“It flies really good”, he shouted back at the rest of us.
I climbed down from the control room to the spaceship room where Danny was, my space helmet still on and the visor down. He looked at me and shook his head.
“Time to abandon ship, captain?” he asked. I made a serious thinking face, then finally nodded. I knew “abandoning” your ship was a big decision that the captain had to make. The merry-go-round was slowing as James, Molly and Kenny were holding on across from each other. I ran alongside the spinning thing for a second, grabbed bars and pushed hard with my feet as I ran to try to push it faster, then jumped on.
There were two girls swinging on the swings who had been watching us play on the monkey bars. They were older like Danny, and when they saw us trying to make the merry-go-round spin faster they jumped off their swings and came over where Danny was standing next to the spinning wheel.
“They want to go faster?” one asked Danny.
“Yeah”, he said rolling his eyes, “You know those little kids always want to go faster. They’re pretending it's an alien spaceship!”
The girl looked at Danny, shook her head and chuckled. “Kids!”
But her friend said, “Okay… It’s one of those flying saucers.” She started to run alongside the turning merry-go-round, then grabbing the bar and starting to push it to go faster. The girl who had been talking to Danny joined her, pushing as well.
“We’re getting close to Mars!” James cried out.
Danny, realizing that he was the only one left, grabbed hold at a run and added his push to the now fast spinning. And when the two older girls jumped on, he finally did as well. The two girls hung off the sides, their long hair streaming out to the side and behind them. I watched Molly now hang off the sides like they were doing.
“Everybody move towards the center and it will go faster”, one of the girls shouted. Everyone fought the pull to move towards the center, where I already was. I watched Molly crouched low and grasping the bars on either side, pulling herself against the force to the middle where I was. On her knees facing me, her hands grabbing the same bars I was holding on to, just above mine. I felt the bottom of her hands touch the top of mine. As we stared at each other again, our heads not that far apart, our hands touching made it feel like we were completely connected. I was in a trance as I watched the world spin behind her head, the adults at my party at the picnic tables, our houses in the distance across the park’s baseball fields, other kids on the swing, now watching us, other houses across the street, and then again, and again. It all turned into just pictures, only Molly was real. I figured she was seeing me the same way, and I did not want the moment to end.
Danny and the older girls jumped off, still holding the bars on the edge of the thing and running hard with their feet once they touched the ground so they didn’t fall or get dragged to the ground. One called out, “We’ve almost made it to Mars. Just need one more push!”
I saw a wild thought flash in Molly’s eyes that she wanted to do what they were doing. She backed away from me towards the outside edge of the merry-go-round. Holding the bars there, she let her feet jump off, throwing each foot in front of the others trying to keep running with her feet in front of her. But she couldn’t, and she tumbled to the ground, pulling her arms in as she rolled in the dirt. The older girls slowed the thing, and the rest of us were able to jump off and stay on our feet as we all ran over to where she lay on her back. She sat up. There was dirt in her hair and both knees and one elbow was scraped pink, now changing to red. Her dress was covered in dirt.
“I almost did it!” she said.
“Somebody better tell her mom and dad”, said Kenny, breathless. Danny wrinkled his nose and his head moved from side to side slowly. He looked over at the grownups who were still eating and talking away over at the picnic tables. They hadn’t seen what had happened to Molly.
“You’re okay Molly, right?” Danny asked. The two older girls were standing behind him looking worried, but they looked less worried when Molly nodded that she was okay.
“Maybe you can wipe the dirt off your knees and that elbow and we won’t make a big deal about it with your parents”, Danny said. Molly rubbed her hands over her knees.
“But her dress is all dirty and it’s in her hair”, one of the older girls said.
“Yeah well”, Danny said, scratching his cheek and thinking, “If you stand up maybe we can all brush you off.” Danny glanced over at the grownups again. They seemed to be talking like before and not looking at us.
Molly stood up, surrounded by the rest of us. While she rubbed her elbow, the older girls picked the dirt out of her hair. Danny and the rest of us reached in to brush off the dirty parts of her blue dress with the pink dots. As I brushed her back I liked the warm feeling of her body underneath the dress.
Danny pointed at the monkey bars and looked at me.
“So captain, should we get back on our own ship and continue on to Mars?” he asked.
I nodded and waved my hand, “Let’s go!”
Danny looked at the two older girls and smiled.
“You two want to come to Mars with us?” he asked.
“Okay”, they both said, almost at the same time.
We all climbed back into the monkey bars, Molly climbing up to the top middle control room part with me. Though I was the captain, she said she would be the “pilot” and fly our spaceship to Mars. James said he’d keep watching for more aliens and Kenny was in charge of the rocket engines. Danny and the two girls were in charge of “supplies”, making sure we all had pretend food and stuff to drink.
Danny’s mom came up with two more paper plates of hot dogs. She looked at all of us in the monkey bars and did that laugh thing out her nose.
“Y’all look like you’re having a great time playing, and even made a couple new friends”, she said, “So I brought another round of hot dogs for all of you.” Danny reached out through the monkey bars and took the plates. “Just let us know when we’re ready to do cake and presents.”
“Thanks mom”, he said. He turned to the two girls and held out the two plates. “Make sure everyone in the crew gets one.”
“Is it somebody’s birthday”, one of the girls asked. Danny nodded and pointed above.
“The captain”, he said, “We have to get to Mars so the Martians can give him a party. We don’t want them to attack Earth, so we want to be friendly.”
The girl took a hot dog in one hand, and with her other arm and the elbow of the arm with the hotdog, climbed carefully up toward the control room where Molly and I were. She stuck her hand with the hotdog up between Molly and me.
“Happy birthday, captain”, she said, “Here’s some food until we get to Mars.” I nodded and took the hotdog.
“Thanks”, I said. She climbed down and brought another one for Molly. Between the two older girls everyone on board got their food. Everyone was quiet at their “stations” while we ate.
When Molly had finished eating her hotdog she looked at me and said, “Okay get ready, I’m going to land on Mars.”
“Everyone hold on tight”, said Danny, “This could be rough!” Everybody grabbed bars with their empty hands that they were not still eating hotdogs with. Danny jerked his body around like the spaceship was shaking.
“Don’t know… if we’re… going to make it”, he said, still shaking his body back and forth.
“We landed”, Molly called out.
“Whew… we made it”, Danny said.
“Checking for Martians”, said James, “Oh my god there they are, over at those tables!” He pointed at the picnic tables where mom and dad and the other grownups were talking and laughing.
“Ugly creatures, those Martians”, said Danny, “I wouldn’t trust them for a minute. But we should pretend they look okay. We don’t want to start a war with them. Captain, lead the way!”
“Those are your parents”, said one of the girls, like Danny shouldn’t be saying that, but kind of liking that he was saying it anyway.
Molly and I climbed down from the control room and led the group toward the picnic tables. The older girls tagged along with Danny. One by one the grownups stopped talking and turned to look at us approaching.
“Looks like the younger generation has returned to Earth”, said dad’s friend Walter. The other adult men laughed. Mom, Molly’s mom and Danny’s mom were busy getting the candles lit on the cake. As us seven kids reached the picnic tables, mom moved into the center of the tables holding the cake with four burning candles, Danny’s mom holding her hands by two of the candles that were flickering in the breeze.
“Okay everyone”, mom said in her big voice, “I’m not going to start the singing so someone help me here.”
So dad started singing the happy birthday song, the other adults joining him. Then the kids behind me started singing it too, even those two older girls. All except Molly. She and I didn’t sing. I actually liked that she didn’t sing, because all the people singing felt different than me while Molly felt like she was the same as me, so I didn’t have to be there by myself with everyone looking at and singing at me. At the end of the regular song dad and Walter did that “and many more” part, singing it the two different ways that sounded good together. Everybody clapped and cheered, again except Molly, and of course me.
I blew out the candles and then Molly’s and Danny’s moms gave us all pieces of cake. David was sitting on mom’s lap, banging his hands on the table. Then there was the part I had been waiting for, opening presents. They were all in a pile on a picnic table no one was sitting at.
“Okay Coop”, mom said, clapping her hands together once and holding them that way, “You ready to open your presents?”
Feeling all the grownups’ eyes on me waiting for me to say something, I got shy and so I just nodded. If it had just been just other kids I might have said that I had been thinking about opening presents at my party for a long time. But I was worried the grownups would think what I said was “cute”, and I really did not like grownups saying I was cute. Kids would never say that.
So I opened them. With each one I looked at the little tag quickly that said who they were from, because I figured that was what you were supposed to do, but this was different from Christmas where I had to look at the tags to figure out which ones were for me. Then I quickly ripped off the paper while mom asked who it was from, and I would tell her, or the person who gave it to me would tell her. I was always so excited to open presents, especially toys, because they could give me ideas about things I could play and pretend.
The first present I opened was from Kenny. It was the game “Chutes and Ladders”. We had played it at Kenny’s house, and there really wasn’t much pretending you could do with it. It was all about that thing that people called “luck”, which you really couldn’t do much thinking about, except to worry about yours being “bad”.
The next one was from Danny. He said it was an “Atomic Disintegrator”, which was a kind of raygun. It looked kind of like a regular gun except it was bright colors with all kinds of lines and circles on it that made it look like it was for outer space or something Tom Swift invented. Danny showed me that when you pulled the trigger it made a noise, and there were sparks inside the clear little window in the middle part. I knew it would be good for spaceman pretending and Danny said that if you shoot it at someone, like a bad guy Martian, they would “disintegrate”. He said meant they would “be melted into a bunch of nothing”.
From James I got another game. This one was called “Conflict”, and it was a “war game”. James’ mom said her older son liked to play it and James had been able to figure it out too even though it said it was for “age ten and up”. James said that the “pieces were really neat because they’re made out of metal”.
From Molly I got a really big can of more Tinker Toys.
Molly’s mom said, “Jane, though it wasn’t on your list, Molly said Cooper was always running out of them when he was making things, so he needed more!”
Molly, who was sitting next to me, nodded. She was right, I ALWAYS needed more of them to build all the things I wanted to pretend with, especially for Tom Swift and space stuff. You could make space ships, space stations and giant robots for playing “little”, plus rayguns and tools for playing “big”.
Mom and dad got me a new baseball glove, bat, ball and cap. Dad said they were “real” ones, because the glove was made out of “real leather”, the bat out of wood and the ball was “official Little League”. I didn’t really pretend with baseball stuff, but I liked when mom or dad took me to the park and watched the older kids or even the grownups play, or when they pitched to me so I could hit it or catch when they threw it to me.
The cap was blue with a big yellow “M” in the front part. I figured that was for “Michigan”.
“So your dad and I went back and forth on the cap”, mom said, “I of course thought it should be Yankees but your dad said your ‘local’ major league team was the Tigers.”
Some of the other grownups laughed.
“So we compromised, and found common ground”, she said, “Anyway, we want you to go to college and play college ball before they recruit you for the major leagues!”
Now all the grownups laughed. Mom liked to say stuff like that about things I might do when I got older.
The last present was from Dad’s friends Walter and Frank. It was a bunch of Tom Swift books. I remembered they had gotten me Tom Swift books last year.
“There are three hot off the presses”, Frank said, “Including Tom Swift in the Race to the Moon.”
“Do you think we could actually be landing on the moon by the time Cooper is grown up?” Walter said, waving his arms around.
“My buddies at work all believe it’s doable”, said Molly’s dad, “We got Pioneer Four to pass by the moon so we’ve proved we can get there. And the new ‘Mercury’ program should show if humans can survive in a tin can in space where it’s over 400 degrees below zero outside. Maybe by the time the kids are in their twenties.”
“Wouldn’t that be something!” Dad said, shaking his head.
“It would”, said Molly’s dad, doing that laugh through his nose, “Of course the Russians may get there first.”
“I don’t think they will”, said mom, her strong voice getting everybody to look at her. “And I’ll bet you”, she waved her finger in the air, “We’ll be walking on the moon in ten years!”
Molly’s dad leaned back and looked up at the sky, starting to laugh and shake his head.
“I don’t want to take your money Jane”, he said, “It’s just not gonna happen. There’s got to be political will, from the top, and funding, that’s just not there yet. So by 1969? On god’s green earth, no way!”
Mom looked at him and did that big smile where her eyes got really big, like she knew something that no one else did.
“We’ll see”, she said, then pointing a finger at him, “Five bucks!”
“Okay, okay”, said Jack, doing that laugh through his nose, “Five bucks, collectable in 1970.”
“Women’s intuition, Jack”, said Danny’s mom, waving a plastic fork at him, “And I know from experience that Jane’s is razor sharp!”
Molly had gotten up to come over to the table to look at all my presents. Her mom walked over behind her and put her hands on Molly’s shoulders.
“Molly Wheeler”, her mom said, “What in god’s name happened to you? Your dress is covered in dirt and it looks like you scraped your elbow!” Molly’s nose wrinkled as she kept looking at my presents.
“I fell down”, she said, still not looking at her mom, “But I’m okay.”
“Oh Molly”, her mom sighed, trying to brush some of the dirt still on the back of her dress.
“I’m okay!” Molly’s voice was quiet but fierce.
“Jack”, she called out to Molly’s dad who was sitting at the picnic table with dad, Walter and Frank, “Molly’s scraped her elbow. I’m going to take her home and get it cleaned up and put on some Mercurochrome so it doesn’t get infected.” Molly’s dad nodded, got up from the table and came over.
“Is Molly okay?” mom asked, coming over to Molly’s mom and putting a hand on her shoulder, “You know, it wasn’t a day of good hard play for me as a kid that I didn’t come home with SOME sort of a scrape or bruise!”
“Of course”, Molly’s mom sighed again, her eyes looking like she was worried and thinking, “Raising a daughter. Not your challenge. We’ll talk later when it's more appropriate.”
Molly’s mom left Molly next to me at the table with the presents and went over to talk quietly to Molly’s dad. Molly leaned her head towards me and spoke quietly, like she didn’t want anyone else to hear.
“Don’t make everything with those new Tinker Toys until I come over.”
“I won’t”, I said back, quietly.