Not only was the boy born so close to Christmas it isn't fair, there is the annual problem of how to manage the party for him and half a dozen of his cake-crazed buddies.
Even if it isn't too cold to play outside, Mark's birthday is usually a school day and dark will be descending by the time the affair begins. And a bunch of gradeschoolers, God bless 'em, can be confined indoors only briefly before they riot. It begins with a squabble over the one toy everybody wants to play with, and escalates until some are sulking, some are screaming, and one poor lad is crying that he wants to go home.
There are parents of great ingenuity and self-control who can keep a critical mass of young boys happy and orderly for several hours, but Mark's are not among them. In previous years an hour seldom had passed before his father found himself roaring at one of the little dears, usually a boy who was offering a finger to Sam the snapping turtle.
This year was different. Careful analysis of the problem had made it clear that there was no way to keep the kids from running wild. The solution was to move the rumble onto somebody else's turf.
Our first victim was the proprietor of a duckpin bowling alley, whose misfortune it was to have several lanes open between the afternoon and evening bowling leagues. It had to be a duckpin alley, of course, because even the sturdiest 7-year-old cannot handle the giant tenpin balls. They can't handle duckpin balls very well either, for that matter, but they get three shots every frame and sometimes pins fall down.
Between turns the boys bounced around like Silly Putty, grabbing the balls out of the return rack, pushing the reset buttons and racing over the polished hardwood doing powerslides in their socks. Mark's big sisters were drafted to serve on the firing line, making sure the boys didn't bowl over each other, while Mother manned the machinery and Dad kept one eye on the score sheet and the other on the manager.
All the while the boys clamored for hot dogs and Cokes, which were denied for both tactical and strategic reasons. The thought of all those sticky hands and seats and socks was too awful to entertain, and anyway the idea was to exhaust and starve them.
It was more fun than we had hoped. The balls rolled down the alley so slowly that the suspense sometimes built to an unbearable pitch. More than once a boy forgot he had rolled the ball and was off playing tag when the cheers went up for his pinfall. And, as so seldom happens in this too-real world, the smallest and most diffident lad came in with the biggest score.
Even using two lanes it took more than an hour to finish one game, and by then the boys' agony of hunger and thirst was too pitiful to be prolonged. We avoided the manager's eyes while paying the $5.60 fee.
Off to McDonald's. We had been worried about signing up for the chain's standing offer of birthday parties at $2 a head, because when we tried it several years ago, our daughter and her friends had been taken into a basement room and subjected to a long, crass, clumsy and boring pitch for Ray Kroc's fast-food empire before they were permitted to eat.
We were relieved to find that Ronald has cleaned up his act. The party was seated in a section of the regular eating area that had been prettily prepared, and there was no sales pitch, just a patient and efficient young woman who quickly figured out who wanted what. The wait for the food was enlivened by the popping of helium balloons and raids on the condiment table.
It was like feeding time at the zoo, and glorious it was that all that stuff was winding up on somebody else's walls and floor. A few stray children, irresistibly attracted by the decorations, infiltrated from surrounding tables, but what the hell there was plenty to go around and we didn't have to take any of them home. The cake was barely thawed but quite edible, and everybody seemed to get as much as they wanted.
It all had gone more smoothly and efficiently than we had expected, so that we got back to the house well before it was time for the guests to go home. During the interim there was a riot.