On Turning Four

by Terry Hogan

We helped celebrate our oldest Grandson’s fourth birthday yesterday. It was on a Saturday afternoon. We had spent the morning haggling with a car dealership on the price of a new car. After several hours, we left, without a new car. The party was at a pizza joint that catered to little kids. Bright flashing, multi-colored lights, loud music and songs that appeared to be sung by a six-feet tall mechanized rat. The noise and garishness was almost more than I could handle.

But, in time, I began to acclimate to this artificial world that appeared to represent mostly what is bad with our culture. As I sat on the sticky chair, I saw that our granddaughter, younger than her brother, wanted to roam about the place and to investigate the mechanical rat (OK, it probably was supposed to be a mouse). As she walked up to it, she encountered a little boy, also probably about a year and a half old. They became instant friends. Now, seemingly on cue, a large kid in a rat/mouse outfit appeared. He walked up to the two little ones. I expected the cry of alarm that only a one year old can create. Instead, both little ones were immediately taken in by this oversized rat. They sat on the floor, the rat sat down. My granddaughter waved. The rat waved. The little boy waved. She clapped her hands; the rat clapped its hands.

In the middle of bedlam, the two toddlers and a giant rat had created a childhood game, as old as time. It continued, in total disregard of loud music, flashing lights, and the whiz, buzz, bang, and pop of numerous electronic children’s games at the front of the store. It altogether only lasted a few minutes, but they were good minutes.

I began to remember that many years earlier, we had taken our own daughters to this very site, to an earlier, less electronically sophisticated version of a pizza joint that specialized in entertaining young children. We brought my parents along, who had come from Galesburg to help celebrate their granddaughter’s birthday. This would have been about twenty years ago, but it is likely that they were the same sticky seats. As I recalled, the earlier restaurant had mechanical animals on a stage that looked (more or less) like they were playing in a band. Of course, the electronics and the actions were much less sophisticated, but so were the kids.

From that, I remembered that we were given some tokens, and bought additional tokens, that could be used to play electronic games. Just like the current version of the store, but again, less sophisticated electronics. The one game that I remember, was one involving mechanical gophers that would pop up out of holes, and the game player had a few seconds to clobber the gopher with a bat. Somehow, my father was enticed to play the game. He became thoroughly involved with the game, playing it repeatedly, having a great time trying to clobber those gophers as they popped up and then disappeared back to the safety of their holes. It was the most fun that I had seen my father have in years. It was the last place that I would have expected it. But there it was.

All this came back to me in this garish, giant Rat-infested hyperactive pizza joint. Now, I am the grandpa helping with grandma, to celebrate Nathan’s fourth birthday.

I moved out to the front of the restaurant and looked around. Lots and lots of games, but there were no gopher-clubbing games. I couldn’t decide if it was due to being an outdated technology, or just politically incorrect nowadays. One probably shouldn’t encourage children to club wild animals these days, I suppose. Perhaps that explains why one of my daughters became a lawyer?

The kids had a great time. Gifts were opened; tokens were fed to electronic games; and we gradually became less aware of the noise and the lights. Children wore out, parents became exhausted, and grandparents had a good time, but were ready to call it a day, when the kids were ready to drop.

I suppose it is good training for kids, to play these types of mindless games. It prepares them to be adults and to have to deal with the trite and ritualistic behaviors that seem to be somehow necessary to buy a car in this country- "Well I don’t know, let me go talk to the sales manager and see if we can go this low."

Perhaps I’m missing an opportunity. It would be a high technology electronic game, but the same old club. You feed in the tokens and you could make your selection- Car Salesmen, CEOs, Lawyers, or Politicians. The selected figures would pop up out of their holes, with appropriate quotes generated through a state-of-art speaker system to provide full clubbing motivation. It would be fun, good exercise, and probably therapeutic.

It was about four years ago that the Zephyr published a "Backtracking" column article that was entitled "The Storyteller." It featured a photo of Nathan as a newborn and his proud grandpa wondering if Nathan would become the family’s storyteller to keep alive the history of his family. Nathan has turned four. He has become a storyteller, being somewhat free with his view of reality. He often freely tells us what his pets or even inanimate objects want or think. Often those wants and thoughts seem to coincide with Nathan’s. So he has become a storyteller, as most four-year olds do.

Perhaps 50 years from now, he will be at a pizza joint, loud and garish and will remember long ago. Hopefully, he will tell someone about it. Hopefully, it will be someone who cares enough to remember.

It is, after all, all about storytelling.

July 30, 2002