Most children’s birthday parties follow a generic formula that has been carefully crafted and refined over the last forty years. A fail safe method if you will, unfortunately designed not for the tot in mind, but solely to keep parents from losing their minds. Kids arrive at 1pm, followed by a contained activity, right into pizza, presents, cake and then home at 4pm. The hours of start and finish are negotiable, as long as you stick to the 3 hour window and don’t try to do anything too radical such as sending them outside with lawn darts. A formula followed through the ages and all across the land.
Unless, that is, you came up in the 70’s and were part of a small cadre of boys lucky enough to be invited to a party hosted by my friend Dale. You see, Dale lived in the country on a tree farm absolutely riddled with death traps at every turn. He would occasionally show up at school with a cast or a twisted ankle.
“Fell off the roof of the chicken coop” he would say, shrugging it off. Standard fare really, for a farm kid.
A perfect venue, for a collection of 11 year old boys. It’s not a surprise that I don’t recall any birthday cakes or gifts from these affairs. What stands out is being dropped off on a Saturday, late in April, and charging around looking for the group who would already be immersed in a death defying activity. It could be climbing the interior ladder of the silo and launching one’s self into the grain pile below, or playing hide and seek amidst the tightly packed evergreens stored in the dark recesses below the barn.
The tree farm was a strange and glorious conglomeration of out-buildings, barns and machinery, just waiting to be explored. The farm itself was mostly staffed with Jamaicans who lived in the basement of the rambling farmhouse where Dale’s family lived. Regulars with names like Moses and Dudley, who would return year after year to trim trees and then take blue jeans and shoes back to Jamaica with them. Dale told me they were always shooting pigeons in the silo and making stew with their catch. He snuck me down to the barracks once when they were out working, which consisted of one main room full of cots and a couple of fold out tables, a bathroom and a tiny kitchen. I bumped my head on a pair of hawk’s feet hanging from the door jamb leading outside.
“They eat hawks?” I asked, morbidly curious.
“Nope.” Dale replied. ”They’re for voodoo. I think Dudley is going to put a hex on someone.”
“What’s that smell?” asked my 10 year old self.
“It’s drugs. You know…Marijuana,” Dale replied nonchalantly. “They’re not supposed to smoke it down here, but they do anyway.”
Well, that explained where Dale got his supplies later on.
Outdoors there were endless curiosities to be found. There was a drive shed that always had a topless calendar posted on the wall and a lunch room with a broken vending machine where a kid could jam a skinny arm up into the works and grab a free chocolate bar. One building had a slaughter pit in it, leftover from when a beef farm operated on the property. The game was to get dropped down in and see if you could scale your way back up the concrete walls and get out. Dale and I later painted lines on the floor and turned it into a handball court for a period of time.
The most notable feature though, the piece de resistance, if you will, was the main barn itself. This was where most of the fun-slash-dangerous activities took place and quite frankly, it’s a miracle that no one gave themselves a spinal injury. You see, there is a thing which all farm kids know about called a hay mow. This is basically a giant pile of loose hay, which was how it was stored before they started making it into bales. It functions like the foam pit that acrobats train with, only it’s a bit harder, a bit scratchier and a whole lot dustier. There was a rope swing that you could use to toss yourself into the mow with, or for the more daring, there was the barn beam challenge. This involved climbing up a hundred year old wooden ladder, inching out onto a 10 inch beam and getting up the courage to jump. For those more daring, you could climb up to the highest beam, one which nearly touched the roof and from which a fall in the wrong direction would certainly bring serious damage.
Then there was the barn roof itself, which I’m pretty sure was off limits, but we climbed it anyway. You could get on the roof on the low side and then, depending on how slippery your shoes were, you could work your way up to the peak and look over the high side, which provided a serious thrill because of the massive drop. If you were slipping, you had to use the steel rivets as purchase, which is not much between you and sliding back down. If you could get up and follow the ridge over to the south peak, there was a valley where all the snow slid off and created a giant pile below. Because it was April, there was usually enough left to and jump into if you had the right technique. The trick was to slide while staying on your feet and not let your pant leg get caught on a rivet on the way down or you were in big trouble.
One year, there was a giant inner tube that someone had pulled out of a tractor tire. There was also a quarter mile long driveway, with a pretty decent slope to it. You see where I’m going with this? I abhorred any kind of spinning activity as a kid, so I only did it like, 3 times. If you made it the whole way, someone would have to stand at the road to stop you from crossing the concession and possibly getting run over by a truck. If you didn’t make it, it was preferable to careen off sideways and crash in the apple orchard as opposed to taking a spill on the gravel driveway.
I don’t exactly remember when those epic birthday parties stopped. Probably around grade 8, when we got too cool for them and wanted to go to parties with girls. Since then, I’ve been to tons of parties with girls and the funny thing is, I never really did anything at them as cool as swan diving into a hayloft from 10 meters up.