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Spawn of the Moon Bounce

by Steven Utley

A while back, toward the tail end of a long hot summer, the soulless corporation whose thrall I am instigated a week’s worth of community-service activities in which all of us thralls accepted invitations (if that is the word for what we accepted) to participate.

Certain of these activities, frankly, were worthier than the rest. While some of us served as Meals On Wheels drivers or walked dogs and cuddled cats at the animal shelter, others of us had to pass out bus fare to total strangers, which struck me as perilous (“Give me all the money, or else”), or to dispense gasoline at service stations. In this age of self-service at the gas pump, distinctive tee-shirts vividly emblazoned with the corporate logo were provided to volunteers who otherwise might have been mistaken for those people who offer to clean your windshield for a dollar.

The slate of activities also included events intended somehow to demonstrate our appreciation of individuals who serve the community in the capacity of firefighter, police officer, or day-care worker. I volunteered (if that is the word for what I did) to take charge of The Moon Bounce at a sort of scaled-down carnival for little kids, to be held at a day-care center. Other volunteers would be on hand to operate cotton-candy, popcorn, and Snow Cone machines. I can’t say what they’d really rather have done, but for my own part, given my druthers, I’d have been a Meals On Wheels driver or petted animals, as I have real experience in those lines. I was beaten to these options by co-workers with seniority and (more to the point) children of their own and experience in that line and no desire for experience with children not their own.

Well, the great day arrived, and a scorcher it was, too. At the day-care center, I learned that the general plan called for the children to come outdoors into the heat when they had finished their naps, eat junk food, and jump up and down on inflatable playscapes (e.g., The Moon Bounce), presumably until they puked.

The Moon Bounce itself rested on a sun-blighted patch of grass and consisted of plastic tubes perhaps four feet in diameter, interconnected in an arrangement suggestive of the 1950s idea of a space station, and about as convincingly so as a prop from a low-budget 1950s science-fiction movie. It had communicating crawlways, observation nacelles at three of the four corners (more about the fourth in a moment), and a command station at the hub. Kids could run around inside and look out through the several transparent panels provided and be powerfully entertained. Well, I thought, nothing to this.

Eventually, dozens of sleep-drunk children emerged blinking and reeling into the sunlight, herded along by what struck me as an inadequate number of adults. None of the youngsters stood much taller than my knee, and many stood much closer to the ground. I had, it seemed, been slightly misinformed: these weren’t little kids, but little little kids, pre-pre-Kindergarteners!

* * *

In a Dennis the Menace world I am fated always to be grumpy Mr. Wilson who lives next door and wishes the Mitchell kid would stay in his own back yard. What’s more, I don’t mind being Mr. Wilson. I’m all for people who want to have children going ahead and having them, as long as they realize that once they do they’ve got to be parents for the rest of their lives, and make up their minds at the outset to be good ones, and never ask me to babysit for them. I believe in freedom of reproductive choice for everybody, myself included. And I have chosen not to reproduce my kind, nor, for that matter, anybody else’s.

In the face of blandishments from folks who insist I’d just love kids if I had one or more myself, I maintain that my own personality and those of children are hopelessly unsuited to meaningful interaction. Other small animals I can deal with; I never expect my cats to listen to reason and, so, never take it personally when they don’t.

People would have me believe, however, that small human mammals respond positively to reasoned appeals to their intelligence. No. Not so. In reality, those small human mammals possess only just enough intelligence to understand that appeals to it always mask attempts by some grown-up to interfere with their immediate plans (they are of course incapable of laying long-term plans) and thwart their desires and make them do stuff they don’t want to do. Like take naps. Like wake up from naps. Like run around inside something called The Moon Bounce.

* * *

These little little kids were palpably terrified by the last prospect. In theory , all I had to do was sit beside the airlock located at The Moon Bounce’s fourth corner and hold apart two flaps to permit ingress and egress. In practice, the children weren’t having any. No amount of coaxing, whether reasoned or simply impassioned, could move them. The braver ones stooped to peer through the airlock and wonder aloud about what lay within; others tuned up for a good mass cry; the rest looked as though I were urging them to fling themselves into Moloch’s fiery belly.

The sun crept perceptibly across the cloudless sky, the day-care workers broiled (I had had the good sense to wear a straw boater), and interest accumulated in my retirement account. And, suddenly, if at very long last — impelled, perhaps, by the imp of the perverse — one child gritted her baby teeth and plunged through the airlock. A few moments later, she appeared in an observation nacelle. Heartened by the fact that, far from writhing in the grasp of some child-devouring monster, she waved cheerfully, the other tykes now fairly trampled one another in the general rush to get inside.

Immediately they got inside, they discovered a transparent panel located just behind the airlock. Previous swarms of Moon Bouncers had pushed a hole through this panel, allowing air to escape (just like in outer space). Success having eluded attempts to patch the breach with duct tape (just like at Cape Canaveral), I had to direct traffic through the airlock with one hand while holding the rent shut with the other, sealing in most but not all of the air and most but not all of the little teeth-filled heads that kept popping up like chest-bursting larvae in the Alien movies.

No sooner had some children got inside than their nerve failed them utterly and they wanted to come right back out. As they tumbled out screaming and wriggling onto the ground, the airlock’s vividly orange labia cinched the whole apparatus’ resemblance to an enormous blood-engorged birth orifice. I have seen kittens being born, but even that experience hadn’t prepared me for this one.

* * *

All things end. The day-care workers eventually decided that their charges had had just about as much fun as was good for them, and herded them inside. The Moon Bounce technician (I was a mere front man) turned off the air compressor. The playscape appeared to soften under the sun. When it had got well along toward a deflated state, I offered, but was not taken up on the offer, to go stomp on the places that were still bulgy, just in case a day-care worker had miscounted.

And I took stock of myself. Did I mention that refreshments had been available the whole while? Yes, they were, the whole while. The combination of cotton candy, Snow Cones, popcorn, perspiration, and runny noses is a potent one. I felt sticky all over, and all under, too, and throughout.

Nevertheless, after I went home and cleaned off the worst of the effluvia, I told myself that I do need to do this kind of thing occasionally, to remind myself just exactly why I am without issue and not displeased to be so, even if it is a negation of all my ancestors’ struggles to survive and reproduce back to the dimmest depths of Precambrian time.

And I found myself truly appreciating day-care workers for their contributions to the community: better they than I. Not to take anything away from firefighters and police officers, but they only have to battle conflagrations and the criminal element, and somebody is always making exciting Hollywood movies and TV shows that present them in a good light.

Day-care workers don’t come in much for that sort of ego-gratification, unless you count Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Kindergarten Cop. Probably they aren’t paid all that well, either, and yet they have to deal, daily, for hours on end, with mobs of mostly unsocialized, mostly irrational, mostly hardly-under-control beings on whom they cannot turn fire hoses or snap handcuffs. My heart goes out to them, and to anybody else — from schoolteachers to Buffalo Bob on the old Howdy Doody TV show — whose lot in life is frequent, regular contact with large numbers of small children. It is a wonder that more of these people don’t figure in lurid headlines.

Copyright © 2006 by Steven Utley

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