I didn’t grow up in an age of play dates or in a zip code where themed birthday parties were the norm. We got together for cake and milk and ran around creating havoc for some neighbor kid or relative’s birthday. It was Wisconsin. The rules were different. It was unusual for a classmate to invite friends to a birthday party but when you did get an invitation it was a big deal. So I was pretty surprised when I got an invitation to my classmate, Billy’s birthday party since I wasn’t at the top of many kid’s list as someone they would want to invite. I was the kid who was on the outside of most school room circles. I got the feeling this invitation was a result of some cock-eyed rule Billy’s mom heard and thought she’d instigate before she fully thought it through. She'd probably made Billy invite everyone or otherwise there wasn’t going to be any party at all. Billy would have to invite me regardless of how he really felt about me. I think his mother might have felt the same way but like I said she hadn’t thought through the consequences of inviting everyone and she wasn’t quite mean enough to exclude me after she had realized the error of her ways. The party was typical cake and milk but since it was during the school term it meant it was winter in Wisconsin so the party had to be held inside. This meant the hostess had to come up with some organized games or run the risk of having her home totaled by twenty seven-year-olds. The games were all the typical games of chance: pin the tail on the donkey, guess the number of beans in a jar, musical chairs, turn any basement gadget into a gun and shoot to kill. It wasn’t until the very end of the party, after the gifts had been opened and everyone was waiting for their parents to come and pick them up they decided to play one last game, “Can you guess how long a minute is”. I think they felt this might be a way to end the mayhem that had been going on for the last three hours. They made all of us bundle up in our winter coats. This immediately constricted our movement. Then they sat all of us down on the basement floor, all bundled up we could barely roll over on our own much less get up and run around. The hostess and her helper were going to hold the stopwatch to time us. I think both of them were pretty much at the end of their rope and very ready for the parents to show up and get these kids out of their hair.
“All right children, we’re going to play a game called “how long is a minute”. We have one prize left for the winner. Now you all sit very still and when I say go you wait until you think a minute has gone by then you raise your hand. The winner will be the one closest to a minute.”
At the mention of another prize we all became a bit more focused imprisoned in our winter coats and barely able to get up off the floor. Billy’s mother was anxious to get this game under way before the crowd of kids got distracted and managed to get and start the rampaging again. Whether it was fear of losing control or exhausted anger I witnessed in her eyes, the look she gave us meant business. She punched the stopwatch with a jab of her hand as she said, “Begin”. There were kids who had no idea of what was going on. A few hands shot up after the first five seconds. I thought everyone knew the counting method so I began to count to myself, “One-thousand one, one-thousand two, one-thousand three…” I was surprised that the hostess didn’t get her side-kick to try to engage us in conversation to prevent any of us using the counting method but both of them were focused on that damn watch oblivious to my internal counting. Many of the other kids had dropped out at around thirty seconds but I sat there counting away. The hostess and her helper began to notice most of the other kids were now out of the running. Miraculously Billy hadn't raised his hand yet, although I could see he was getting fidgety. Billy’s mom seemed to be giving him some sort of furtive glance every so often with a hint of secret signals delivered with downcast eye movements every time he looked as if he was going to bolt. As the contest boiled down to Billy and myself our hostess’ eye movements became a tennis match between the two of us. Maybe it was what I had worn to the party (we all dressed for these parties back then) and I displayed more style than most seven year old boys should have, maybe it was the fact her son didn’t really want to invite me in the first place, or maybe she just didn’t like me but I was too focused on counting to have noticed her icy disdain to see losing, at this point, might have been preferable to winning.
“One-thousand fifty-eight, one-thousand fifty-nine, one-thousand sixty”. My hand shot up and I looked around. I was the only kid with his hand in the air and I had hit the minute right on the head. There was no applause. No one said congratulations. There was just this horrible scowl on the hostess’ face as she leaned over and told her helper to check my wrists for a hidden watch. They hauled my up to the front of the remaining group and made me take off my coat and empty my pockets to make sure I hadn’t cheated. The birthday boy giggled at my humiliation and the others soon joined in. Parents began to filter in picking up their children. I never got a prize. I never told my parents, but I went home knowing I was at least smarter than Billy’s mom.