A Birthday Celebration, 1963

by Phyllis Kriegel

Call her a lousy mother but the thought of throwing a party for a gaggle of rowdy kids triggered high anxiety—“more Valium,” she muttered.  She balked at shriveled hot dogs, melting ice cream cakes and the obligatory goody bag. Fed up with over-themed birthday parties she said hooey to dejected clowns, gave thumbs down to the tricks of tired magicians.

But how to celebrate her son’s eighth birthday with joy on all sides and no bruised feelings? She offered David a catalogue of alternative treats: a romp at Palisade Amusement Park, a trip to Coney Island with a ride on the cyclone, trekking up Bear Mountain -–suggestions that received a cool “No thanks, Mom.”

Things warmed up when she invited his friend Bob to join the birthday jaunt: let the kids decide, after all, they were no slouches about current goings on. The boys decided a movie in NYC fit the bill. They chose Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which had just opened in a Manhattan movie palace. The three- hour plus movie was billed as a symphony of slapstick, crammed with comedians and craziness– tailor-made for two smart alecks in training.

Last hurdle:  Where for dinner?  The kids craved a Horn and Hardart Automat, but Mom, knowing she’d need a Martini said, “How about going to a little place where the waiters dress like French sailors and they have ship models of the Normandie? “ The prospect of steak and fries—aka Steak Frites–animated the hungry pair. Three napoleons with candles morphed into an impromptu birthday cake; Happy Birthday sung with French accents put the cherry on top.

Reluctant to call it a day, the boys gave a rousing yes to her suggestion of a ride on the Staten Island Ferry.

Waiting for the ferry to dock, she had a Proustian moment. It was a memory out of the pages of the Bobbsey Twins, a beloved series from childhood. Hadn’t Flossie and Freddy- the younger set -gone to the wheelhouse and met the captain? “Why not us,” she thought, and asked an attendant swabbing the deck, “if this birthday boy might see the wheelhouse? “ A mumbled okay and the trio climbed up to be greeted by Captain Andy– grey beard and ruddy cheeks, looking like he’d come from the frontispiece in a children’s book.

In the wheelhouse a vast expanse of windows framed the skyline of skyscrapers and bridges of lower Manhattan. Dazzled by the gleaming brass and burnished wood of the setting, they watched the twinkling lights as night began to fall on the city.

“Would you like to pilot us across New York harbor, birthday boy?” asked Captain Andy.  David scrambled into the captain’s chair and grabbed the mahogany wheel. “You sound the horn when I signal,” the Captain said to Bob.  And sure enough, with David at the helm, the ferry sailed decisively past Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, docking safely at Staten Island.

With big grins and firm handshakes, farewell was said to the wheelhouse and to Captain Andy. Then David turned, grabbed Bob and said, “I’m really glad you’re here, ‘cause no one would believe this story! “


I have a passion for narrative. I see telling stories as a survival strategy—a way of being in the world.