Friday, October 16, 2009

Balloon Boy Ain't Got Nothin' on a Jenkins Kid

Like millions around the world yesterday, I sat in front of the television transfixed by news reports that a six-year-old boy was aloft in a giant mylar balloon. As the mother of a boy about the same age, I held my breath, praying fervently for the boy's safety as the balloon zipped across the sky and rose to alarming altitudes. I desperately hoped it was all a big misunderstanding and little Falcon Heene was nowhere near the helium-filled balloon, which looked like a hybrid of Jiffy Pop popcorn and a UFO. Thankfully, millions of collective prayers were answered when we learned the boy was never aboard the run-away craft, but safe and sound the entire time, hiding in his parents' attic.

It remains to be seen if the stunt was all a hoax by attention-seeking parents. Regardless, the boy is safe. That is a blessing.

But I dare say -- if the balloon scenario had played out in 1976 in my parents' backyard -- it might have been a different story altogether...

You see, I grew up the third of four children. Being smaller, younger and easily bribed with snack cakes and ice cream sandwiches, my little brother and I often were the guinea pigs of my older brother and sister and their "experiments." After the stunts they pulled on us in the 1970s, it is a miracle we are alive and well today ("well" being up for debate).

One of the older siblings' favorite pastimes was inventing ways to test the hardiness, bone density, skull thickness and lung capacity of the younger siblings. No, no. Of course they didn't see at as such. I don't think they were ever out to kill us or even do us bodily harm, though I could have sworn I once heard them debating who would get my Big Wheel if I didn't survive being repeatedly pushed down the stairs in a box.

That's right. The "box down the stairs" game was a regular occurrence in the Jenkins house throughout the mid seventies -- so much so that I would shudder when my folks brought home new appliances. New appliances meant new boxes. And new boxes meant fresh tumbles down the stairs.

Here's how it worked:

The older siblings would ask for the box, which my parents were more than happy to part with, as it would keep their four children occupied on a Friday night while they popped open a bottle of wine and watched "Dallas."

My sister and brother would then line the box with pillows and hoist it to the top of the stairs, where they would arm themselves with duct tape and call for me and my little brother. Once we arrived, they would attempt to persuade us to get into the box.

Now, we were not stupid kids. Not really. We always protested at first, but the older kids knew our weakness: namely, sugar.

Yummy, sugar-coated, chocolate, cream-filled anythings are hard to come by when you're one of six. Mom would make the weekly trip to the grocery, unpack a box of Little Debbie or Hostess cakes, and before you could say "Chocodile", they would be devoured. The Jenkins kids were on sugar faster than a vulture on roadkill. Occasionally, Mom tried to hide the treats, but we could smell them. (If a child had disappeared back in those days with a candy bar in his pocket, officials should have called in the Jenkins kids. If he was within six states, I think we could have tracked the scent.)

Somehow, the older kids always knew how to find the hidden treats (it wasn't unusual to find a cupcake or fruit pie wrapper hidden in the trash in the bathroom, the only truly private place in our house). But occasionally, they would exercise tremendous restraint and save goodies to bribe us into playing their games.

After we climbed the stairs and adamantly refused to climb into the box, one of them would say, "Did you look inside the box? Did you see what is in there?"

Hesitantly, we'd peek over the edge. Inside, propped on pillows, we'd see a Hostess yum-yum of some sort. Oh, delicious, chocolate, cream-filled cupcake! I'd swear to this day the treats were bathed in heavenly light and accompanied by a chorus of angels.

"Get in the box, we'll tape you up, and you can have the cupcake. Mom won't be going to the grocery for another week! This one can be allllll yours," they'd insist. "Just. Get. In. The. Box."

Let me see: Our lives? Or a cupcake? Really, there was no decision to be made. Into the box we'd go.

Immediately, the older kids would close the box flaps and begin to secure them with duct tape. Over the ripping of the tape, we'd hear things like, "Be sure to put your head between your knees!" or "You might want to cover yourself with that pillow!" Next thing you know, from the dark confines of the box, we'd hear a count: "And a three... two... one...BLAST OFF!" and down we'd go, tumbling end over end -- badum/badum/badum/badum/ -- all the way down the 17 stairs.

At that point, one of the older siblings would scream, "YES!" There would be hooting and hollering and high-fiving, as we waited to be released from the death trap. Once released, we'd shake it off, thankful to be alive but mostly grateful for the cupcake we were about to devour.

It was worth it.

There were other experiments, too -- like the time the siblings used a garden hose to construct a makeshift pulley up to the carport roof. They tied a stick to one end of the hose, looped it over something they'd nailed to the edge of the roof, and suggested I sit on the stick. I would put one leg on each side of the hose, while they pulled the other end of the hose and hoisted me up to the roof.

I noticed that they didn't build the pulley along the grassy side of the carport, where I would have stood a chance of surviving should the contraption fail in its inaugural launch. Oh, no. That wouldn't have had the danger factor that building it over the concrete patio had. My older siblings might have been a lot of things, but they weren't afraid of a little risk.

I balked, of course, and refused to be their guinea pig. That's when they showed me the box of Little Debbie Fudge Rounds at the top of the carport. Happy Birthday to me! Onto the stick-hose pulley I went! Really, it was kind of fun, seeing as how I lived and got to eat chocolate cakes on top of the carport and all.

I think they told me I could get back to the ground safely by taking an umbrella and leaping off of the roof. As long as you say "Geronimo!", they insisted, "You won't get hurt." Turns out, they were right!

So imagine if my siblings had constructed a giant mylar balloon, attached a little basket to the bottom of it and filled it with Chocodiles.

Unlike little Falcon Heene, who had the good sense to hide in his attic, I would probably still be up there, somewhere....

Face it. Balloon Boy ain't got nothin' on a Jenkins kid. Or maybe his parents don't buy the good snack cakes.


  1. I love your writing. incredibly funny and brings back wonderful childhood memories of my own.

  2. It occurs to me I have stairs, boxes, fudge rounds, and children. It is time to show them what it means to be a Jenkins