Pizza, tokens and alligators

Published 8:11 am Tuesday, February 21, 2012

We celebrated the birthday of Henry, my grandson, on Monday. It was a holiday, Presidents’ Day, so that made it convenient for my granddaughter, Laura, to join us. Presidents’ Day is an appropriate time to have the birthday party since I am sure either of them could both be president one day.

It has been 25 years or so since I have visited Chehaw Park in Albany. While we had some pleasant times there with our daughters, the park has vastly improved over time. The two things of note were the zoo or Wild Animal Park as they are more commonly known these days and the Children’s Play Park, or the playground as my grandchildren call it.

The visit started off with quite a chill in the air. As usual, I didn’t wear a jacket, being a rather hot-natured person. Immediately, Laura wanted to take her jacket off. The reason: “Granddaddy doesn’t have his jacket on!” How do I argue with that?

Email newsletter signup

From exhibit to exhibit, Laura and Henry picked up steam, running faster and pointing things out for me to see with greater intensity. “Look at that snake, Granddaddy.”

Their eyes got bigger when they saw all the alligators sunning on the edge of the water. “Why is the water green?” was the first of many questions about everything in nature, only some of which I was capable of answering.

The Animal Park was designed by Jim Fowler, a native of Albany, and the longtime host of the popular television show, “Wild Kingdom.” It isn’t just for children, as adults everywhere were enjoying the display of magnificent animals.

More than a couple of the animals put on displays that seemed especially for Henry and Laura. The meerkats was a species I wasn’t familiar with, although Laura and Henry quickly pointed out they were in The Lion King. They played just like children in front of our children. I am not really sure who was entertaining who.

The bald eagle, always magnificent to see, started screeching and opened his wingspan fully to show off just how beautiful they are. I don’t think I have ever heard a bald eagle, or any eagle for that matter, make so much noise. Granny pointed out, correctly I am sure, that what we were hearing was a robust “War Eagle.”

It goes without saying that the rhinoceros (“Why does he have two horns, Granddaddy?”), the wolves, bears, and bison all captured the imagination of the 4- and 2-year-old kids. In fact, they captured the imagination of this 57-year-old.

After exploring every foot of the 100-acre zoo, we moved on to the massive recreational area. What a great playground they have at Chehaw Park. There is nothing like this in my childhood memories.

My camera continued capturing dozens of images. Surely no one else’s grandchildren have ever climbed the ladders or gone down the slides with such grace and athletic ability. It probably wasn’t a coincidence that the only other adults I saw with cameras appeared to be grandparents as well.

Then it was off to lunch at every child’s dream, Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Parlor. What a marketing masterpiece this is for children. The parents have a basic choice of pizza combined with tokens for the many games. For an additional $6, you can add a basic salad bar. I was the only person in the entire place that appeared to have gotten a salad.

Dozens and dozens of toys and games quickly make the children forget about the pizza. They are here for the entertainment. Our package came with 80 tokens. I am here to tell you that 80 tokens divided between two kids are a lot of rides. The irony was they rode their favorite six or seven rides over and over again.

They played and ran and laughed until they were worn out. This was about 30 minutes after I was worn out. Laura was almost asleep carrying her out to the car. Henry watched a movie, fighting sleep, all the way home.

There wasn’t a cake, just pizza. We didn’t sing “Happy Birthday,” just a dozen other songs that seemed to be familiar to everyone but me. We took a hundred pictures but none seemed to capture the fun that Laura and Henry were having, mostly with each other.

Whether I ever have more than two grandchildren doesn’t matter. These two genuinely seem to love each other. Laura wants to hold his hand and Henry begrudgingly agrees. Henry gives her goodbye kisses and hugs that tug at my own heartstrings.

Part of the special moment is watching my two daughters, Catherine and Elizabeth, laugh and play together with their children, just as Mary Lou and I did with them. Life is such a beautiful cycle.

Happy Birthday to my buddy and grandson, Henry!

Dan Ponder can be reached at