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The 40th Birthday

By Jean Southworth

July 2001

Robert Redford was there, wrapped in plastic, protected from the rain. So was Clark Gable. Two life-sized posters from my junior high days were among the many faces in the street parade below our house. Mom had saved Robert and Clark; Jim had assembled the rest of the crowd.

This was my surprise 40th birthday party.

We were supposed to be on our way to a vacation in Phoenix. Instead, Jim drove us into a sea of faces that spanned my lifetime. They had mischievous smiles and hand-made posters. In the crowd I spotted my children, parents, siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews, and in-laws. There were family friends going back to toddlerhood. There were school friends from Judson and Sprague, OSU, and OHSU. There was my more recent Salem Heights crowd (the chick-flick girls) and my ladies bible study group. All those people that I love, gathered in one place—it nearly took my breath away.

The parade marched through Jeff and Lori Phillips’ backgate, garden, and house. Jim began a program covering the various decades of my life, recruiting three people who collectively know (almost) all my secrets: Liz, Carmon and Laura. Thanks to them, now everyone’s heard about my 16th summer and the Tyler girls’ rash of car accidents, including my attempt to garage the VW bus with a canoe on top. Or how I had my own subscription to TV Guide in junior high. (Note: I really didn’t watch that much TV; I was merely judicious in my selections!)

"These stories weren’t so bad, if that’s the worse stuff they can come up with…," I thought until I spotted my bible study friends eyeing me curiously. In our five years together, they’d never seen this side of me before, they said. Oh, dear.

Someone brought a wedding photo of my bridesmaids and candlelighters, and I realized that nearly all of them were present. We recreated the photograph as best we could, using birthday flowers in place of wedding bouquets; it was both perverse and delightful. It dawned on me that you don’t get to experience such a gathering very often. At your wedding, you’re disarmed by the pomp and circumstance. At your funeral, you’re not around for the event. But at your 40th, you’re there, they’re there, and you get the full thrill. Clearly, this was the best party of my life.

Later that night on our flight to Phoenix, my mind replayed the party. I was touched by all the people who came--some from great distances, and amazed that Jim had organized such a grand affair. While my mind raced, Jim collapsed into his seat, exhausted.

PHOENIX

People thought we were a little nuts going to Phoenix in the summer. "You know it’s hot there, right?"

Uh, yeah. Just don’t forget, we’d survived two years there; a few days in June shouldn’t be a problem. I was right. Plus, it didn’t hurt that Phoenix was in something of a cold snap, not even cracking 100 degrees our first day.

Driving into the desert night was lovely, with the city lights and the orange glow of a sun not quite ready to release its grip. There are no weeds anywhere; it is simply too hot.

When we lived in Phoenix, the freeway system was woefully inadequate. Interstate 10, running from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, Florida, had just one incomplete section on its cross-country route. Travelers got a detour onto Phoenix’s surface streets, giving them an up-close look at some of the city’s worst neighborhoods. Since then, they’ve played catch-up with an incredible freeway construction spree. Still, the freeway system has its own special Phoenix quirks. Instead of halting at the barrio, one freeway comes to a dead stop at a golf course.

THE POINTE

Phoenix has many beautiful resorts, and if you are brave enough to face the heat, you can get some amazing deals in the summertime. Rooms at the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak, for example, can be had for roughly one-third the cost of high-season. We discovered that fact during our Air Force stint fifteen years ago. Apparently, everyone else has, too; they regularly sell out summertime rooms now. Families with small children flock by the droves to the meandering Lazy River pool and waterslide. It took a couple hours with the kids before we realized that our own courtyard pool would be substantially more peaceful.

Every day we’d plunk down in shaded lounge chairs and read novels. A periodic dip in the pool was sufficient to keep cool, even when the temperature rose to 103 (still cool for summertime.) In fact, you’d get a momentary chill, if you can believe it. The best part, however, was the poolside service.

"Can I bring you something?"

I caved in and ordered a cheeseburger. By the next day, we’d moved onto shrimp cocktails. I’ve never felt such indulgence.

DAY TRIPS

We managed to leave the resort a few times. We saw some new stuff: Scottsdale art galleries and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesen West.

We saw some old stuff: our Trinity Bible Church, Liz and Steve’s house in Tempe, and of course, Luke Air Force Base.

The base looks largely the same but it was strange realizing that we knew not a soul there. Such is the military. Jim and I visited our old base house, stopped by the dental clinic and shared a sandwich at the bowling alley. They still make a mean grilled ham and cheese.

At Luke, I wore a short pink mini-dress that I’d mistakenly purchased from the petite section at Nordstrom. (I was pretty proud of this petite business until I learned that petite doesn’t necessarily mean small; it’s for people who have trouble reaching top shelves.) Jim was walking a few yards ahead of me on a deserted parking lot when a young airman drove by. He yelled at me from his car, "HOT D*MN!"

I asked Jim if I’d heard correctly, and he assured me, yes, I had.

Was he certain that the catcall wasn’t actually a comment on the heat, like, "It’s HOT! D*MN!"

No, Jim said.

Did you pay that guy to say that? (Zach asked this same question upon hearing this story.)

No, Jim said. He’d planned a great surprise party, but catcalling was beyond his capabilities.

Fifteen years ago, that airman might have offended me. Now, I stood on the broiling cement with a silly grin on my face. In real life, I swear about as often as I sell crack cocaine on Portland Road. But for the remainder of our time in Phoenix, I went around muttering, "HOT D*MN!"

Don’t worry, I’m over it now. Children are safe around me once again. I can’t even bring myself to type out those words. Yet the memory is just about the best birthday gift any 40 year old could get.

THE RETURN

Near our hotel loomed Squaw Peak Mountain: a dry, rocky, barren hill, with a trail staggering to the top. People come from miles around to hike this hill. One evening we drove to the shady side and watched as Phoenicians traversed up like a row of ants. I felt nauseous. Long ago I had two incidences of heat exhaustion, once while pregnant with Zach and once with Annie. That feeling came flooding back. How desperate are these people to climb such a dry, desolate hill?

Suddenly, I missed a place where weeds grow as tall as trees, and fir trees grow like weeds. Where creek beds actually contain water. Where deer and chipmunks live in nature instead of rattlesnakes and scorpions. Where friends think nothing of gathering in the rain with plastic covered posters for a birthday parade. It was time to go back to our cool green of home.

 

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