Land of the indoor beach party

November was always the toughest month for me. Winter in Fairbanks, Alaska, was never easy, but November was the hardest.

Summer was hard for a different reason; I like to work whenever the sun is up. That's hard to do, close to the Arctic Circle, "Land of the Midnight Sun." But I loved the energy of summer. We had three months to get the heavy outdoor work done, so June to September was busy, busy, busy.

Then you'd start to see snow on the mountains, and you knew you were done for. Like those silly bills that only come quarterly, September came along after three months that had you thinking you would never be cold (or broke) again. Then POW! It got really cold, it was too early to snow, and then you were in the deep of it ... November. Anything you had left lying around, anything that was unfinished, was going to be that way for a while.

My solution was just to be depressed about it, and that worked about as well as could be expected for a number of years. Until we had kids. Little kids don't seem to get some stuff. "Hey, it's just November, live with it." No, kids insist that every day hold something special. Each day doesn't have to be Halloween or Thanksgiving or Christmas, but you can't tell a 4-year-old to just hold on for a month when it's really cold, dark, and there's no good snow to play in.

We tried to have a rule, a sort of parent sanity-maintenance rule: Any day it was warmer than 20 below, the kids were shooed outdoors for at least an hour. But it was too cold to swing in the hammock, the trampoline was put up, and with mittens on it was too hard to make forts. So the kids just wandered around in the driveway bundled up enough so they could hardly move. Looking miserable and peeking in the windows asking if it was time to come in yet. And we had no close neighbors to play with. Two little girls in colorful outfits watching their breath for an hour every day. It was a tough sell.

So we decided to have beach parties! I don't much like the beach anyway, so indoor beach parties were fine by me. No sand or wind or the constant racket of the waves. Everybody gets into their swimsuit, we break out the plastic pails, and turn up the music. We'd wear our sunglasses, blow up a beach ball, ride bikes. Being the dad, I even got to sneak in a nap, just like being at the real beach.

One year some friends brought back from Hawaii some kid-sized hula skirts and coconut-shell bikini tops. The beach parties got better and better. We didn't have much for furniture in that house, but there was a stash of beach-party gear in a plywood box that had been built to store construction gear. It was also a bench at the dining room table.

I had built us a huge, 4,000 square-foot log house, which helped. "Hey, we live where outside isn't much fun for lots of the year, let's make inside big enough to make up for it!"

We could even play badminton when the girls were old enough. Regular-size net and everything. We had a swing, too. Big log house, really high ceiling held up with logs, it just seemed like the logical thing to do. You had to tie the swing up when you were playing badminton, though.

And we had a really big window that was a good canvas for children with Tempera paints. The window came right down to the floor and was maybe 14 feet across. Doesn't everyone paint on the windows? The paintings usually had a seasonal theme; jack-o'-lanterns, pilgrims and turkeys, Christmas stuff. One year when the girls were studying the planets they painted the solar system on the window and Pluto ended up as a quarter-sized paper disc, thumbtacked to the wall well beyond the window.

There was story hour at the library, too. And the nearby pool had kiddie time, and a group of homeschoolers had the ice rink one hour a week.

But the huge discovery was the airport. This was before big-box retailers had made it that far north, so it was the biggest indoor playground my kids had ever seen.

It was warm, carpeted, and safe; built big and pretty to handle the tourists in summer, but barely used in the winter except at holidays. Acres of free parking, too. And there were baggage carts! Anytime there's wheels, we have races! Remember bored airport security people instead of the serious ones we have now? As long as we kept the noise down they were cool. They began to recognize us after a while. So we'd walk around, run around, goof off, talk about what we'd do if we were on Honolulu flight 1275, play hide-and-seek.

Airports always have food. And if you don't touch anything, we'll go into the gift shop. Part of the d├ęcor was glass cases with taxidermist-stuffed animals in them, so the kids knew what was what in the woods.

Now the little kids are bigger kids. As the years have complicated other things, so the airport trips are no longer the high point of the week. The new activities are just as fun, though.

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