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The comforts of foam

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By Phil Luciano
Journal Star

It's nice to see college students having good, clean fun - and nothing looks laundered quite like a fraternity house awash in a sea of soapy foam.

That was the bubbly scene Thursday night at Alpha Epsilon Pi, host to Foamcoming: the new, frothy kick-off to Bradley University's homecoming festivities. No beer here: The only suds at the alcohol-free event spewed from a mystery machine that showered the house and hundreds of students with fizzy fun.

The idea is simple: fill a room or two with foam over your head - think Mr. Bubble on steroids - then crank up the hip-hop music and go crazy. Undoubtedly, it's Lawrence Welk's vision of hell.

Most visitors wore T-shirts and shorts, though a few women donned bikinis. As the foam piled high, most students simply sloshed about, their faces wide with grins. Others shed their flip-flops and slid or danced around the cement floor. Many strolled into the 7-foot-tall wall of foam and jumped up and down to the pounding beat, looking like Pogo sticks in an avalanche.

Kylie Hartendberg, 18, of Rockford - all 5 feet of her - escaped from the thick cloud, squinting as she wiped thick blobs of white from her eyes and mouth.

"It's weird," she said with a smile. "You can't see anything."

You can't breathe too well, either. The suds don't suffocate, but they do tend to inhibit inhaling. The secret - which I learned after sputtering mightily - is to pull your shirt collar over your mouth, creating an air pocket to breathe.

Also, the bubbles pack 180 degrees of heat.

"It gets hot really fast," said Nathan Forrester, 19, of Galesburg, who at 6 feet 6 inches tall and 250-plus pounds looked like the Abominable Snowman as he trudged around the fizzy mountain. "... But it's fun."

Foam parties have been a trend - from middle school to college - for several years. They're not too common, perhaps because of the expense: three hours of foam for several hundred guests can cost thousands of dollars.

Alpha Epsilon Pi has been hosting its own foam parties for several semesters. This year, Bradley made a deal to the frat: as a homecoming treat to students, the school would pick up the tab for an open bash, as long as no alcohol was served.

The frat was glad to oblige. First, members cleared the 100-by-40-foot party room. "It's the biggest party room on campus," boasted frat vice president Paul Benario.

Next, patio doors were flung open to give access to a cement courtyard. Frat members surrounded the outdoor area with tarps to contain foam and ward off wind and rain. Starting at 8 p.m., foam began to fill the courtyard, then pushed into the party room.

The ringleader of the merriment was Glen Kitchin, 38, also known as The Foam Guy. An Alaskan native, he now travels nationally, hosting soapy soirees.

He won't much talk about his professional secrets, but says the foam is biodegradable and nontoxic. It also smells like pina colada, heavy on the coconut.

"People seem to like that," Kitchin said. "I tried root beer and vanilla. Didn't work too well."

His system involves water tanks, long tubes and a whirring box slightly smaller than a household air-conditioning unit.

"That's the magic that makes the mess," he said proudly.

Periodically, as Kitchin pushed buttons on a remote-control device, the box erupted like Old Faithful. Students would whoop with excitement and flock under the machine to get soaked. Eventually, guests would emerge from the pack and, in trying to free themselves from foam, shake like dogs escaping a bath. Visitors on the sidelines held up cell phones - wrapped in sandwich bags to keep out the wetness - and snapped photos of the carbonated craziness.

At times, the foam machine rested, giving students a chance to dance or rest. Eventually, though, the fizz would fly again, prompting partiers to yell with glee, "There it goes again!" - triggering another round of lathery laughter.