'World's Fair' is the raw and witty true story of a dysfunctional Southern family's harrowing motor-home roadtrip from South Carolina to the Montreal World's Fair in 1967 (aka "The Summer of Love"). Told from the point of view of the author -- who was 15 at the time -- this intimate coming-of-age story shines a bright light on the issues of alcoholism, adolescent sexual confusion, family violence and the universal need to love those who hurt us, despite their frailties.
CHAPTER 1: Metrecal Momma
It had been one of those muggy-as-hell July afternoons where you feel like the air is as heavy as a thick, wool trench coat, all scratchy and hot, and all you want to do is rip that damn coat off. Ugh. A really yucky, sticky day where the tar on the road is gooey from the heat and you sink into it when you cross the street.
My best friend, Tommy*, and I had been riding around in his momma's Buick Riviera with the air-conditioning blasting on high, listening to rock 'n' roll on radio station W-O-R-D and smoking Winston cigarettes because they made us cool. (Besides, they were the cigarettes Tommy's momma smoked, so no one would know the butts in the ashtray weren't hers.) We'd been eating McDonald's french fries, which were just the best. Tommy would buy several helpings and empty them out into the McDonald's bag, pour tons of salt on them, and we would pig out.
I hadn't gotten stuck in the hot tar like those dinosaurs at the La Brea Tar Pits, so I made it home, chewing a mouthful of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit gum to disguise the smell of smoke. As soon as I opened the door, Momma told me to pack, because tomorrow, she said, Daddy was taking us to Montreal, Canada, for the new World's Fair, which they were calling "Expo '67."
I wasn't surprised that no one had bothered to consult me or even ask if I wanted to go. To them, I was "only 15." I was the youngest of the five Stack children, and was always referred to as "the baby" of the family. You know: Once the baby, always the baby. At 15, I was old enough to drive without a parent during daylight hours, and I was definitely old enough to get a girl pregnant. But no one ever considered me old enough to be included when it came to decisions affecting my life. So they went ahead and made them for me. What's more, they knew I'd do whatever they said. I always had. So why should this trip be any different?
Momma said she had planned this trip with Daddy because he'd said that he wanted to spend some meaningful time with us. We were going only with Daddy because our parents were divorced. They had legally separated in 1960 when I was eight, and after four messy years of shouting and Momma's furs flying (they were literally thrown from the top of the stairs), the divorce was finalized in 1964.
Being from a divorced family in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in 1967 was not ideal. Our parents had gone against the Bible, and here we lived in the Bible Belt. The prominent families in Spartanburg -- if Spartanburg can be said to even have any prominent families -- shunned us; they went so far as to tell their children not to play with us because we were the "product of a broken home."
My siblings and I all have memories of our friends' parents and other adults being cruel to us because our parents were divorced. As for me, after I left the Spartanburg Day School (a private school our momma had been instrumental in getting started) and went into the fourth grade at Pine Street Elementary School (a public school a few blocks from home), all but one of my previous classmates stopped being my friend. Not long after leaving the Day School, I was over at a friend's house and his momma called him inside and told him he couldn't play with me. It made me feel sick, like I hadn't eaten all day. After I'd waited for the longest time, calling out for him to come back outside, he came to the door and told me what his momma had said. Mommas are mommas so we do what they say, but it was mean and not very Christian, if you ask me.
Anyway, Momma wasn't going on this trip to Montreal. And our oldest sister, Bunnie Ann, was already married to Dan from Kentucky and living in Maryland, so she wouldn't be on the trip, either. Along for the ride would be my 19-year-old sister, Genevieve (who I called Gee, or Gee Gee), and my 18-year-old twin brothers, Matthew and Mark. (Matthew was older by five minutes and never let Mark forget it.)
After the divorce, Daddy had moved to an apartment on Church Street in downtown Spartanburg, and then to an out-of-town house in Camp Croft, which had been an army camp during World War II, or so they told me. There was nothing left of what the army had built, so you could have told me it was anything and I would've believed you. Daddy's house was all on one level and was called a "ranch house," but there were no cows or horses around, so I thought that was kind of weird. It had three bedrooms, one of which was filled every square inch with boxes of stuff -- old clothes and books, report cards from when Daddy was in school, canteens from when he was in the army. He never threw one solitary thing out. Momma called him a packrat, but then she was one, too.
Daddy's house wasn't like the in-town house where we lived with Momma. Momma's house was on two levels, had four bedrooms, and was surrounded by other houses. Daddy's house was kind of private since no one lived across the street or in the lot on the side. There was a huge overgrown field in his backyard which was fun to hide in, and where I spent hours playing by myself (and with myself -- after all, a teenage boy needs release).
Before Momma drove us over to Daddy's house for the trip, Mark went out and bought her a bouquet of red carnations and a 45 record of Al Jolson singing "Mammy," the famous song about a mother. Mark wanted us all to sing along with it as a sort of goodbye. Momma was a full-figured kind of woman from having given birth to five children. She was a Metrecal Momma. Metrecal was a diet drink used to supplement food so you'd eat less, but Momma seemed to eat just as much as always, on top of drinking the Metrecal. She wore her hair in a bun, which kind of accentuated her roundness. At some point, she'd had her hair cut, and the clippings were made into a hairpiece. That became the bun that she wore (with tons of bobby pins holding it in place). It made her look rotund.
Momma had let me get my driver's license a couple of months before I turned 14, which was the legal age to get a permit and daytime license in South Carolina. Momma had a friend, Sophie Henderson, who'd needed a student for her Driver's Education course where she was teaching other adults how to teach Driver's Ed. I got to be the lucky pupil. And the nice highway patrolmen let Aunt Sophie -- that's what we all called her, even though we weren't related -- teach me how to drive and let me take my driver's license test before I was 14. In the evening, I could legally drive so long as someone over the age of 21, or one of my parents, was with me. But it didn't matter to my momma, who said, "You will only drive at night when I am with you. No one else, period."
Funny thing was, once I could get around without Momma driving me during the day (such as going back and forth to school and stuff), Momma went back to work as a Registered Nurse in Daddy's office. It always seemed weird to me that she had done that, because if they couldn't live together, how were they supposed to work together? But they did.
So, like I was saying, we three boys sang along with Al Jolson's "Mammy" as it played on the huge console hi-fi in our dining room. The console was big enough to be a sideboard, which could be why the hi-fi was in our dining room and not the music room.
Yeah, we had a room in our house we called the "music room" because it was the room with the piano. Bunnie Ann was the only one who could play, but she no longer lived at home, so we didn't have any use for the piano or the music room. So we moved a big color TV in there, and the music room became the room we used for watching TV, even though we still called it the music room.
Before that, Momma had us watch TV on our enclosed back porch. She didn't think a TV with a bunch of kids hanging around it should be anywhere else. The back porch was the place where my dachshund, Lulu -- the neighborhood strumpet -- had given birth to her first litter, dragging this bloody sack behind her that had come out of her body while we were watching Boris Karloff in Frankenstein one Saturday afternoon. I was eight at the time, and seeing Lulu dragging what looked like her stomach behind her scared the shit out of me a hell of a lot more than Frankenstein. I had an instant lesson on Mother Nature and birth, and I wasn't sure I liked it.
Momma cried when we sang to her and gave her the carnations, and then she gave us each a big hug. I didn't like seeing Momma cry. It made me cry when she did, and, yeah, I was 15 years old. But it also made the twins cry, and they were three years older. I couldn't help but wonder if Momma had cried because she wanted to go with us, or if she cried because she was worried about us. When Daddy told Momma he wanted to spend some meaningful time with us -- you know, his children -- Momma had told him, "This is your last chance, so don't screw it up." She knew that Daddy loved us, but she also knew he loved his liquor more.
COMING UP IN CHAPTER 2: A fashionable alcoholic... packing, Daddy style... the "white box" camper.
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*Names have been changed, except for the author's.