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FEARLESS MEMOIR: 'World's Fair' (Chapter 14)

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"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 14: Mind Control

As we exited the Austrian Pavilion, the sun's sharp glare reflecting off every object at the World's Fair reminded us to brace ourselves for the worst. Squinting through slits for eyes, we saw that Daddy was still under the green umbrella at the outdoor table. He was sitting all alone and had a vague Mona Lisa-type smile on his face. It came as a pleasant surprise that he was behaving himself.

"Well, they won't serve me anymore," Daddy told us, without using one curse word.

There we were: on holiday, on a beautiful blue-sky-and-sunny afternoon, at a foreign country's remarkable outdoor restaurant, overlooking the lovely Swan Lake, on the French-named St. Helene Island, in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, in the country of Canada... and Daddy had evidently done something to make a fool of himself.

Gee turned her back to him, acted as if she was looking around and whispered to me, "I'm not going to let him ruin this day for me. I'm just not!" Then, turning back to Daddy and smiling, she said with a wave of her hand, "Daddy, we're going to check out some of the other pavilions. Do you want to come with us?"

Daddy looked at us with innocent puppy eyes. I could have sworn that he was feeling guilty, like a dog does when it pees or poops indoors and knows it's done something wrong. "They sure aren't very friendly here -- especially after taking my money," he remarked. Rising from the table, he added, "Well, I think I might join ya'll after all."

I have no idea what caused the sudden transformation, but I did notice some of the people who worked at the restaurant glaring at us like the sun. Without any arguing, begging or pleading, Daddy left with us. I was starting to think that maybe this was going to be a really good day.

The Man the Explorer Pavilion had been silently calling to us ever since we'd arrived, our having passed it on our way to the United States Pavilion. To me, it was one of the best pavilions, and it was one of the largest since it was made of four different structures. As we entered the one referred to as the "Man and Life" building, we became enclosed within a human cell magnified something like a zillion times. It resembled a truly eerie landscape somewhere in outer space. I could see the aliens coming out and greeting us in their weird language, and the Robinsons from Lost in Space -- or Captain Kirk from Star Trek -- interpreting what each of us said.

There were balls, tubes, colored lights and designs of different sizes all strung together. When I looked over at Daddy, he was looking at me with such a huge grin on his face that his eyes had gone all wrinkly. I smiled back at him, knowing that he was enjoying seeing my reaction to this environment, because he would already know all about this stuff since he was a doctor. I didn't think a replica of a human cell would be as big a deal to him as it was to me. His having such a good time made it an even better time for me.

After we passed through the cell, we came to this huge brain made of what looked like glass and plastic, with hoses and dots of differently colored lights showing how information passes through the brain and what part of the body it impacts. Next to the brain were movie panels which showed different scenes of people responding to things like touch, and then the big brain would show what was going on in the brain when the touch took place. It was really neat. It made me wonder how my brain would look when I was acting, like when I was pretending I was experiencing an emotion, and if my brain would react differently. What if I was supposed to be in a fight and someone hit me, but not really hard? Would my brain act differently if I acted like I had been hit really hard? Or, what if a girl touched me in a loving manner and I was acting like I liked it? Would my brain act differently if it were a boy and I did like it? Could I control my brain so that even though I didn't really feel a certain way I could trick it into thinking I felt that way? I loved this exhibit.

Apparently it made Gee wonder what Daddy's brain was experiencing when he was drinking. She whispered in my ear, "You know, Daddy's brain's probably so dulled by alcohol that it doesn't light up like it's supposed to. I think he probably has the reactions of a child's brain after he's been drinking."

"So what's the difference between a child's brain and an adult's brain?"

"One knows the difference between right and wrong and the other doesn't. Can you guess which is which?"

I laughed and looked over at Daddy. He was still smiling at me so I went over to him and asked, "Daddy, you having a good time?"

"Bubba, I'm having the time of my life." Daddy called me Bubba only after he'd been drinking.

Gee thought Daddy was more like a child when he drank, but I didn't see it until we went into the next display, which seemed to reinforce her belief. Here the worlds of a child and the worlds of an adult were viewed side-by-side, and things that were obvious to an adult were not yet grasped by a child. It also showed that adults can be subject to illusion and plain old ignorance. Daddy wasn't stupid, but his drinking did subject him to fantasy and to delusions of grandeur. Money and sex took on whole new dimensions to him after a few drinks.

The next building we went into was called "Man, His Planet and Space." I thought I had died and gone to heaven. "Danger, danger Will Robinson!" If I couldn't be a world-famous actor, I wanted to be an interplanetary astronaut to be shot into space and travel the universe. It would be wonderful, what with all the great gadgets and stuff: ray guns, doors that opened with the wave of a hand, and all the planets you could visit, with different kinds of beings you'd get to meet.

After we entered, we had to get through some nasty photographs of how we were destroying the earth. None of it made sense to me because we Americans were so advanced we surely knew better and weren't the ones harming the earth. Then we had to get through some things about what lies underground -- you know, under the dirt in our yards. That was kind of cool. And then there was something called a "population explosion," about all of the people that were now on the earth and whether the planet could sustain them and the ones who were yet to be born.

We were a family of seven -- well, when Daddy lived with us, anyway -- so I didn't think we had really added to this explosion, especially since Momma had told me she had her tubes tied after I was born. It was those other, undeveloped countries who were responsible; those places where the women didn't have their tubes tied. But this part of the pavilion was still kind of special, because the space part showed how far man had come. To think: The Wright brothers had filed their patent in 1906, and now we had supersonic jets and were going into outer space!

The next building was called "Man and the Polar Regions." It gave the illusion that we were entering an ice cave. Even the air was cold. It had two globes that opened up and showed the North and South Poles. Then there was a section showing how both poles were populated, like by the Eskimos and some other people from the Russian area called Siberia. I knew that that was where the Russians sent their political prisoners, many of whom were artistic like me. I wondered if that's where I would have been sent if I had been born in Russia. There was also a movie that went around you while you stood still. It seemed all the movies had some new approach -- which certainly got our attention.

Finally I decided I was getting tired of this pavilion, so I rolled my eyes and asked, "When do ya'll think we can get outta here? I mean, I'm kind of ready to move on."

"There's only one more section," replied Gee. "Then we're through. I thought you would have liked this."

"I do." It was only a little white lie. "I just need to go to the bathroom. That's all." It wasn't all, though: I wanted a smoke.

The last building was called "Man and the Ocean," and when you entered it you felt like you were surrounded by waves because of something they did with the lights and the sound. It was fun but a little disorienting. We then went up an escalator where they were showing diving demonstrations in a huge tank. Not diving like off a diving board -- which was a sport Gee had excelled in at the Country Club. In fact, she was the best diver at the Club. I always wanted to be as good as she was, but I didn't have her grace, her form, her fluid lines, the things that make diving off a diving board look so easy and clean. The diving in this building was the kind submarines did. Some of Jacques Cousteau's belongings were there. And they called Cousteau a "commander," which I never knew. "Commander Cousteau"... cool.

We were told that the theme of Expo '67 was "Man and His World," which was based on a book by Antoine de St. Exupéry entitled Terre des Hommes. In his book, the author said we can build a better world through each person's contributions. After seeing some of the things in this pavilion, I thought that it could also be said that we were ruining our world by some of the things we were doing. It made me think. What could I do to fix the problem? I didn't eat much, so reducing that wasn't an option. The population explosion thing was probably the scariest of all. I had always thought I'd grow up and get married and have 12 children like in the movie Cheaper by the Dozen. It made me think that if I did that it would be so selfish of me. Maybe I wouldn't have children. Besides, how could I expect to have a normal family when our family wasn't anything like that movie -- or, for that matter, even a TV show like Father Knows Best?

When we got outside, there was this sculpture which looked like stylized horses with spiked tails (or maybe they were some other type of four-legged animal). Funny, the name of the sculpture was "Man," by the artist Alexander Calder. Perhaps he was trying to say that man was simply an animal.

I felt like my head was vibrating from too much stuff. I needed to take it a little slower or else go to some pavilion that wasn't so chock-a-block full of different visuals and ideas. And I sure could have used a smoke. That would have made everything so much better.

Looking at her map, Gee said, "There are some wonderful pavilions right around here. Why don't we go to the Switzerland one next?"

Daddy was checking the area for the closest restaurant or bar when I blurted out, "I'd like to go to the Iran Pavilion. We passed it yesterday, remember?"

"If I remember correctly, the Brewers' Pavilion is over in that direction," Daddy said, pointing to his left. He wanted to go back because they'd seemed to like people who drank, so he knew he wouldn't be cut off the booze chain.

I knew we couldn't keep Daddy away from alcohol for long, so I said, "'Beer on whisky, might risky.' Why don't we go together to the Iran Pavilion first? It's right over there. And then we can go to the Switzerland Pavilion. After that, Daddy, you can go back to that beer pavilion, while Gee and I check out another couple of the smaller ones, and then we could meet you back there before we leave."

"That's a splendid idea," Daddy said, while Gee smiled and nodded her head in agreement. I was surprised they agreed with me. I made a note to remember this.

But boy: was going to the Iran Pavilion a big mistake! What should we find -- right outside on a patio, sort of like at the Austrian pavilion -- but a bar where they were selling Iranian vodka? Have you ever seen a dog when it knows that you have a treat or a bone that it wants? The dog will have a long string of gooey, slippery, drool hanging out of its mouth. That's what I see in my mind when I think of how Daddy reacted to the sight of the bar: not the drool, but the look on his face.

He didn't make it past the entrance. At least we knew where we'd find him. But then, we could never be sure.

COMING UP IN CHAPTER 15: Daddy meets Iranian vodka... a Persian prince fantasy... harmony amongst the multitude.

Want to read "World's Fair" from the beginning? Click here and start with "Prologue, Part 1."

For more on becoming fearless, click here.