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09/15/2012 11:54 am ET Updated Nov 15, 2012

FEARLESS MEMOIR: 'World's Fair' (Chapter 16)

"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 16: Play It By Ear

Another morning meant another shower -- mission possible. A large orange orb rose over the treetops as I made my way back to the camper. I looked down to see if I was bathed in orange but, like the trees and other people, no such luck. Still, it seemed strange that the morning sun was a gigantic orange ball throwing off white light. I wondered what it would be like in outer space: orange light or white light as the sun rose? Did the sun even rise in outer space?

My thoughts went scattering when I heard Gee calling us over. It was a repeat of her trying to get someone to stay with Daddy. Oddly enough, it was Matthew who first said, "Let's all stay together today," with Mark nodding in agreement.

"Someone's got to keep an eye on Daddy and I thought we'd agreed we'd take..." said Gee.

"No one agreed to take turns," Matthew interrupted. "That was just... that was your way of getting out of staying together!"

"That's not true," Gee replied emphatically. "I'm only trying to make this trip as much fun as possible for all of us, so if we take turns...."

Matthew suddenly turned and faced a silent Mark. "You should be the one to stay with Daddy today."

Gee and I weren't about to get into this argument, so we turned and went about our business getting ready to go. Each of us knew that we needed to make the best of the situation, like Gee and I had done yesterday (even if we hadn't done that good a job). Sure, Mark didn't want to spend the day with Daddy while he drank himself into oblivion. But Mark worshipped the ground Daddy walked on, so if anyone was going to try and watch over Daddy and keep him from drinking, it made more sense for it to fall to Mark. And he didn't even argue.

So, on our third day at Expo '67, Mark sat up front in the truck with Daddy driving. Yes, Daddy was a new person each morning. I didn't understand this phenomenon -- but then, I didn't drink alcohol. I'd only heard about hangovers and headaches and stomach upsets. All I knew was that Daddy was back to being Daddy once the sun came up. He was like a werewolf: By the light of the new day, the deranged animal was back to normal.

Gee and I found ourselves in the camper with Matthew, who had assumed a prissy attitude. He restated that we should all stick together, that we had come to the World's Fair as a family and that we should go to the exhibits as a family. We agreed, but what could we do? None of us wanted to spend the day in a bar, and yet someone had to stay with Daddy to try and keep him out of trouble. We found that we were going in circles because Matthew started in again about how he hadn't come on this trip to be a babysitter. Well, none of us had, but "that was the way it was," as Walter Cronkite would have said.

Since I knew no one would likely listen to my suggestions, after we had beaten to mush the topic of who would be Daddy's keeper, I let Gee and Matthew decided which pavilions we would see on day three. We were probably going to see every one of them before we left, anyway. The Russian pavilion was high on my list because they were our archenemy, and it would be nice to see what they were really like. Next on my list was the Italian pavilion because I had done a project on Italy back in the fifth grade and wanted to go to the actual country where Caesar had ruled and the Christians had been sacrificed in that great big Colosseum. No one needed to remind me that back in fifth grade, I had misspelled Italy I-T-L-A-Y. (Even in the fifth grade I had one thing on my mind.) Then it would be nice to go to the French pavilion because they were so fashionable, and I loved French fries more than anything. Of course, we would have to go to the Spanish pavilion because it was the Spanish who had discovered the New World -- you know, with Christopher Columbus, who was actually Italian....

But it turned out that letting Gee and Matthew decide was a big mistake. "I don't understand," Gee said. "What's wrong with the European pavilions? They'll be terrific. I guarantee it."

"But the themed pavilions are what Expo is all about," argued Matthew. "We should go to them first. I don't know what you have against them."

"We can go to the themed pavilions, but I'd rather start with one or two of the European pavilions," replied Gee. "England would be super. And then France would be so special."

"It's called the 'Great Britain' pavilion, not 'England,' he corrected. "Let's go to the main themed pavilion first, then we can go to one of the pavilions you want."

"But we'll spend the day going back and forth from one island to the other!"

I was convinced that if Gee had said the sky was blue, Matthew would have said it was gray -- and vice versa. So I said, "Why don't we go to the Russian pavilion first thing?"

Surprise of surprises, both Gee and Matthew agreed. And then we all agreed that we would play it by ear. I loved that expression, "play it by ear." I'd always thought it applied to the piano, so it was nice knowing it could be used in a completely different way. Then it dawned on me that it was also like improvising, where in acting class we would act without a script and see what happened. We'd "play it by ear." It was at this moment that I felt my whole life would be played by ear.

During the drive to Expo from the campground, Matthew put some finishing touches on a few letters he wanted to mail. He was so good about writing to people back home. I loved getting letters but hated writing them. I didn't get many, and since I didn't send any I suppose that was why. I got letters from Grandma Stack, and they usually had a measly dollar stuck inside. Momma always told me to write her back and thank her, but I would have had to be hogtied to thank someone for only a dollar. Since I wasn't a hog, the thank-yous were never written.

Once we got to the entrance area, we all waited while Matthew went over to the information desk to ask where he could mail his letters. He had used the five-cent U.S. postage stamps which would have covered the delivery in the U.S., but he didn't have any eight-cent Canadian stamps to get the Canadians to do anything with the letters. What a waste of money. The Canadians spoke English, they looked like us, so why use different stamps? Like Daddy kept reminding us, we were north of the Mason-Dixon Line and in a foreign country, so things were different. There were no "Bubbas" or "good ol' boys" in sight, unless we looked at each other or in the mirror.

We spent the first part of the day together as a family group, heading off in the direction of the Russian pavilion to see what America's number-one archenemy was like. Wouldn't you know that their pavilion, like the U.S. pavilion, would be about the farthest point from the train station? What was it about these two pavilions that made the designers of Expo '67 put them so far out of the way? Maybe they thought that no one would go to the other pavilions if they didn't have to pass by them on their way to the two most popular ones. Not a bad idea if you think about it.

By the time we got there, my stick-skinny legs were exhausted. Mixed in with my feeling tired was an overwhelming awe. The Russian pavilion was incredibly imposing. It was huge -- maybe even bigger than the United States pavilion. It was funny how they planned that the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. pavilions would be directly across the water from each other on two different islands, like two different armies facing off, with each trying to see who could build the bigger pavilion. One was a fart bubble and the other a ski jump. From across the river at the United States pavilion, you could see the ski-jump shape of the Russian pavilion's roof. But when you were up close to it, it was more of a big curved expanse, with a large part of the roof hanging over the front like an awning. It looked like it might fall off.

Through the mostly glass outside wall, you could see an enormous bust of Lenin in profile. The dramatic entrance was like a grand theater or palace, with an escalator to the main floor and the bust of Lenin at the far end. I couldn't help but think of Norma Desmond's line in Sunset Boulevard: "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille." As we moved up the escalator, I went into a trance wherein I was a movie star making my entrance. I turned around to look down at all the people still outside in line or milling around. In my mind, all of them became Russians, and they cheered and applauded loudly for what seemed an eternity. Someday....

The pavilion was divided into three sections, based on Earth, Sea and Sky and what the Russians had done in these areas to benefit mankind. The Sea portion had a model of a boat; the side of it was cut away to show the inner workings. They also had a fish called a sturgeon on display. This was the fish from which caviar came. Momma had served some at a party once, and I had tried it. It was too salty, and the thought of eating fish eggs grossed me out.

The area on Space is what got my attention. The Russians had sent a man into space before we had, so they had advanced further. If President Kennedy, who was shot when I was 11, hadn't taken up the challenge to get a man on the moon before the Russians did, they certainly would have been light-years ahead of us.

Since we were a Republican family, we weren't supposed to like President Kennedy. Also, Momma said President Kennedy was a Catholic, and "you could never be sure about the Catholics." She believed they were stocking up shotguns in their basements to kill all the Protestants. Where she got that idea I'll never know. But I secretly admired President Kennedy because he had seen the future of space exploration and travel. Besides, he had a daughter close to my age, so I felt like we had something in common.

As it was I took one look at the Russian spacecraft and thought that it was not as good as ours. With a name like "Sputnik," how great could it have been? Right? Besides, it sounded like it might sputter along and kick the bucket. It was only a copy of the spaceship that had taken the first man into space. (Yuri somebody -- one of those Russian-sounding names that are so hard to pronounce.) The craft was so small it seemed like Yuri would have been awfully cramped. I surely wouldn't have wanted to be shot into space in that bubble. And that's what the spacecraft looked like to me: a round bubble that reminded me of something used in the movie Journey to the Bottom of the Sea. I bet Russian spies took the plans for that bubble from the movie, copied them and used them for space. That's what our enemies did: They stole our ideas -- or so Momma said.

But hold on to your pants! They also had a model of their SST airplane. I had to admit that when I saw that "model aircraft," I was afraid America might be doomed. It was by far the coolest airplane I'd ever laid eyes on. Oh-so-sleek and secret-looking, like you wouldn't be able to see it in the sky. Maybe the Russians were further advanced than we were after all.

Unfortunately, I didn't get to experience the trip to Mars in the Russian pavilion's Cosmos Hall. We didn't have reservations, and no one wanted to do it but me. I'd heard that you got strapped into your seat, and they pretended that you were going on a journey to Mars, with a liftoff where the seats vibrated. And then you were traveling in space. I really regret not doing that -- even if I had to take the trip alone.

But my biggest regret by far was yet to come.

COMING UP IN CHAPTER 17: James Stack, MI6 International Spy... oval cigarettes in pink paper with silver filter... tiny bells to ward off evil... Mark eats jungle food.

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

For more on becoming fearless, click here.

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