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FEARLESS MEMOIR: 'World's Fair' (Chapter 17)

09/16/2012 10:56 am ET | Updated Nov 16, 2012
  • James Stack Poet, 'Pleasures and Seasons of Vermont;' and memoirist, 'World’s Fair'

"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 17: Better Dead than Red

While we were still in the Russian pavilion, an imaginary lightbulb went on over my head: Being the only person from Spartanburg, South Carolina, to have ever smoked a Russian cigarette would make me the neatest person back home. So I snuck off to buy a pack. I pretended I was a spy like James Bond. (My first name was James, so it was a perfect fit.) Sean Connery had starred in From Russia with Love, but the movie I was starring in was called Blowing Russian Smoke. There I was, James Stack, MI6 international spy with a license to kill, on assignment in Canada at Expo '67 and buying Russian cigarettes while secretly investigating the Soviet space program. Casually, so as not to attract any unwanted attention, I walked up to the man selling smokes, who I imagined was a spy disguised as a cigarette peddler. Looking over the various brands, I saw some with pink paper and gold foil. Pointing at them, I said, in very proper-like English, "A pack a those, if you please." I wanted to add, "Shaken, not stirred," but that would have blown my cover.

The cigarette-hawker spy guy just looked at me, so I stared back. Silently he handed me the cigarettes and took the Canadian bills I proffered (very international-spy word, "proffer," meaning offer). I retrieved the cigarettes and held my hand palm-up for the change. I kept my hand out while the spy guy rooted around for what could have been a concealed weapon... but all he did was hand me my change. I had no idea how much the cigarettes cost since I hadn't asked, so I had to accept whatever he gave me. I was disappointed that he didn't pass anything else on to me, such as secret information or microfilm. I guess he wasn't a spy after all, but simply a cigarette merchant.

I took the change and the pack of cigarettes and, without packing the tobacco like Matthew always did, I opened the pack. The smokes were oval in shape, so even holding one in my hand made me feel like a spy. Of course, I knew my clothes should have been different, but I was in masquerade (another international-spy kind of word -- you know, "disguise").

Lighting the cigarette's pink-papered end with my snappy Zippo, I struck my best Sean Connery pose and inhaled deeply. And then it hit me. I about gagged to death. My throat was being burned by the poison the bastard cigarette salesman spy had injected into the cigarettes to kill me. No kidding: I thought I was going to die. My head started spinning, my eyes watered, and I knew the Commies had put something in the tobacco to kill all international spies.

While wiping away the tears and still coughing, I looked over and saw Daddy across the way, looking me square in the eye. Holy shit, he'd seen me smoking! I looked away and thought I'd better start running; if he was ever going to spank me again in my life, it would be now. But when I looked back, he was just smiling at me and shaking his head. I guess he understood that part of what I was doing was playacting. He didn't know that I really needed a smoke. He walked over to me and put his hand on my shoulder. "Wait till you're older to try and smoke," he said. "There's no need to rush it. And please, whatever you do, don't smoke oval cigarettes in pink paper with a silver filter."

I was saved! He thought I didn't smoke since I had choked with the first puff. And that part wasn't even an act.

Now that I had cigarettes that were way too strong for me, I had to get rid of them. I had bummed so many from Matthew that giving them to him was the least I could do. Besides, he might like oval, pink-papered, silver-filtered cigarettes. Daddy smoked Lucky Strikes. LS/MFT: "Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco." He preferred the non-filtered kind, and used to end up with a piece of tobacco on the tip of his tongue. He'd do this little sophisticated -- yet manly -- ejection of the tobacco when he spit it out. Not with a big hawking sound, but with a little "thaw" sound he made with the tip of his tongue when the tiny bit of tobacco was between his lips. All men who smoked non-filtered cigarettes used to "thaw" it away like that, but women didn't. Or at least, ladies didn't. They would delicately take it off their tongue with their index finger and thumb and twist it like it was a booger. It always made me laugh because they thought they were being so proper, yet they were doing what men did when they picked their noses. Only they were picking their mouths.

I don't think I've ever seen a woman pick her nose, but men are forever digging for gold. When we caught someone going after one, we would yell, "Pick ye a winner!" I loved saying that.

Now, the Russians make what some people say is the best vodka in the world, but Daddy didn't have any. I guess he'd had his fill of vodka since he had gotten so wasted on the Iranian variety the day before. But he certainly had plenty of opportunity to try the Russian kind, because there were several restaurants in the Russian pavilion.

When you think about it, it was kind of strange that Daddy said terrible things about the Japanese and the Koreans, but didn't make one nasty comment about the Reds. Maybe since they'd been our allies in World War II, he thought they were still our friends. But they were the only enemy that I ever heard anyone talk about: "Better Dead Than Red." "Communist infiltrator." "Un-American Activities Committee."

As we walked away from the Russian pavilion, I remembered that we had passed the Thailand pavilion. Walking backwards and bouncing up and down a little, I said, "Hey, ya'll. Why don't we go to the Thailand pavilion next? It's not that far away. Remember, we passed it on the way here. It looked great!"

When no one seemed overly excited, I said, "It's Siam. You know, the country where The King and I takes place. Thailand is Siam!" I started clapping my hands in excitement, like I had won some award or something for knowing that.

No one was paying attention to me, so I said to the twins, "Remember, we were in The King and I musical at the Little Theatre. It'd be fun to go. What do ya'll say?"

"Sure," Matthew replied. Why not?" Gee was waiting to see if he would demand that we go to one of the themed pavilions, so she kept quiet.

Mark came up to me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, loud enough so the others behind us in line could hear, "You played the youngest son. I remember you were about three or four years old. You had to crawl under Anna's huge dress."

"It was a hoop skirt," Matthew added as he skipped up to my right side. "As the youngest son, you were supposed to be the last to get introduced to Anna."

"Right," Mark continued, "and you were supposed to be lost or something after we had all come in."

"No," Matthew corrected. "No one knew where he was."

"Okay," Mark said. He turned back to me. "No one knew where you were. But you were under her dress, hiding. Just like something you would do. You're always cutting up and playing games."

"So, while everyone was looking for you, you came out..." Matthew started.

"No," Mark broke in. "The King angrily called out your name and...."

"Oh, yeah," Matthew interrupted. "He called your name, and you lifted up the skirt and came out, beaming from ear-to-ear."

"I remember!" I said triumphantly. "The scene was all about me!" I started laughing.

"Well, maybe you don't remember everything," Mark said.

"The first dress rehearsal, where the actress playing Anna was wearing that beautiful hoop skirt, you came out from under it crying your eyes out and telling the director that you weren't going under that dress again," Matthew said.

By now, everyone was laughing -- even Daddy. I remembered that when I went under the heavy skirt, I had found that it was completely dark inside. So I started crying. It seems as if I cried whenever I was between people's legs (like I had with Daddy in the shower). Well, it scared the hell out of me. So I came out from under the skirt sobbing. At least I got everyone to laugh, same as today.

As we approached the Thailand pavilion, we could see how beautiful it was. There were two buildings. One was a Buddhist shrine, with red, blue, and green paint on the surface. It had a pagoda-like roof and a spire that was covered with golden tiles that glowed in the sun. There were these tiny bells that hung off each tile, and you could hear them chime when the wind blew. We were told they'd been put there to ward off evil spirits.

Inside this shrine were red velvet draperies and stained-glass windows with religious images. There was a carved wooden altar inlaid with precious stones, and two huge elephant tusks that formed an arch over a brass gong. The whole idea was supposed to be one of quiet mediation, so I couldn't figure out what a brass gong was doing there. Each to their own, I suppose. But it was elegant and I loved it.

There was another Thai building with ornate and colorful decorations, and wisps like long fingernails shooting off from the ends of the red roof sections. This building was where they displayed their accomplishments like all the other countries. But the Thai took a less boastful and more tranquil approach of ease and calm. The people working in the pavilion were all smiling; they seemed genuinely happy to see us.

I was thrilled to be there and wanted something to remind me of the trip. In the gift shop, I saw a ring that cost more than all the money I had in my wallet. So I went and took Daddy by the hand and said, "Daddy, come over here with me. There's something I want to show you."

Seeing how excited I was, he followed. "What is it, son?"

"See that ring? I don't have enough money to buy it, so would you buy it for me?"

"What do you want with a ring?"

"I want something to remember this trip by. It will be, like, a keepsake kind of thing."

"I agree that it would be nice to have a keepsake, but it costs too much," he said.

"I'd buy it for myself, but I don't have that much in my wallet."

"Then I guess you can't buy it."

"I know. That's why I brought you over to show you. Don't you like it?"

"Sure I like it," Daddy said. He turned to the woman behind the counter. "What's it made of?"

"Hell-o," she said to Daddy. "Hell-o," she said to me.

"We - want - to - know - what - that - ring - is - made - of," I told her. I spoke very slowly so she would understand.

"It is from horn of animal, yes?" She answered as if she were asking us.

"No, we're asking you what it's made of," I said in reply.

Giggling, she said, "It is made from horn... from horn of animal. You like?"

"Yes, I like," I answered.

Daddy started to move away, so I grabbed his arm again. "Please, Daddy. I haven't asked for one thing this entire trip, have I?"

"It's too expensive, son," he repeated. "Look for something else to remember the trip by."

"Please, Daddy. This is all I want."

"I said no."

"I won't ask for another thing," I begged. "Not one thing the rest of the trip." I knew we had over a week left, but I wanted that ring like I have never wanted anything my whole life.

He thought for a moment, then spoke. "Well, I have no idea what's so special about it, but if you want it that badly, I'll buy it for you," he said.

I had to try several of the rings on, because I had such large knuckles from having cracked my fingers so much. The area where the ring would rest was a lot smaller -- about half the size -- so there was a big gap between my skin and the inside of the ring. But I didn't care. The ring was a beautiful golden brown, and it was mine.

Walking away from the counter, I couldn't help but wonder why parents have to put us though all those gyrations before they'll be nice to us. It would be so much easier for everyone if they simply gave in right away instead of making us quiver, spin and flail about.

Next door was the Burma Pavilion. It looked like a poor cousin beside the Thailand Pavilion, but if it had been somewhere else, it would have looked great. Its golden pagodas had red roofs with turrets that resembled flowers, but they paled in comparison to the Thai ones. We should have gone in the Burmese pavilion first. It was nice, but wasn't as memorable. The pavilion did have a restaurant which served typical Burmese dishes, though. As soon as we heard about the restaurant, it reminded us kids that it was time to eat -- and Daddy that it was past time to start drinking.

As we started to leave, Mark called out, "Ya'll wait. Why don't we eat here?"

The rest of us looked at each other and made grossed-out faces -- even Daddy, who said, "I don't want to eat rat, or bat, or anything from the jungle."

"Yuck! Me either," said Matthew.

"Well, where do you want to eat?" Mark asked. When none of us replied, he said, "I think I'll stay here. I'm going to try something new."

I don't know why the rest of us weren't interested in at least trying it. There we were with an opportunity to experience new things. I suppose you could call it playing it safe. Well, at least Mark had an adventurous spirit. Of course, it did cross my mind that maybe he had stayed behind because later he was going to end up with Daddy once Daddy settled down in one place to drink.

The rest of us walked away, and it wasn't long before Mark caught up with us. The Eagle Scout in him made it easy for him to find us.

"How was the jungle food?" Daddy asked him.

"It was all right," was all Mark would say.

"No, tell us," Daddy pressed. "Did they have any snake or mice on the menu?" Daddy looked around at us, laughing at his own joke.

"No sir," Mark replied. "I can't say as I liked it very much. In fact, I can't tell you what it was they served me."

"How much of it did you eat?" Daddy asked, concerned.

"I just took a few bites and stopped. It was too hot," Mark explained.

Daddy laughed. "When you're fully grown, you'll be able to handle spicy food, son," he said.

"Yes, sir," Mark replied. "Well, I'm glad I tried it. At least now I know."

When I wasn't being afraid of Mark, I admired him. He was the stronger older brother I felt I could depend on to protect me from the schoolyard bullies. He wasn't a muscle man, but his whole demeanor was one of "don't fuck with me." So no one did. Mark wouldn't take any shit from anyone -- except Daddy. On the exterior, Mark was all showy ego macho Paleolithic man, but inside he was sensitive and emotional. In other words, he was like the rest of us. He was also 18 years old and trying to exert his independence and be grown up. Be a man. But at Expo '67, he was struggling to simply get the man he admired most in life to love him.

After lunch, when Daddy wanted to settle somewhere (claiming his legs were tired), he and Mark went off together. Mark had accepted the responsibility of keeping Daddy company, so to speak. I assumed they were going back to the Russian pavilion so Daddy could drink more vodka.

I could never have imagined how embarrassing the day was actually going to get.

COMING UP IN CHAPTER 18: No Tarzan to the rescue... the lightbulb turns on... through the rabbithole.

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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