"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 3: "Like a Band of Gypsies, We Go Down the Highway"*
When Daddy finally put the truck in gear I was riding up front, while Gee, Matthew and Mark were back in the camper. The sky was ablaze with brilliant light slicing through the humidity. The sun beat down, sending rippling waves of heat off the hood of the truck. They made the road appear to be dancing. The reflection was blinding, causing me to squint, but Daddy didn't seem to notice. Or if he did he didn't say anything.
As we drove out of Camp Croft, we passed what Matthew called the "pretend house." The first time I went to Camp Croft with Daddy I was nine years old; he told me this "pretend house" was his new home. There weren't any other houses around, only a railroad track across the street that was beside a paper bag plant called Harvey Bag. The first thing I thought was that there were no neighbors for Daddy to play with. Worse still, the "pretend house" was an old one-room shack with busted glass in the windows, and the door was lying on the ground beside the entrance. I was surprised and felt really awful and sad for Daddy. I was afraid that only bad things would happen to him since he and Momma were getting divorced... and he didn't live with us anymore... and he was living alone.
Daddy had told me to go on inside. Laying on the floor was a dirty, torn mattress without any sheets and with the cotton stuffing coming out. At least there's a pillow, I thought, although it was gray and didn't have a pillowcase. I looked around and noticed there were lots of burned matches and cigarette butts crushed on the floor, and a whole heap of upturned, brown-glass beer bottles thrown around. I turned around and wondered where Daddy would sit, and why there was not a kitchen or bathroom. I didn't want Daddy to think I wouldn't want to come back and spend time with him, so I sat on the floor. When Daddy still hadn't come in after a few minutes, I got up and looked out the hole in the wall where a window had been and saw him smoking a cigarette and leaning against his car. I went outside, holding back tears and scratching at my legs and butt. I was covered with fleas.
This "pretend house" was actually a doghouse for strays. Daddy loved to tell the story about how I came out rubbing at my ass and legs and looking like a lost puppy. But it didn't make me laugh. Here I was, all upset that Daddy had to live in a dump, and he was teasing me. I loved him so much and this was my reward. Well, compared to some of the other things he did to people, this wasn't so bad. Besides, I was with my daddy, and to my way of thinking that was the best thing in the world.
Daddy usually had another adult to talk to when I went on trips with him, but now, on this trip to Expo '67, it was only Daddy and me, together in the front seat. Conversations with Daddy had always been a little weird, but they were even more so now that he no longer lived with us. I did talk to him when I would go to his office every week to get my allowance. But those were quick how-do-you-dos in between his seeing patients.
The strangest conversation we ever had was when I begged Daddy on one of his infrequent visits to our house to tell me about "the birds and the bees." I'd already heard all about it from our neighbor around the corner, Allen Morehead, whose Daddy had sat him down all proper like and explained everything to him. Allen had told me every detail. All I knew before that point was from what I'd overheard when I was about seven.
I'd been spying on Matthew and Mark, as I usually did when they wouldn't take me with them. They were talking about girls with the neighbor up the street, Dick Jefferson. I was on the other side of the bamboo fence that circled Dick's yard. The bamboo was so tight, and shrubs were on either side, that they couldn't tell I was there. I could barely hear since Dick was whispering, but I did hear him tell the twins that girls had three holes between their legs, not one like boys. And it was one of these holes where boys were supposed to want to put our dicks. That was when I first heard the word "fuck." Boys then would pee sperm inside. Later, Allen told me a slightly different version with much more information, so I was wondering if it was true.
When I begged Daddy to explain sex to me, he slowly put his paper down, looked over at me as I sat on the arm of the club chair in our living room, and asked, "How old are you now?"
"Oh, Daddy, what difference does that make? I'm 11 going on 12. All my friends are telling me things their daddies are saying, and I want to know if it's true. Please tell me what... well, tell me about the birds and bees. Please, Daddy! I want to get it right."
"Well, it's a beautiful thing between a man and wife," he began. "And it's something you do only after you're married." With that, he picked up his newspaper and brought it up so I couldn't see his face.
Shit. Did he really think I was going to believe that? When I was eight, and Momma and I were home alone, she grabbed me out of the house and dragged me to where the woman who worked in Daddy's office as the receptionist lived. Momma told me to stay in the car and not to get out no matter who I saw or what happened. Then she walked across the yard and into the house without knocking while I waited in the front seat of her Ford station wagon. I kept looking out the car window when suddenly I saw Momma slam open the screen door. It looked like she was yelling at me, which frightened me because I'd stayed in the car like she'd told me.
"This is it, buster," she shouted. "This is it! Your bags will be packed by the time you get home. THIS... IS... THE... LAST... STRAW!" And then Daddy appeared at the screen door without a shirt and in his white boxer shorts. I waved and jumped up on the seat, I was so excited; and he waved back, but wasn't smiling. I found out later that Momma had caught Daddy "in the act." And that is why I knew I couldn't rely on him as a source of accurate information when it came to "making love" and stuff. Our conversations were strange like that.
For some reason, as soon as we got on the road to Montreal, Daddy wanted to talk with me about acting. Even though he rarely came to see me in any productions, he did know that I liked acting and being in plays, and that I wanted to be a famous actor when I grew up. I'd been in plays about every year since I was three, when I was the youngest prince in The King And I at The Little Theatre. Recently I'd been in the musical Oliver, playing the creepy kid who worked at the coffin shop. And earlier in the year I'd had a small part in the Children's Theatre production of The Wizard of Oz. But Daddy hadn't come to either.
As I was watching the yellow divider lines wiggling in the heat, Daddy said, "I recently read an article about this actor. His name is Robert Redford. He'd started out as, I believe the article said, a painter."
"Really?" I didn't know who Robert Redford was, and I certainly didn't know what painting had to do with acting, other than painting the scenery.
"Yeah. And, I don't remember why, but he ended up working as an actor and now he's making quite a name for himself." This was Daddy's way of letting me know that if I wanted to be an actor it was okay with him, which Momma would have said was, "Out of the question!" Or else he may have been saying that if acting didn't work out I could become a painter.
"I don't think I know who... what did you say his name was?" I asked.
"Robert Redford. He's in the movie Barefoot in the Park, a romance, with Jane Fonda. Did you see it?" Daddy asked.
The types of movies I liked were To Sir With Love, Fahrenheit 451, Bonnie and Clyde, and The Dirty Dozen -- movies with themes around school, science fiction, gangsters, and war. A love movie was not the type I typically went to see, even though some people said Bonnie and Clyde was a love story. I asked, "Daddy, isn't Barefoot in the Park a movie for old people?"
A grin crossed Daddy's face. "It was very funny," he said. "It was written by Neil Simon. Have you ever heard of him?"
Sinking into the seat, ashamed that I knew so little, I answered, "No. I don't know all the people in movies. I don't even know all the people who write plays. I mean, I'm not interested in the playwright but in the role. You know, the part, and how big it is. Is it the lead, or a supporting role, or simply a walk-on. I've had tons of walk-on parts and now I'm getting larger speaking roles, and soon I hope to get starring roles. So, no, I don't know who that person is."
After that, we didn't say much. I stared out of the truck window at the telephone poles and watched how the wires waltzed through the air. Daddy turned on the radio. He found a news station that was talking about one of our ships being damaged by a fire off the coast of Vietnam. Over 130 sailors were killed. Daddy wanted to try and find out more about the fire and the damage while I became lost in thought, wondering how hot it would have had to have been on that ship to have killed all those sailors.
It sure was hot sitting in an un-air-conditioned truck watching the yellow divider lines become all wavy from the heat reflecting off the blacktop. It made my mouth dry. Luckily Daddy had put a hole in the back of the truck cab that connected to a hole he had put in the camper. This way, we could pass food and drinks from the camper to the driver and copilot without having to stop. I lifted the flap that Daddy had added to keep dirt out and poked my head through the hole to ask for a Coke. I think Daddy put in this passageway so we could pass him cold beers every time he wanted one. Well, not one beer was passed through that hole on the entire trip; if there had been, it would have been one too many.
Absolutely the most exciting thing that happened that first day was learning that Gee-Gee knew how to make terrific grilled cheese sandwiches. This was my sister who a year before didn't know how to boil water. She never did any cooking, and it was rumored she was allergic to the kitchen. I don't remember ever seeing her prepare or clean up after a meal. After our cook, Maryland, left and moved north, and before Essie came to work for us, who do you think cleaned the dishes after dinner? Not Naomi. She would have already left for the day. It fell to the twins -- and, when threatened with possibly being buried alive, I would do it. I didn't like putting my hands in hot water, though, so the grease stayed on everything. When I heard Momma complaining that I needed to use hot water to cut the grease, I quickly learned to use only cold water so that I rarely had to do the dishes.
When Gee passed that first grilled cheese sandwich through the opening I knew two things: 1) My daddy was brilliant for having put that hole there, and 2) We would not starve. At that very moment, I became a lifelong fan of Genevieve and grilled cheese sandwiches.
The first day, while in the truck, I divided my time between directing Daddy on which roads to take and seeing how many different state license plates I could find. It was a game Daddy wanted to play, so I went along with it even though it was a baby game. I didn't have anything else to do other than act as copilot with a map I wasn't sure how to even read. Besides, it made Daddy happy. I must admit that I was intrigued by the different colors of the license plates. Maybe there was an artist lurking behind my actor façade after all.
Since I was in charge of the map, it was my responsibility to let Daddy know how far we were from where we had to get on and off the sections of the Interstate that hadn't been completed. The Interstate system was a mess, since construction was delayed by the towns that were going to be bypassed once it was complete. We had to take roads through those soon-to-be-bypassed towns, and it was very complicated because the map and the roads didn't match. Some of the Interstate highway had yet to be completed, but the map said it was; or it had been completed, and the map said it hadn't. Daddy knew this part of the trip by heart, however, having driven to-and-from Duke University for basketball and football games so many times he could do it in his sleep. (Well, he could do it drunk, which was the state he was in whenever he traveled to Duke.)
Since Interstate 85 wasn't anywhere near complete, we headed out of town on US 29 towards Gaffney, which would eventually take us to Blacksburg, North Carolina. Daddy and I played a game seeing who could cross first into each State by stretching our legs and arms forward when we got to the state welcome sign. Upon "Entering North Carolina," we each claimed to be the first to cross, which made Daddy laugh. I don't know what was so funny about it, but Daddy enjoyed playing it. He would always thrust his hand up on the dashboard, which didn't even go as far as his feet when they were on the pedals. And he claimed that made him the winner. I would play along and argue that I had won, and Daddy would laugh and laugh.
There was another game Daddy liked to play. He would stick his finger out and say, "Pull on my finger." And when you pulled on his finger he would fart -- only he called it "passing gas." Now, pulling on his finger and his calling it "passing gas" always made me laugh. You knew he was going to fart when he stuck his finger out so I would start laughing the moment he asked me to pull it, and "passing gas" is such a funny thing to call a fart. If Daddy asked, "Who broke wind?" it would crack me up, too. I mean, when Daddy would say "breaking wind" or "passing gas," my sides would hurt from laughing so much.
After Blacksburg, we passed Gastonia. I said, "Passing Gas - tonia," and we both laughed out loud. Then we went through Charlotte, where I-85 was nearly complete, so we made good time with Daddy driving the truck full-out.
Charlotte was a much bigger town than Spartanburg. It was to Charlotte that Bunnie Ann, who was eight years older, had taken me to see The Sound of Music. Spartanburg movie theaters, of which there were two -- The Carolina Theatre and The Palmetto Theatre -- claimed to show first-run movies, but they always came to town after they had been shown in Charlotte. So Charlotte was where we went if we wanted to see movies before anyone else in Spartanburg. Of course, this made us really "cool," as Bunnie Ann liked to say. But being one of the first in Spartanburg to see The Sound of Music didn't make me cool.
Time seemed to pass by slowly, and as we cut across North Carolina I slumped into the seat and drifted into a daydream. I found myself in a Tennessee Williams play. I was the male lead and there were strange emotional and sexual forces working on my physical needs. I had to have release, and I had to have it now. The tension was building, which my untucked shirttail hid from view. Suddenly, I felt the urge to yell someone's name. I was trying to choose between sexy and handsome "Stanley!" or, as the script required, "Stella!" when my imaginary world was shattered by Daddy asking me to light a cigarette for him.
Okay. I told myself to take a deep breath and relax. It was coming back to me. I was in a truck with Daddy in North Carolina. He couldn't see my boner, and he wanted me to light him a cigarette. I could do that.
This was another one of the games we played, since he knew that I wanted to smoke. It was his way of finding out if I smoked or not: by checking to see if I inhaled. I already knew he was on the lookout for it, so I didn't -- even though I wanted to.
As I handed Daddy his cigarette, savoring the faintest taste of his Lucky Strikes, I wondered what my three siblings were doing in the camper. I hoped they were talking about me and how I was going to be the most successful member of our family because I was going to be a great actor of stage and screen.
* From "On the Road Again" © FULL NELSON MUSIC
COMING UP IN CHAPTER 4: Gee and the twins go on a scavenger hunt... an alternative use for empty Coke bottles... we meet a Confederate's descendant.
For more on becoming fearless, click here.