"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.
Warning: Contains some mild sexual content; may not be suitable for all audiences.
CHAPTER 8: A Plucked Chicken in a Funhouse Mirror
Sleeping on the floor put me in the direct line of fire for everyone's feet. I may have been skinny, but the space in the camper was tight. As soon as the first person got out of bed, I was fair game. The repetitive doors that I ran through in my recurring dream were slammed shut when I was jarred awake by Gee's foot and told to get off the floor. As I stood up I kept the sheet draped around me to hide my hard-on, and climbed into the bed over the cab that Daddy and Mark had vacated. I was exhausted from being up so late, so I stayed in bed while the twins and Gee connected the camper and Daddy went to pay the campsite fee so we could use the facilities.
When I finally went outside into the raw morning air, I noticed how easy it should have been to hook up the electrical, water and gas. The camper's electrical cord got plugged into an outlet that was on the outside of the camper on the driver's side, while the other end was put in an outlet that was attached to a two-by-four that was sticking out of the ground beside where we parked. Next to that was the gas line that ran up out of the ground and replaced the small propane tank's line. The water line looked like an ordinary garden hose; something so simple yet so complicated to hook up in the dark.
As I made my way to the building that housed the showers, I came across Matthew, who was on his way back. He stopped me with a respectable imitation of Bette Davis's, "What a dump!"
"What do you mean?"
"They ran out of hot water. It's freezing cold."
"Shit," I said, trying to decide if I would take a shower.
"Of all the places to stay," said Matthew. "Well, it could be worse. I suppose we'll just have to get up real early and beat the crowd." He looked around the camping area with puckered lips and a disgusted expression on his face. "Listen," he continued, locking his eyes on mine, "the showers are all out in the open. There's absolutely no privacy. You're out there for the whole world to see. If you know what I mean." He could tell I didn't know what he meant, so, leaning in my direction, he whispered, "If you don't touch yourself you won't get hard."
"You know. Don't wash your dick, and for God's sake don't wash under your foreskin whatever you do. Just wash around that area, and you won't get a hard-on. That's what I mean. You can be so dense sometimes." He shook his head. As he moved off toward the camper, he turned back and said, "You're lucky. Nobody's in there. They've all showered and left."
How did Matthew know getting a hard-on in front of other boys while showering was something I was scared would happen? Was this something Matthew was nervous about too? And if he was, did that mean I really was like him? Did Mark and Daddy worry about getting hard in front of other men? Did all men worry about this, or only boys like Matthew -- and if I got hard, would they think I was like Matthew? Shit, I didn't want to be like him, and I didn't want anyone to think that I was like him, even though I knew I was.
The showers were in a big wooden building that looked like an old barn. There were a few pieces of boards missing and it had a warped tin roof. A simple paint job would have made it more inviting. There was a separate opening in front with signs indicating the men's showers were to the left and the women's were to the right. There wasn't any kind of door to speak of; I went left and walked into a large open area.
Along the far wall straight ahead were pipes running down from the ceiling with dangling
showerheads at the end of each tube. On the wall to the left were hooks for clothes. Below the hooks a bench ran the entire length of the wall. To the right were more pipes leading to a row of sinks with one long funhouse-like metal mirror above them. Two urinals were along the wall opposite the showers, along with two open stalls, each with a wooden box with a hole on top. I figured these were the toilets because that's where the toilet paper was stuck onto a peg. It was odd that the toilet stalls were open so everyone who walked by could see you sitting there taking a crap -- or, even worse, wiping your ass. There wasn't any way to flush, either. Matthew was right: This was a dump.
Considering the hook situation, I could see the twins coming in and stealing my clothes while I showered. At least I had a towel I could wrap around myself so I wouldn't be butt naked when I ran after them. The last time they'd stolen my clothes I was 7, and I'd run after them screaming, "Fuck! Sperm!" That stopped them in their tracks. My being naked and running after them hadn't fazed them.
As I got undressed, I saw my reflection in the mirror across the room. I looked like a plucked chicken. The bathroom should have been heated since naked people would be in there, but it wasn't. So not only was I covered in goosebumps, but my nuts had crept up as close as they could to my body, which caused my dick to stick out in front of me like I had a hard-on. It may have been a very little hard-on, but it was a hard-on nonetheless. I hated it when that happened. Luckily, so far I was alone.
I moved under the closest showerhead then, thinking better of where I was standing, stepped aside before turning on the water. Every few seconds I'd put my hand in, but all it was doing was spitting freezing ice cubes. I could either wait until someone came in or take the plunge. I didn't want anyone to see me with my dick and balls in their present state, so I went for it. Holy shit! It was freezing. It actually felt like my skin was burning. I no longer worried about getting a hard-on. In fact, I forgot all about my dick, which had shrunk even more. It was all I could do to wash myself.
When I got back to the camper (wearing cutoff jeans and a clean green-and-white striped Gant shirt), Matthew told me he had gone to the office and spoken with the manager, who'd told him that it was our fault there was no hot water: We hadn't gotten up early enough. But Matthew told me that was simply a stupid way of denying that the campsite hadn't properly planned.
As it was, the twins had to shave with cold water using a tiny mirror hung on the side of the camper. Matthew had cut himself so much that the white towel he used had red spots popping out all over it. The twins looked like they had sliced through chickenpox. Daddy walked up and said, "Well looky here. Ya'll tried to shave. Had a hard time, didn't ya'll?"
"Let's see you try to shave with cold water," Matthew replied.
Looking over at Matthew with slanted eyes that, had they been fists, would have added to the blood on his face, Mark told Daddy, "We're just not used to shaving with cold water's all."
Daddy used an old-fashioned wooden-handled brush and a ceramic bowl containing a white, hard shaving base. After adding a little cold water, he swirled the brush around inside the bowl to create lather. Then he used the brush to paint it onto his face. The twins had used shaving cream out of a can. After lathering up, Daddy wiped the area between his lips with the back of the brush handle. "Now look and learn," he said. "This is how a real man shaves."
Mark showed genuine interest in learning from Daddy, but Matthew was clearly insulted by Daddy's reference to being a "real man." Matthew was an open book; when something pissed him off, you knew it.
"It's all in the wrist," said Daddy, smiling through the mirror at me. "You pull the blade down," he took a swipe, "the way the hair grows on your face." Mark nodded while Matthew leaned on one leg, crossed his arms and looked around as if he weren't interested or even listening, but merely waiting to get back to the tiny mirror so he could dab at the blood on his face.
Starting to shave, Daddy said to the twins, "Ya'll're pulling the blade into the follicle. That's why ya'll're cutting yourselves. It pulls the hairs up," he took a clean swipe, "which pulls the skin up," another swipe, "the blade snags," another swipe, "and cuts the skin," a final clean swipe.
Mark felt the stubble on his face. I only felt smooth skin and wondered if I would remember what Daddy had taught us by the time I could grow a beard. Perhaps, if I went every other day without playing with myself, then there might be enough of whatever was needed to make my facial hair grow. But I needed that release at least once a day, so I knew I wouldn't be shaving for a long time. But the way things were going on this trip, who knew? Maybe I'd need to start shaving before it was over.
Daddy splashed some cold water on his face to rinse off what lather remained, then toweled dry. At that moment he looked a little like the actor Paul Newman, but with hazel eyes. Matthew moved back to get in front of the mirror. Daddy turned in my direction, smiled, winked and said, "Wait until you're a man. Then you can shave."
That wink told me that Daddy's ribbing the twins was so he could demonstrate the art. There was no sign that he had been drinking yet, so his actions weren't driven by drink. I knew Granddaddy Stack had had a difficult time showing his feelings to Daddy, and that was probably why Daddy had a hard time showing any tenderness towards the twins. But then he showed a different side of himself to me -- one that was caring, concerned, thoughtful, and, yes, loving.
When it was finally time to leave for Expo '67, we realized that we needed to drive the truck with the camper attached because five people wouldn't fit in the cab of the truck. That meant that everything we had done to set up the camper had to be undone. Planning didn't come naturally to any of us. Daddy's planning was haphazard, and we were all kids -- Daddy the biggest of all. Even Gee, who thought she was an adult now that she was in college, was still a kid.
Daddy drove with Gee in front. Matthew, Mark and I were lying on the bed over the truck cab. It wasn't big enough for all three of us, but this was one time neither of them seemed to mind.
Arriving at the Fair, we discovered we couldn't drive up to the entrance and have Daddy drop us off like a Southern gentleman would have done back home. We had to park the camper far away in an enormous parking lot which wasn't like any I'd ever seen. Instead of pavement, it had gravel for roads, grass areas for parking. Sort of like a drive-in movie parking area, but without the speaker poles. Other than all the vehicles, the only thing that let you know it was a parking lot were the signs directing you to it. It was like being in the country going to a family reunion or picnic. Of course, you'd have had to have a huge family to fill all those parking spaces. I figured two Spartanburg County fairgrounds could have fit into this one parking area.
As soon as we jumped out of the camper, the twins and I started walking off. Gee herded us back in. "Don't ya'll go anywhere yet. Okay? We need to make sure we all remember where we're parked in case anyone gets lost."
Lost? What did she mean, lost? I was going to be sticking to someone in this family like cotton candy on a swizzle cone. Hell, if I got lost I'd freak out. The twins were Eagle Scouts so they probably could find their way back. I wasn't sure how I'd get back. Besides, I knew that in Hansel and Gretel the birds ate the bread crumbs.
As we all stood there, including Daddy, Gee said, "Now ya'll listen up. Every day when we get here we need to make sure that we know where we've parked so if we get separated we can meet up at the end of the day."
"Okay," Mark said with as little enthusiasm as possible. "We've looked around. Let's go."
"Ya'll, we don't want to have to worry if we get separated and come back and no one's here," Gee insisted. "I just want to make sure we have a plan. Okay?"
Grabbing Mark by the arm, raising his eyebrows and heading out, Matthew said, "Okay. We got it."
The twins were always so competitive with Gee. She was 13 months older but three grades ahead, since she had started school a year early and the twins had repeated the second grade. On the other hand, the twins felt that since she was a girl she had no business telling them what to do. Momma did that well enough. My survival instincts told me to stick with Gee and go with the flow.
After a few steps, Gee leaned over and said to me loud enough so everyone could hear, "The parking lot is color coded, and number coded, so it should be easy to remember where we parked. Don't forget to check it out each day when we get here. I know you can remember one number and one color." I knew the twins had heard because they both looked up to see the color and number of the parking area. We could only pray that Daddy had heard and taken notice.
We also had to make sure Daddy didn't get drunk and belligerent and abusive because then the fun would end. So we had to decide who would be in charge of him. Would we take turns? Was I old enough to have such a delicate responsibility thrust upon me? At the tender age of 15 should I have had to be my daddy's keeper? No! As far as I was concerned, the task of taking care of Daddy was the responsibility of Matthew and Mark -- and primarily Mark, since he idolized Daddy. Sure, we all loved Daddy, but Mark was way over the top no matter what Daddy said or did to him.
Gee nudged me to walk faster so we could catch up with the twins. Once beside them she said, "All right, ya'll listen up. We need to divide and conquer." The twins looked at her like she had grown a hundred snakeheads like Medusa. They had no idea what she was talking about. "Don't tell me ya'll hadn't already thought about who was going to keep an eye on Daddy?"
"No one has to do that," Mark said.
"Well, if ya'll want to let Daddy drink himself crazy, and then try to find his way back to the camper, so be it," Gee said. "But I for one don't think that's a good idea, and neither does James." She squeezed my elbow. I nodded in agreement.
"Okay, then. You look after him," Matthew said.
Gee sighed and slowed her pace. Whispering, she confided in me, "I think Mark should stick with Daddy. Matthew could stay with Daddy during the mornings when Daddy won't be drunk."
It made sense. Mark and Matthew could share. As long as one twin felt sorry for the other he would stick by his side like a birddog pointing at quail. But as soon as either one felt sorry for himself, he would take off like birddog fetching buckshot quail. I sure didn't want to be one of those poor little quail fluttering down into the mouth of some birddog.
At least we all agreed that the first thing we wanted to do at Expo '67 was to see the United States exhibition. After that we pretty much had no idea what we would do. All except Daddy, who would want to wet his whistle -- and maybe his dick, if he got lucky. I knew that because there was the time at Lake Bowen when Daddy had been in the water playing with his girlfriend. She ran out and he followed with this huge hard-on sticking out of his bathing suit. It had shocked the shit out of me. Daddies don't have sex, much less erections. But nothing, not even being drunk, seemed to slow my daddy down in the sex department. There was the time we were at Lake Lure when Daddy had gotten really drunk and after he and I went to bed, his girlfriend had come to the door of our bedroom and signaled with her finger for him to come into her bedroom -- which he did. Oh, and the time at Myrtle Beach when I got up early so I could look for seashells. I had to go by the living room, where Daddy was having sex with his girlfriend on the pull-out sofa -- and that was after he had tied one on the night before.
But we still needed to find the entrance to the Fair and get maps. So we did what everyone else was doing: We followed the people in front of us. The official -- and as far as I knew, the only -- entrance to Expo '67 looked like a bunch of enormous munchkin or witches' hats, but white and with the pointed ends sticking straight up, placed side-by-side and held up with metal.
The entrance was called "Place du Accueil," which I thought meant "the Place of Acceptance." You know: A-C-C-U-E-I-L and A-C-C-E-P-T-A-N-C-E. They both started with "A-C-C," so it made sense to me. I had taken French in elementary school and junior high, but it was Southern schools and the French they taught was basic, so all I could do was guess. Little did we know we could have taken a bus because the entrance was over a bus station, and below that was an information booth, and (for Daddy) a liquor store. There was also a day hotel which you could rent by the hour. The twins and Daddy laughed, thinking it might be like motels in the South -- the ones where couples go to have a few minutes of fun.
When we finally got to the reception area, we had to wait in line. The prices to get in were expensive. It was a whole $2.50 a day for each of us, but Daddy always had money. Every time I'd ask him he'd give it to me. I had an allowance, which was money I got for being born. So I had a little money in my wallet. But I didn't need to worry about it since I could bum cigarettes from the twins or Gee. Come to think of it, I didn't have anything to worry about, except getting lost or Daddy getting drunk.
So off we headed to find the United States in Canada. The map told us we were in the Cite du Havre and needed to get to the far side of the Isle Saint Helene. I followed as best I could what with all the distractions -- sights, sounds and people. So many more than at the Spartanburg County Fair. Who would have thought we would be with so many people -- and at a World's Fair?
Suddenly we came to a stop in front of railroad tracks. It wasn't long before a sleek, three-eyed-caterpillar of a vehicle came rapidly into view and stopped in front of us. The doors opened without being touched, and everyone, all at once, moved to get through them. It was called the "Expo Express" and was like no train I had ever seen.
Mark was so excited I thought his arms would twitch off. Whispering in my ear, he said, "There's no one driving this train. It's fully automatic. Sort a like it has a brain."
"What keeps it from wrecking?" I asked, starting to worry that we were on the train to hell.
"It just knows where to go, when to stop, when to open the doors, and when to close them," he said. Scanning the inside of the train, he continued. "This is the future and you're in it. Think about it: Soon these trains'll be going around on invisible tracks in the air." Mark gazed out the window. "Just look at this place. It's even better than the New York's World Fair. They call it Space-Age architecture. That's because it's like being in outer space. You know: a wide-open feeling, nothing holding you back or keeping you in."
"Wow, look at that building," said Mark. "Who has a map? God, I need my own map. Can I borrow the map, please?" he asked Gee, who was also taking in the view.
Handing Mark the map, Gee whispered, "Sure." She was fascinated by the scene.
Matthew turned to me and said, "This is called an elevated train. New York has elevated subways just like this."
That made no sense because I knew the subways were underground and not above-ground.
"Well, not exactly," Mark said. "I think these are called monorails because they run on one track."
Pointing out the window, Matthew said, "Well, there're two tracks so this isn't that kind of train. It's like the ones in New York."
An argument was brewing and I was in the middle of it, so to diffuse the situation I said, "Either way it's really neat." That -- or the Expo -- did the trick.
We could see the building which housed the United States exhibition in the distance. You couldn't miss the floating bubble. At least, that's what it looked like to me: like someone had farted and it was rising up out of the river and about to burst. Matthew thought it looked like a man's ball -- you know, a nut. A testicle. Mark said it was one of Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes.
"This is so much better than the '64 World's Fair," Mark said. "Look at that! The United States dome is putting off... it's reflecting colors." He was saying this in a whisper, as if it were a secret. Taking his eyes off the scene outside the train window and looking right at me, he said, "Remember this, 'cause you may never see anything like it again." He went back to looking at the scene passing by. He was mesmerized.
I looked over at Matthew and saw that he was nervous, picking at his bottom lip and then his fingers. Then I looked over at Gee, and she was smiling. She was happy to be here finally. And Daddy was also smiling. Seeing the two of them smiling made me smile. I felt my shoulders drop slightly and I took a deep breath. I was in for the time of my life. In more ways than one.
COMING UP IN CHAPTER 9: Floating in outer space... Elvis's guitar... we have liftoff!
For more on becoming fearless, click here.
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