"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 9: Everything Was Floating
The United States pavilion was so tall that it could be seen from almost anywhere at the Fair. It wasn't actually a ball because it wasn't completely round but about three-quarters round, which made it an oversized dome. There was an intricate piecing together of the aluminum, and the acrylic windows (used instead of glass) gave off the twinkling of rainbow colors that Mark had seen from the train while we crossed the river.
After we got off the Expo Express we had to get to the other side of a lake called Swan Lake, and then walk to what seemed like the other end of the island but was only the end of the exhibition area. As we made our way there, it felt like we were in Wonderland, but without Alice or the Queen of Hearts. Everything was so different from anything I'd seen. The buildings were called "pavilions." There were specific ones like "Man the Explorer," special-interest ones like the International Scout Center, and pavilions from the different American states and from foreign places like Scandinavia and Korea. One was elevated while another was dumpy; one was plump while the next was skinny. Each one was unique.
When we passed the Korean pavilion, Daddy said some choice words under his breath: "Goddamn sons a bitches." We had recently fought a war with Korea, and as a Veteran of Foreign Wars, Daddy was not partial to what he called "Orientals." He looked over at me, nodded, and winked as if he and I were a party to some shared secret.
"Daddy, please," Matthew said. "Someone might hear you." He was always the one who reacted to Daddy's cutting up.
"Just like Bunnie," Daddy said, to no one in particular. Then he turned to me, smiling, and said, "Well, we showed them, didn't we?"
Before I could say anything, Gee interjected. "Let's just try and ignore the things we find unpleasant," she said. She put her hand through Daddy's arm at his elbow, directing him closer to the United States pavilion.
The Bubble, as I called it, was in a small park that was full of flagpoles clustered in a rectangle with the American flag at each end. I wasn't sure if the flags were of all 50 states or if they were the flags of other countries. I didn't know what any state's flag looked like except South Carolina's, so I looked for it as we walked through. But I didn't see it.
No one else could take their eyes off the Bubble. To me, it was rather intimidating. The closer we got to it, the more uneasy I felt about going inside -- and you could see the inside the closer we got. It looked like things were floating, like in outer space. Well, I had always wanted to float like that, but now that it looked like I was going to be faced with the real possibility, I was nervous about it.
Also, the closer we got, the larger the Bubble got. The tallest building I'd ever seen was the Cleveland building in downtown Spartanburg. It was six stories tall. The Bubble was much taller.
And what if it started to roll away? It looked like it could roll into the water if a strong enough wind came along. Now that we were finally there, my mind was working overtime. I needed something to hold on to, so I went and stood as close to Daddy as I could. If the Bubble started to move, I would grab hold of him.
Since it didn't start moving, we got in line and slowly made our way inside. There is only one word to describe how I felt: stupefied. I was all the things that word implies -- amazed, bemused, bewildered, confused, dazed, disoriented, flabbergasted, impressed, overwhelmed, perplexed, stunned... you name it. I was S-T-U-P-E-F-I-E-D. Mark had been right: I was living and breathing the future.
Inside were six levels that didn't even reach the middle of the Bubble. These levels were connected by extra-long escalators that appeared to hang in space. The things on display were dedicated to American creativity. At the top were floating spacecraft, some with their parachutes open. Below them were floating picture panels. Even though everything appeared to be floating, it was actually suspended by wires. Kind of like how Peter Pan, Wendy, Michael and John could fly on Broadway. And there was a small train on a track -- called a "minirail" -- that sliced through the Bubble's sky.
As I adjusted to the vast interior, I realized that there were masses of people inside the pavilion -- more people than I had ever seen in one place. I wasn't sure I liked it. Every square inch of the escalators was covered by people suspended over air. What if they fell?
Okay, so I was uncomfortable inside the Bubble, what with its different levels, and everything kind of floating without any support, and my having to always be looking up to see things like our spacecraft and artwork on panels which were just hanging there, lifeless. That's what it was: lifeless. Yet it was teeming with life. Strange.
I didn't understand most of it. I mean, sure, it was a knockout. But I needed to take it slow. Occasionally I found a place to stand without tons of people around me, so I could remember to breathe. I then discovered that there was a rhythm within the movement of the people as they went through the Bubble. Since I was usually in the midst of people moving and had to move along with them, it was like I was one of thousands of caterpillar legs, moving ever so smoothly, in unison with the other legs.
I so wanted to take it all in and remember it, like Mark had said. Especially the Indian things, like the chief's headdresses made of feathers and bear claws. Grandmamma Stack had shown me a picture of an Indian squaw when I was around five or six. She told me that the Indian squaw in the picture was her mother, so that would mean my great-grandmother was American Indian. Cherokee, I believe Grandmamma had said. I was part Indian and proud of it. Whenever my friends and I played cowboys and Indians, I always played an Indian. I was pretty good with my homemade bow and arrows.
Most of the things in the United States pavilion were like the things we had in our attic: old junky stuff we didn't have any use for anymore. There was this whole section of nothing but Raggedy Ann dolls. I mean, who gave a crap about Raggedy Ann? I could understand, maybe, if it had been Barbie and Ken. After all, I used to play with Lizbet Randell's Barbie and Ken dolls. She and I would dress them up and play house and stuff. Nothing sexual. Ken didn't have a dick, so there was nothing for him to play with but his limited wardrobe and Barbie. We had them act like they were going out on dates and getting engaged and then married and then setting up house.
Anyway, there were also all these hats in the pavilion. No one in America even wore them anymore, so why were they there? I couldn't remember when Daddy had last worn a hat. Even Presidents Kennedy and Johnson hadn't worn one.
There was a bunch of stuff about old Presidents and the past -- crazy things like that. And Elvis Presley's guitar was there, too. That was awesome, but we couldn't touch it. What good was it to simply look at it? I wanted to play it. If Elvis had played it, why couldn't I? It made no sense. I don't think anyone but Mark liked every single thing about the United States pavilion, and he only liked it because it was a geodesic dome. Anything could have been inside as far, as he was concerned.
Other than the Indian stuff and Elvis's guitar, I liked all the outer-space things. I liked the spacecraft and satellites hanging from the top of the dome on Peter Pan wires, as if they truly were flying in space. The actual Apollo, Gemini, and Mercury capsules were right there in front of us, with their parachutes fully opened above them. Wow! The actual Surveyor spacecraft that had landed on the moon wasn't there, though -- only a model of it. But there were pictures taken from space showing Earth and its horizon, and movies of actual takeoffs from Cape Kennedy: "Ten... nine... eight... seven... six... five... four... three... two... one... we have ignition... we have liftoff!" There were real spacesuits and some of the food used by the astronauts. Oh, and there were recordings of conversations between the astronauts while they were riding around in outer space and talking with Earth. Well, not the planet, but those men who sat in front of the black telephones in the room with that great big map. Now that was cool.
Star Trek and Lost in Space were my favorite TV shows. I never missed an episode, so this was extra special for me. But it did bring home the fact that we had a long way to go to really get to space like the Robinson family or Captain Kirk on the Starship Enterprise. Our spaceships were small "spacecraft." Who would want to go off into space to travel around for a long time in a tiny tin can? "Space, the final frontier" was a long way off.
I didn't know who Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were, but they and other so-called "modern artists" were represented on these huge panels hanging from the top of the Bubble. The images dominated the whole place, but at least they were colorful. I wondered if that actor Daddy had told me about, Robert Redford, had any paintings here. That was about as much thought as I gave to those panels.
And then, completely by accident, we stumbled upon the most important, by far the most critical, reason for coming to Expo '67. And to think that we almost left without seeing it! It would have killed me to find out after the fact. Yes, it dramatically changed my opinion of the United States pavilion. Now I was in love with it. So what if it was a fart bubble!
Here's the deal: We were told about a show on the lowest level -- a film about how children become adults based on how they play together -- and we thought we might as well check it out before leaving. But I never did see that show, because when we got to the next level down, I found myself surrounded by all these giant pictures of my heroes: Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando and so many more, like Mary Pickford from the silent-screen era. I felt like I'd died and gone to heaven. There was also a picture of my favorite leading lady, Elizabeth Taylor, who one day I hoped to appear on Broadway with. I got to watch short segments from famous films, which were amazing. The pictures were so enormous, and the film pieces so terrific. These were the people I wanted to be someday. Yes, someday when they did this kind of World's Fair again, my picture would be there, surrounded by those of my peers. My picture would be worshipped by my adoring fans. Until then, I would simply have to mingle with the masses and hide in my anonymity.
I could have stayed in this one place the entire time we were at Expo '67. After all, I'd gone to see the movie Li'l Abner when I was only eight years old and stayed the entire day. I'd gone to the first show in the morning and must have seen it four or five more times. Daddy showed up sometime after it was dark outside to take me home. Nothing like being missed. At least that time I hadn't noticed that no one had come back for me until late in the day, unlike the time I was completely forgotten and had to walk all the way home from the Spartanburg Little Theatre. I suppose that since I wasn't home for dinner, someone had thought to ask where I might be. I'd probably still be in that theater today watching a movie if Daddy hadn't shown up.
I used to perform some of the songs from Li'l Abner for anyone and everyone. Like the day Daddy and our dentist, Dr. Caviola, along with Dr. Caviola's three boys, were all over before we went hunting or fishing or did some other "good ol' boy" activity, and I sang them the "Put 'Em Back" song. You know: the one the girls all sang about putting their boyfriends back to the normal kind of boys they used to be instead of the musclebound hunks they had been transformed into. I'd go through all the gyrations the actresses had gone through when they sang the song in the movie. I'd bow down and prostrate myself before the imaginary scientists. It was a hoot. Daddy seemed really proud of me, even though I was acting a girl part. What difference did it make? When you're talented, you're talented. And I was talented.
While we were in the United States pavilion, I would look over at Daddy and see him grinning and looking at me. It was his silly grin -- at least, I always thought it made him look silly. Kind of like the one he had on his face when I would perform the "Put 'Em Back" song. I knew he hadn't had anything to drink, so I suppose he was trying to see all the things in the pavilion through my eyes. He was getting pleasure from watching me enjoy things. I loved my daddy, and he loved me. Oh, if he'd only loved me a little more....
COMING UP IN CHAPTER 10: Heaven is a terraced beer garden... Matthew meets Canadian cigarettes... what a puppet theater and beer have in common.
For more on becoming fearless, click here.