"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 strong language; may not be suitable for all audiences.
CHAPTER 11: Happiness Is a State of Mind
Daddy came back from the bathroom grinning like the lone bull in the cow pen, which meant that he had his mind on one of the females he'd seen in the restaurant. That grin and his glassy eyes made him look like a cartoon character -- a lovable, goofy kind of guy. I couldn't help but grin myself. He was walking without any problems; he wasn't weaving or leaning. After so many years of heavy drinking it took a hell of a lot more alcohol than five beers to put him in a visibly drunken state.
As soon as Daddy had taken his seat, Gee rose and announced, "Daddy, James and I are going to check out some pavilions. Matthew and Mark are going to stay here with you. We'll see ya'll back at the camper."
The look on Mark's face was one of anger tinged with hate and colored with fear. "What time do you want us to meet you back in the parking lot?" he asked Gee, eyes piercing her like a dagger.
"Where're ya'll going?" asked Matthew, implying that he might want to join us.
"Let's all meet just before it gets dark," said Gee firmly.
Walking out of the Canadian Brewer's Pavilion, neither of us said a word; we were absorbed in our own thoughts about how to make the best of a bad situation. It took us a while to refocus because the look on Mark's face had unsettled both of us. Seeing the pavilions no longer seemed as important to either of us as simply getting away. Still, we knew we'd have to come back together with a drunken Daddy later that night. Back home, we could've escaped the insanity we knew was coming.
I broke the silence by asking for a cigarette. If anything would take the edge off, it was a smoke. As I lit up I remembered what Gee had once told me when I was in the seventh grade, after I had told her I didn't want to go to Sally Mann's party.
"Why don't you want to go?" Gee had asked.
"'Cause I won't have any fun."
"You know something? If you think you won't have any fun, then you probably won't. You'll probably just be miserable. And that certainly isn't any fun."
"That's for sure."
"But, you know, if you tell yourself that you're going to have a good time, then you will."
Well, I was an actor, wasn't I? I could pretend that it was going to be fun. And wouldn't you know, when I did that I ended up having a good time! Gee was smart about things like that.
After aimlessly traveling a little ways, we decided to look at the map. We'd passed the Republic of China Pavilion and the Iran Pavilion. Gee mentioned that Iran was where Persian rugs came from. I wasn't sure what the difference was between wall-to-wall carpet and a rug. Since we had yet to convince ourselves we might have fun, we kept on walking.
We then passed the Telephone Pavilion, which had a long line outside. "Excuse me, ma'am," Gee asked a friendly looking woman standing in line. "Could you tell me what ya'll're waiting for?"
"I loves a southern accent. Where yous guys from?" came the Yankee reply.
Gee replied, "Why, ma'am, we're from South Carolina."
"We jus' loves Florida, don't we Fred? Yo! Fred?" The woman looked around for "Fred," and, seeing him ahead in the line, waved. "Oh, look at him. He jus' gone and made new friends. Well, there's a movie by Walt Disney, yous guys know who Walt Disney is? Well, shure you do. Well, everyone's been raving about it. It's a 'must see' if yous guys know what I mean."
I loved her accent and wanted to hear her say more, so I could practice speaking like her. You never knew when I might be called upon to play the part of someone from the north. I was torn between staying and hearing more or walking away from her and practicing speaking like her. (Momma had told me it was rude to mimic people in front of them.)
"Do you know the name of the movie, or what it's about?" Gee asked the woman.
"Fred. Yo! Fred!" the woman called out again. "What's the picture called, yous know?"
Fred kept talking to the man beside him, waving his hand to indicate that she should leave him alone. Turning back to Gee, she said, "Fred's my husband. He don't know jack. But I can tell yous that we've been in this line for over two hours, and we've got a ways still to go."
"Thanks a lot, ma'am," Gee said. She took me by the arm and we walked off.
A gentleman standing a few people away had overheard and offered, "Excuse me, miss, but the movie's called 'Canada '67,' and it's about, well, Canada. Everyone says it's worth the wait."
"Thank you, sir," Gee said to him. "Thank you very much." Then she called back to the woman, "Thank you, ma'am."
After we had gone a couple of steps, Gee leaned close and whispered, "I hate it when people know we're from the south. I didn't think we had accents. At least, not that people noticed."
Our momma had grown up in Ohio, so she didn't have a deep southern accent. And she certainly didn't want us to sound like all the "ignorant people" she met when she moved south with Daddy. But we still had southern accents -- and even Momma had a little one. Now, Matthew and Mark had been born in Charleston. While the family lived there, Momma had a Gullah woman from the islands take care of them, and that woman taught the twins to speak Geechee, a mixed African and English language that Momma couldn't understand. When Momma heard the twins talking Geechee, she fired the Gullah woman on the spot. Even though the twins cried their baby hearts out, Momma said there was no way her children were going to "speak some colored language." She was an even bigger bigot than Daddy. So Momma was proud of me for taking speech as part of my acting classes.
"If the movie's that good, we should try to get here first thing in the morning so we don't have to wait in line," said Gee, bringing me back to the present. Our not having seen something that was supposed to be so good could help mend how everyone was feeling.
We passed the Air Canada and Maine Pavilions and found ourselves standing in front of the International Scout Pavilion the twins had been so excited about. Looking at each other, we both shrugged, raised our eyebrows, and burst out laughing. What else are you going to do? Without even saying anything to each other we proceeded to walk through it. We saw what Mark had been telling us and understood why he had been so excited: All the Scouts looked like they were having fun. It was exactly where Mark should have been and what he should have been doing.
I hadn't been much of a Scout, where the ranks are Tenderfoot, Second Class, First Class, Star, Life and then Eagle. Sure, I'd gone to Scout Camp with the twins, where they'd earned tons of merit badges. While there, I'd earned two merit badges to become Second Class. I hadn't advanced further so I was perpetually stuck in the "white trash" level of the Scouts' ranking system.
Leaving the Scout Pavilion, Gee and I found ourselves rambling, still trying to convince ourselves that we were having fun. When we came upon the New York State Pavilion, I, as an aspiring actor, suggested we go inside. It did have an inviting and fun entry: a carousel. Gee had always liked riding the rides at the fair. Maybe not the carousels, but seeing one gave both of us a laugh, which is what we needed. The building was composed of six circular towers that were under a common roof halfway up. These six towers were exhibition areas that told about vacation spots and businesses in New York. The pavilion was an invitation to the Canadians to come visit New York State, which would be easy for the Canadians to do. After we'd been around the inside, I said to Gee, "I thought there would be stuff about Broadway, but I don't see any, did you?"
"No," she replied. "I'm sorry there wasn't more." Taking my arm, she added, "But it's fun being with you. I can't think of anyone else I'd rather be here with."
After we left, we went directly to the Republic of Korea Pavilion, which was small in comparison. Gee and I were told by the nice Korean woman who met us at the entrance and spoke English that the pavilion was made entirely of wood and used traditional Korean architecture with some modern architectural elements. She also told us the Korean flag was for South Korea. It reminded me of the Expo '67 symbol, what with its eight cigarette-stick figures, but there were only four stick figures on the Korean flag. Inside the pavilion, a model of a boat that was supposed to be special and a statue of Buddha -- one of the gods worshipped in Korea, who was born around 500 years before Jesus -- were displayed. That was pretty much it.
Once outside again, I bummed a cigarette. Inhaling deeply, I blew a few smoke rings. "Gee," I said, "you know, it isn't much fun seeing these pavilions. I mean, sure they're neat and all, but it would be nicer if we were all here. You know: Daddy, Matthew and Mark."
"You're right," she said. "It was much more fun this morning when we were all together."
"We won't want to go to these pavilions again, but they might," I observed. "Then what do we do?"
"Everything's going to be all right. Don't worry."
Gee's argument with the twins had put a damper on things. We really wanted them with us, but we knew that unless Daddy wanted to see the pavilions -- which he would only do during the morning hours -- we would not be seeing the World's Fair as a family after lunch. We both loved the twins and knew that they, in their own way, loved us. We also felt sorry for the twins. Well, maybe sorry was not exactly how we felt, but it was kind of like that. It would have been terrific if they'd treated us better. But whenever they were mad at one of our parents they ended up taking it out on us. And they were mad at our parents way too often. The reality was, we were all unhappy.
When we were younger, it had seemed as if Daddy loved the twins. But something had changed -- maybe because they favored Momma's side of the family. Or perhaps it was because both had left home to live with Daddy. Mark went first... and then moved back home to Momma again. Then Matthew had gone to live with Daddy... but he returned home to Momma, too. Maybe Daddy was angry with them for leaving him. But then why wasn't he angry with Gee and me for never going to live with him at all? Maybe something happened while the twins were living with Daddy that only they knew about.
Ever since our parents separated, our family had incinerated. I remember being happy before the breakup. And then came that fateful day when Momma packed Daddy's bags and left them on the front porch before a locked door. We never locked our doors. When he couldn't get in, he simply picked up his bags and left. From that moment on, everything began to unwind.
After that, I discovered the secret of acting. It made me feel better because I could act out the way I was feeling without anyone knowing I might really be feeling that way. If the character was sad, I could cry; if the character was mad, I could scream. Or I could be things that I wasn't. Like, I could laugh as if life was funny, or act happy as if life was good. On stage, I could be all the things I'd become afraid to be, because I had become a shadow of myself.
The families in Spartanburg certainly hadn't helped. They had treated us like we were a disease. For the life of me, I couldn't figure out what my parents having split had to do with anyone else's marriage. The worst part was when adults said something nasty and mean directly to our faces. That forced all of us to the fringe. Gee and Bunnie Ann seemed to have survived better than we boys. (Little did I know none of us had truly survived.)
Gee and I returned to the Canadian Brewers' Pavilion, but Daddy and the twins weren't there. So we headed to the parking lot. As we approached the camper, we could see Matthew pacing outside. He was talking to himself and picking at his lower lip. When he saw us coming, he called out, "Thank God ya'll're back!"
Gee picked up her pace. "Is everything all right? Is Daddy here?" she asked.
"Yeah. He's inside," Mark said, coming from behind the camper. "But it was hell getting him to stop drinking."
Matthew rolled his eyes and looked at Mark. "It wouldn't have been so bad if you had kept your cool."
"Goddamn it!" yelled Mark. "Fuck off! I'm tired of listening to you!"
Matthew snapped back, "Tired of listening to me? What have I had to listen to all afternoon but you and Daddy talking 'bout pussy and...."
Interrupting this attack, Gee said, "Okay. Ya'll keep it down. We're all here now. That's all that matters."
"Stop, damn it," said Matthew. "Stop and listen to us for once, will you? We've had a bad day and it could get worse, considering how drunk Daddy is. He was pissing drunk at the bar and now he's in the camper looking for liquor."
"'Liquor on beer, you're in the clear,'" I chimed in.
"Oh, shut the fuck up," Mark said.
"Stop being so nasty," Gee said, coming to my rescue. "We don't need to pick on each other. We have enough problems with Daddy."
"No kidding," said Matthew. "You should've seen Daddy at the bar. Every single person who walked by received a comment. He said something to every girl, and I was scared some of the men were going to get into a fight."
"No one was going to fight Daddy," Mark broke in. "At least not with you and I on either side of him." At some point, somehow, they -- or the establishment -- had convinced Daddy to leave.
"Let's just get back to the campsite," Gee said, moving to get into the truck on the driver's side.
"What're we going to do with Daddy?" asked Matthew. He moved towards Gee to stop her from getting in the truck.
"We have to watch him," she said. "Very closely. We have to stay with him at all times. That's what I was trying to explain when we were back at the beer garden, but no one wanted to listen."
To no one in particular, Mark said, "He kept saying, 'Just one more beer. One for the road. One more won't hurt. That's all. Not too much to ask for.' I thought I was going to explode."
"Yeah," said Matthew. "He kept reminding us, 'I'm the one paying for the goddamn trip.' Well, I don't want to stay on this 'goddamn trip' if this is what it's going to be like."
"We can't just leave," said Gee. "So let's make the best of it. It's going to be fun if we don't let Daddy ruin it. Look at the place! It's great! We've got to get in the spirit of things, that's all."
"He was yelling out so the whole place could hear, 'Beer doesn't make me drunk. It just makes me void,'" Matthew went on. "And all that bullshit about being a man. If I hear him say 'cocksucker' one more...."
"Matthew, please stop," Gee begged. "I don't need to hear those words. I don't like them, and it's bad enough that Daddy uses them. Let's not do this to one another."
"Do what?" Matthew asked.
"Argue. Get mad. Fight. That's what," Gee explained.
When the dynamite went off -- whenever Daddy started using his "I'm a man" and "cocksucker" phrases -- we knew that he had maxed out as far as the alcohol was concerned. He had hit a plateau where nothing could be done with him. The best thing was to get away from him, but at Expo '67 we were stuck.
"And what's all this shit about our not driving?" Matthew continued. "What's that all about?"
"I had nothing to do with deciding ya'll couldn't drive," answered Gee. "That was Daddy. If ya'll drive it's just going to set him off. Is that really what ya'll want?" Neither Matthew nor Mark answered, so she went on. "Let's get back to the campsite and eat something. It's getting late. I'm tired. We're all tired. Okay?"
Matthew and Mark got in the camper and Gee and I climbed into the truck. On the way to the campsite, Daddy stuck his head through the passageway. "How would you like a beer?" he asked Gee. Then, before she could answer, he said, "Well, if you want one we'll have to stop 'cause there aren't any." Here he was, one minute being belligerent and the next being Mr. Nice Guy now that he needed someone to provide him with alcohol.
Gee kept driving. Without taking her eyes off the road, she said, "Daddy, I think you've had enough beer for one day. Besides, we need to get back to the campsite and eat."
Daddy's reply was a little less pleasant. "The hell with you," he said. "All a ya'll! Ya'll're just along for the ride." As Bette Davis might have noted, the ride was getting bumpier.
Back at the campsite, Gee started preparing salmon croquette, with me as her assistant. She was still in her sleeveless dress; it had large red and pink flowers against a kelly green-and-yellow background. Matthew got a camera and took pictures of us. We started kidding around, pretending we were going to throw food at him if he didn't stop. We three were laughing and having fun. Even in the worst of circumstances, we Stack children could still laugh.
Of course, while all this was happening, Daddy was roaming around, half-blind from drink, making a nuisance of himself, with Mark by his side. Mark later told us what had happened.
"Well, would ya'll look at this?" Daddy had begun, eyeing the camper next to ours. "Now isn't that the sharpest fucking camper you ever saw? Too bad you can't fuck it."
"Hey, let's get back to our camper," Mark had said. "Dinner must be ready by now."
"Get out of my sight, you cocksucker," said Daddy. Then he'd called out to the owner of the camper next to us. "Hey Bubba! Ya'll sure do have a big fucking camper. How much did ya'll pay for that thing?"
Embarrassed, Mark had told the man, "Excuse us. We're just passing."
"Excuse you, you son of a bitch," Daddy said to Mark. "Look at this fucker! It even has a door on the side. It makes mine look like a fucking shithole."
"I'm sure your camper is terrific," the man had said as he approached. Putting his hand on Daddy's shoulder, he'd tried to direct Daddy away from his wife and children so they wouldn't hear the foul language.
"Thank you, sir," Mark had said. "Your camper's very nice. Come on, Daddy." He'd taken Daddy's arm.
"Oh, Bubba. If you ain't got a nickel, you ain't got none." Daddy had said as he was led away.
So: Our first full evening at the campsite was spent trying to get nourishment into our tired bodies and keeping Daddy in check. We didn't have a TV, so we couldn't watch any shows. And the one deck of cards was always being hogged by someone playing solitaire.
After we ate, Daddy wandered off by himself, escaping our ever-diligent eyes, comments, and (to his mind) confinement. No one blamed Mark for not sticking to him like a tick on a hounddog. Later, we figured that either Daddy must have conned someone into taking him to a bar by offering to buy them drinks, or he found other drunks among the campers and they shared their liquor with him. Because when he finally came home to roost, he was beyond shitfaced. But at least he didn't try to wake us up. He just sank on the floor and passed out.
As bad as our first day at Expo '67 had been, I couldn't help but wonder if tomorrow would be worse.
COMING UP IN CHAPTER 12: Mission impossible... unanswered prayers... how to bathe with one hand.
Want to read "World's Fair" from the beginning? Click the following links....
Prologue, Part 1
Prologue, Part 2
For more on becoming fearless, click here.