FEARLESS MEMOIR: 'World's Fair' (Chapter 22)

We were rocking out as we pulled up to the United States border. And then I was suddenly afraid. Daddy wasn't with us, it was after midnight, and our leaving at this hour was, to my mind, a little suspicious.
10/06/2012 11:25 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2012

"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 mild sexual content and drug use; may not be suitable for all audiences.

CHAPTER 22: On a Carousel

A calm settled over us as we watched Daddy walk away, Gee outside the camper, Mark on the step, and Matthew standing with his arm around me in the doorway. And now....

"Where's he going to go?" Mark asked no one in particular.

"Quite frankly, I don't give a damn," was Gee's quiet reply. I don't even know if she realized that she had just bastardized Rhett Butler's famous line from Gone with the Wind. I made a mental note to tell her later. "All I know is, we need to get going," she said louder, taking charge.

Unconsciously waving the pistol in the directions we were to go, Gee said, "Mark, unhook the propane. Matthew, unscrew the water hose. James, unplug us from the electrical outlet. Ya'll, check around the camper and make sure we don't leave anything. I'll make sure everything's secure inside." Taking a deep breath, she added, "We're out of here."

"But where're we going?" Matthew asked.


We had barely broken the surface of what there was to see at Expo '67, but we no longer needed to have any space-age-designed pavilions, fancy multi-screen movies, or ethnic foods to make sure we remembered this trip to Montreal. We would never forget it.

While Gee went into the camper to get dressed -- and put the pistol back in the drawer -- I could hear the twins asking each other, "Where's Daddy going to go? How's he going to get home to South Carolina?"

Here they were, barely having escaped with their lives, and they were worried about the man who had tried to kill them. I now knew that the bullet holes in Daddy's house were from his having gone crazy -- like he had tonight -- back when Bunnie Ann, Matthew and Mark had lived with him.

As Gee drove us out of the campground, I could see Daddy in the harsh glare of an exposed light bulb hanging by a single black wire. He was sitting in the campground office on a cheap plastic sofa in front of a scratched coffee table covered with magazines. The manager was on the phone.

And then we were gone.

Gee pulled over to use the first pay phone we passed, so she could call Momma. During the call, I noticed her shoulders going up and down and heard the muffled sobs coming through the closed phone booth door. When she hung up, she pulled a mirror from her bag and looked at herself. She took a Kleenex out and used it on her face and then her nose. In the weak fluorescent light of the phone booth, Gee looked small and helpless. But she was Wonder Woman, taking the time to get back to being a regular girl right before my eyes.

When she left the phone booth, she went and bought us both a Coca-Cola. After handing the Cokes to me, she went into the camper and reappeared a short time later with a pill. "Here, take this," she said, holding it out. "It'll help keep you awake, so you can help keep me awake." When I looked at her without saying anything or swallowing the pill, she said, "It's a diet pill. Momma told me to give it to you. It won't hurt you."

I was sleepy, so I put the capsule in my mouth and swallowed it with some Coke. The gelatin from the capsule made the Coke fizz, and I had a great burp. I was a champion at swallowing air and then talking a complete sentence in one long burp. In the fifth grade I'd swallowed enough air to say to the teacher, "Mrs. Robertson, may I please be excused to go to the bathroom?" in burp speak.

"We're going to drive to Bunnie Ann's," Gee was saying. "She and Dan are in the middle of packing. Did you know they're moving to El Paso, Texas?" After I shook my head, she asked, "You okay?"

'Sure, I'm fine. Just... well, I don't think I can stay up all night. But I'll try."

"Don't worry. Light me a cigarette, sweetie, will you?" She always used one of those syrupy words when asking me to do something for her. "Get my pocketbook from the kitchen, sugar, will you?" "Run into the drugstore and get some Tampax for me, okay honey?" I found out later what Tampax were, and guessed that for girls, buying them was like boys buying condoms: embarrassing.

Right now, Gee had two new packs of filtered Benson & Hedges. "Mind if I have one?" I asked.

"No, go ahead."

I loved the smell of fresh tobacco. I got my Zippo out and lit two cigarettes at the same time like I had seen Paul Henreid do for Bette Davis in Now, Voyager. I took a double drag and handed one to Gee, exhaling through my nose.

I stared out the window as we rode along in silence. The night was crystal clear. There wasn't a moon at all, only zillions of stars. You could even see what looked like a creamy film forming the Milky Way. It was warm out and I would have loved to have my window down, but Gee said it would mess her hair. But at least I had my side vent open, for when I needed to flick my cigarette ashes.

For the next twenty minutes, we didn't say anything. Then Gee said, "See if you can find anything on the radio, okay?"

"Sure," I answered. I started playing with the radio dials. I'd thought I'd be tired, but I felt wide awake. I tried to think of which movie star or goddess Gee reminded me of, other than Wonder Woman. She was more like royalty, like those kings and queens in Europe. Well, not like the Greek royalty in those tragedies, like the one about the guy who ate his children. Or was it his wife who ate them? Either way, those people were totally bizarre -- and Gee wasn't. Maybe Gee was like Catherine the Great... but Bunnie Ann was the one who liked horses. Or there was that goddess in that song, "Venus," who wore blue jeans. But Gee didn't even own a pair of blue jeans.

"What are you doing?" she suddenly asked me. When I looked at her with wide-open eyes, she said, "You keep passing good stations. Are you listening to what's playing?" When I still didn't answer, Gee laughed and said, "Just find one and settle on it."

Continuing to turn the radio dial, I began wondering if what had happened to us would make us a closer-knit family. I started thinking about all the different episodes of Leave It To Beaver or Ozzie and Harriet I'd ever seen. I mentally ran through at least a dozen of each and realized that everyone on those shows was so close. Even when they fought, they didn't fight. I wondered if we would be like that now.

"Would you please tell me what you're doing?"

"I'm looking for a station."

"No you're not. You're not even listening to the songs. Are you okay?"

"Sure, I'm okay. I'll find one. Don't worry."

Gee laughed again and told me to stop at the next station. It was WABC Musicradio 77 on your AM dial, a top-40 station out of New York City. The DJ was Charlie Greer and he said we were in for a night of listening pleasure. But the first two songs he played were "Strangers in the Night" by Frank Sinatra and "Twilight Time" by The Platters. I got the sense that there was a sleepy nighttime theme to the songs, so I started searching stations again... and landed on one with Dionne Warwick singing "Alfie." Gee and I started singing along where we knew the words.

"What's it all about, Alfie? / Is it just for the moment we live? / La, la, la, la, la.... / I believe in love, Alfie / La, la, la, la.... / When you walk let your heart lead the way / And you'll find love any day, Alfie / Alfie."

We loved that song!

The space between songs was static, and my skin felt prickly. The DJ was talking about people getting along and not hating one another. I started turning the dial again, and found The Four Tops singing, "Reach Out, I'll Be There." The build was happening, so Gee and I launched in:

"... Darling, reach out / Reach out, for me. I'll be there to love and comfort you / I'll be there with the love I'll see you through / La, la, la, la, la...."

And the fade out.

"Baby, reach out / Reach out for me ...."

We were rocking out as we pulled up to the United States border. And then I was suddenly afraid. Daddy wasn't with us, it was after midnight, and our leaving at this hour was, to my mind, a little suspicious.

Gee stopped at the one open customs booth. The guard smiled at her and she smiled back. "Good evening," he said. "It's a nice night, isn't it?"

"Yes, sir. Thank you."

He asked to see Gee's driver's license, and while she searched in her pocketbook, he asked, "What's your business in the United States?"

Now, what kind of question was that? I was getting worried and couldn't seem to sit still.

"We live in South Carolina," Gee replied.

"I thought as much from your license plates."

He'd already known we lived there. I knew it: He was trying to catch us in a lie.

"Just how long have you been in Canada, and what have you been doing?" he went on.

"We've been on a trip to the World's Fair," Gee answered. "Expo '67. Have you seen it?"

The guard ignored her question. "Did you have a good time?"

"Why, yes sir. We had a great time. Thanks for asking."

Gee had lied to the guard! Okay, sure we'd had a great time, partly, so maybe it wasn't a big lie. But I could tell he knew we'd left Daddy -- that he'd gotten a call and been warned. And then he got out of his booth. I thought he was going to arrest us. I could feel the sweat dripping from my underarms down my side. I knew it: We were going to jail.

Looking in the truck's side-view mirror, Gee calmly told me, "I think he's knocking on the door of the camper."

How could she be so calm? What if they wouldn't let us back into the States? I could see it: We'd all grow old together, stranded in cold, dark Canada. We'd never see Momma again. And where would Daddy be? Would he find us and try to kill the twins again?

Suddenly the guard was back in his booth. "Did you purchase any Cuban cigars while you were at Expo?"

What a weird question! Ladies didn't smoke cigars. "No, sir," Gee told him. "We didn't buy anything."
I covered the ring on my finger -- the one Daddy had bought me at the Expo.

"Welcome back home."

Once we got going again, my fear disappeared in a flash. I couldn't find the next song fast enough. I'd finished my Coke, my mouth was dry, and I had to pee something fierce. But I wanted to keep cruising down the road singing songs with Gee. This was fun! And what song should I find next? Oh god, oh god. "Up on the Roof" by The Drifters.

"And all my cares just drift right into space / On the roof, it's peaceful as can be / And there the world below don't bother me, no, no / La, la, la .... / And if this old world starts a getting you down / There's room enough for two / Up on the roof..."

If we could have gotten on the roof of the camper, we would have. I didn't even ask if I could have another cigarette, I simply lit two, giving one to Gee and sucking down the other one. This cigarette tasted so good I couldn't smoke it fast enough. And all it did was make my mouth drier. Gee was getting thirsty too, so she found a gas station.

The lights seemed brighter than the sun, and the bathroom was filthy. Yuck! I unzipped my pants and reached in, but nothing was there. My dick had shrunk! It wasn't that big to begin with, and now it was almost nonexistent! I could hardly get it to clear my boxers and pants. I started to leave the bathroom before I even peed, but luckily I remembered, and stretching the tiny thing beyond my zipper it roared out a stream of pee for what seemed like forever.

As soon as I left the bathroom I forgot about my tiny dick. I was thirsty beyond belief. Gee was already back in the truck, and she was waving two Cokes at me. I got back in, took a swig, lit another cig, and Gee pulled out as "Ferry 'Cross the Mersey" played on the radio.

And then the news came on, talking about the race riots and the war in Vietnam. I asked Gee if she knew anyone who'd gone to Vietnam, and she told me that all her friends had gone to college and gotten a deferment. And then she started talking about her friends, and school, and I sat on the edge of the truck seat half facing her and listening to every single word she said about all the things that came to her mind. Gee talked nonstop -- that is, until I asked her if she'd gone all the way. She gave me a look that drove home the fact that I had crossed the line. It's funny how with brothers you can talk about anything, but with sisters, there is so much you can't discuss. It would be so much more helpful if brothers and sisters could really talk. Finally she said, "I'm still a virgin, and I plan on staying one until I get married."

"Well, I was with Molly Johnson in Bitsy King's basement last year," I told her. "Bitsy and Mary, Mary Hall, were with these two high school boys. One of them was feeling Mary up -- you know, had his hand up between her legs...."

Interrupting me, Gee said, "Girls like that have low self-esteem if they will let boys do that."

"Well, Molly wanted me to feel her up, too," I continued. "I mean, we watched the others for awhile, and then she put my hand on her breast. So I did. And then what do you think she did? She broke up with me."

"It's what you deserved for taking advantage of her."

"But she didn't even have any boobs!" When Gee didn't say anything, I said, "Mark told me it was Molly's loss, because she really wanted it, and that was why she had instigated it. Mark said she was too young to understand."

"How old is Molly?"

"She's my age."

"She's old enough to know better." We both kept quiet for a minute, and then Gee continued. "James, until you can respect a girl for who she is, you will be unlucky in love."

This only confused me, because "getting lucky" meant that you got to go all the way. And then I remembered that my dick had shrunk for some reason, so I was never going to get lucky. What if I was changing into a girl? Oh shit -- no dick. I really liked my dick.

What was happening to me?

COMING UP IN CHAPTER 23: What Daddy's pistols were loaded with... return to Bunnie Ann's... James falls into a black hole.

Want to read "World's Fair" from the beginning? Click here and start with "Prologue, Part 1."

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