grapevineFair Day for Adventuregrapevine


"You need to go to bed early," my mother told me one summer afternoon just after school had ended. "We're going somewhere special tomorrow and we're leaving early."

Of course I asked where we were going.

I was told, "It's a surprise."

These orders were followed by instructions to wear something "nice" (meaning Sunday playclothes rather than the ordinary weekday ones) and comfortable shoes.

This produced a quandary next morning when I was woken at 5 a.m. Never having had an Imelda Marcos syndrome, I had my school shoes, some sandals (which weren't at all comfortable), my everyday sneakers, which were frayed at the toes, and my Sunday sneakers, which were brand-new, but which hurt, as all my shoes did before they were broken in. I knew if I was wearing Sunday playclothes, I should be wearing those new sneakers, but Mom had specified "comfortable" shoes. I ended up putting on the everyday sneakers.

It was still dark when we left, piling in the big black 1957 Chevrolet and setting out on a still-unknown adventure. There was no freeway yet, but I knew from squinting at the signs that we were going south, and eventually were on the Connecticut Turnpike. Daddy kept quiet, but about two hours into the trip Mom eventually couldn't resist it anymore. She asked brightly, teasingly, "Do you know where we're going?"

My prompt reply, "The World's Fair, of course."

Thwarted in her surprise by an eight year old.

"How do you know?" she asked, both astonished and disappointed.

1964 World's Fair LogoI'd have had to been blindfolded. Every several miles or so, there was a little square sign on the road--I remember it as white on blue--of a stylized globe, with an arrow pointing ahead. Everyone knew what the globe represented, the Unisphere, the symbol of the 1964 New York World's Fair. Heck, it was on the Huntley-Brinkley Report all the time, and probably on the front page of the Providence Journal as well.

Mom probably consoled herself with the fact that at least she was raising an observant child!

I've no recollection of the next part of the trip, although I'm sure it involved a huge parking lot and a long walk to a gate and buying tickets. It was pretty much overwhelmed by our entry into the fairgrounds, standing under a rather stylized overhang--when Mom discovered those sneakers with the frayed toes.

"I told you to wear something nice," she exclaimed in horror. "Where are your new sneakers?"

Daddy stayed on the sidelines. Smart man.

"But you said to wear something comfortable! The new sneakers hurt."

Mom was mortified. If we could have gone home and changed those sneakers then and there, we would have.

Time for an aside here. In an era when everyone wears their most comfy clothes and people think nothing of going out in public wearing tattered jeans, grubby sneakers, and oversized sweatshirts, it's hard to realize why Mom was making such a fuss. She wasn't a Felix Unger freak, or Joan Crawford ranting about no wire hangers, she was just being a good mother.

In 1964, a "good" mother sent her family—and this included herself—out in public in nice clothes: clean, new, if not new mended so well the mending didn't show. She herself was wearing a nice dress, stockings—probably a girdle!—and comfortable but new walking shoes. Dad had on a short-sleeved shirt and light pants (pressed and creased always; Mom even ironed pajamas and pillowcases) and his shoes and dress socks, no tie, but certainly not T-shirts and jeans and sneakers. Around us women were walking around with smart dresses and equally smart hats. Some of the women even wore white gloves, and there were men and boys with ties on. The fact that I was wearing tattered sneakers probably told all those other women out there that my Mom was inattentive or cheap or just plain lazy because she didn't care enough to monitor what her child put on her feet.

Well, there we were, over three hours from home. Nothing to be done about it now.

Mom never forgot those sneakers. For years she blushed about them. Later we just laughed.

I was so young at the time that I can't give you detailed impressions about that Fair. The memories are like chalk drawings just caught in the rain: some parts of them sharp, other bits already washed away.

I do remember walking. Lots and lots of it. And the lines to match the walking. Some were the curved-back-on-themselves serpentine lines, the type another generation would get used to at Disney World. Back then they were brand new.

The first place we walked to was that giveaway Unisphere. It was surrounded by the flags of all nations, these snapping in the warm breeze blowing off the Atlantic, making an awesome walkway around the big steel globe. It had a latticework-type structure rather than being solid, with the continents soldered in their proper places. In a world that had seen crisis after crisis, the latest being the assassination of President Kennedy, it was a nice thought that all the world's countries could get together like this, if they tried hard enough.

We spent quite a lot of time wandering in a huge edifice called The Better Living Building, which for years I thought was sponsored by Hershey's. This had various exhibits, including a fashion show—full skirts and smart purses and Jackie haircuts still being the choice of the day—and the very first wheelchair ramps I'd ever seen. (By that time my feet had started to smart already, comfy sneakers or no, and I really preferred these newfangled gadgets to stairs.) They also had an exhibit by the ASPCA about adopting strays, one an allergy-ridden, dog-coveting eight-year-old would remember for years.

The remainder of what was supposed to be our first day at the fair was pretty much devoted to Walt Disney. He'd created four rides for the Fairground, and although we never got to see the infamous dinosaurs, we managed to see the other three. We'd watched all of them being conceived and built on The Wonderful World of Color and attendance was de rigeur.

One would have expected my dad to like something a bit more "his size." Maybe Mr. Lincoln, or that he would have hurried us to see the General Motors "Futurama" exhibit—an updated version of the pavilion GM had at the 1939 World's Fair, where television was "introduced" to the general public, and which had been held on the very site that the 1964 Fair was!—even if just to see the new car models.

No, Daddy fell in love with "It's a Small World." I remember standing and gaping at the huge kinetic metal-and-plastic sculpture that was "The Tower of the Four Winds" with its marvelously colorful moving parts, and the surprise of having to get into a boat to see an exhibit, and then being dazzled and tickled by those dancing dolls with their cheerful song—so parodied today but sung happily then—and the paintbox of bright hues that melded into gold and white at the end of the ride. For years I remembered that recalcitrant Swiss goat on the tip of the mountain, the happy fiesta, the smiling llamas.

What I remembered even more was Daddy saying, "Let's go again!" despite the long line!

And this same man who was watching his pennies so carefully that he wouldn't buy a World's Fair guidebook—I think it cost $1.00, or $1.50—spending fifty cents to get the "It's a Small World" souvenir pamphlet.

There was another long line to get into "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln." This was sponsored by the state of Illinois and may have been the only state pavilion we saw. With the Haunted Mansion, the Hall of Presidents, and all the other Audio-Animatronic rides now at the Disney Parks, the effect is rather old-hat today, but back then it was brand new. Everyone had seen the preview on The Wonderful World of Color—you could hear them discussing it in line—and was eager to see it in person. Sure enough, it was as good as it had looked on television: Abraham Lincoln—in a persona of metal and plastic and those newfangled transistors—was actually making a speech almost 100 years after his death.

Oh, you could tell he wasn't real, but the motion was so smooth for what everyone knew was essentially a robot that, watching "him" in the spotlight, listening to the words, you could almost imagine yourself back in the 1800s, perhaps standing on a stump or a step, dressed in long crinolines or a wool suit, listening to our President talk. President Kennedy's death was still so fresh that he and President Lincoln were entangled in myth now.

There was another Disney ride at the Fair that we had especially wanted to see. It was sponsored by General Electric and featured more Audio-Animatronic figures like Mr. Lincoln, but the big surprise of the ride was that it revolved. No, the stage didn't revolve, the audience did! When your place in line reached the base around the big structure, you could indeed see that the doors to the seats moved to meet you!

Progress and the future had always been the hallmarks of any World's Fair. Today predictions for the future almost always look bleak. Hey, we have the Internet, but more people are going to die because they are sitting in front of the computer and getting heart disease. That is, if the chemicals in the air, the global warming, and the inventions down the road don't kill us first.

Back then inventions were good things. They would cure cancer, make children grow up stronger, help people get along. Those new "Picturephones" would help long distance families keep in touch. DuPont would make our clothes warmer or cooler as need be. New fertilizers would raise bigger crops so people wouldn't starve, people all over the world like you saw now on those CARE commercials. Thirty years from now that wouldn't be happening.

Somehow the world was a much brighter place when we believed in the future rather than dreaded it.

Disney's ride for General Electric was about those inventions that had made our life better. It was called "Progressland" and told how electricity helped improve people's lives. Mom didn't have to scrub clothes over a washboard, you didn't have to swelter in the summer, housework would be done in half the time so Mom and Sis could have some time for themselves. Dad worked less, too, for power equipment helped him complete his job in half the time. It all came with a bright song written by the Sherman brothers about tomorrow, "a great big beautiful tomorrow" that we were all certain would come.

(My delight in this ride has continued undiminished through the years. I rode it after it was moved to Disneyland, and thence to Walt Disney World. In the mass of glitzy rides in Disney's Florida oasis, it remains, as the Carousel of Progress, my favorite ride ever.)

Somewhere along the line, I suppose we ate something. In delight over the rides and the scenes, I remember nothing about meals. Evidently what we consumed were sandwiches, brief and unspectacular, even more probably brought from home and tucked into Mom's capacious purse (capacious mostly due to having to carry anything Daddy and I didn't want to). Dad worked in a jewelry shop as a polisher, Mom didn't work at all, and there were no extra pennies for what fancy restaurants must have lurked somewhere on the Fairgrounds. After all, we were going to stay overnight and come back tomorrow; we had to save money for the motel, which would evidently be expensive, and breakfast.

I say "evidently" because we never saw that motel—or indeed another day of the Fair. Dad, in his boundless optimism, thought that with all those myriad hotels and motels around the Fair, there would be plenty of places to sleep without having to brave what he thought were the horrors of a New York City hotel bill—and available without reservations. Alas, we stopped at motel after motel, working eastward into Connecticut, to the inevitable "no room at the inn." By the time we were halfway home, Dad gave up. We drove the rest of the way back in disappointment, never to return.

We'd forgotten the camera, bought no souvenir book, eventually lost the tickets. The only concrete memory that remains is the "It's a Small World" souvenir book, which still lies tucked up in the attic somewhere with newspapers about the 1956 hurricane and the news of President Kennedy's death.

But the memories still linger, swaddled in protective fondness like virtual tissue paper, memories of sun and magnificence, glitter and hope, deeds of the past and visions of the future, recollections ready to be unwrapped and savored, in wistfulness for the days when there was always

      "...a great big beautiful tomorrow
      Shining at the end of every day...
      A great big beautiful tomorrow
      Just a dream away."
*

 

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* © Richard B. and Robert J. Sherman