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Like any Washingtonian worth his salt, I loathe tourists, especially in August.
Nothing amplifies late summer misery like encountering a gaggle of out-of-towners standing to the left on a Metro escalator or huddled around a $4.99-per-pound lunch buffet trying to calculate how many pieces of fake crab they can pile on a plate without spending more than five bucks.
Yet whenever I’m on the edge, ready to scream for them to go home or stay the hell out of my way, I invariably see some poor, harried child who reminds me all too much of myself. One word — Knoxville — immediately comes to mind, and I feel their pain.
Pudgy, sweat-drenched, twelve-year-old nascent homosexuals on the verge of both heat stroke and nervous breakdown were obviously not the target demographic organizers had in mind when they envisioned the 1982 World’s Fair.
Not that such a niche market should’ve topped the list of those to cater to. But if only they had managed to do something — anything — right on the sweltering August day twenty years ago that fate placed me in Knoxville, I could sing a different, more pleasing song of Tennessee.
Well, fat chance.
My visit to the World’s Fair went beyond a universal family-vacation-gone-awry scenario that everyone can recite by heart. The bungled hotel reservation? The flat tire in a rainstorm? Pushing your sister a little too forcefully toward an alligator pond at a Myrtle Beach tourist trap? (Hmmm, scratch that last one. Perhaps a little too specific to be a good example.)
Those are cakewalks — cakewalks, I tell you — compared to what Knoxville delivered two decades ago this month: the single most interminable, physically tortuous evocation of Hell on Earth I’ve ever experienced.
Needless to say, it was hotter than blue blazes. For that, I assign limited liability to fair organizers. After all, the 1982 World’s Fair ran from May to October. Those stupid enough to visit in August deserved to suffer, right? Parents, yes. My parents in particular, undoubtedly. But innocent, helpless children? (Yes, I still mean me.) Never.
Still, it was more than mere temperature that pushed the day off the scale of my pre-pubescent comprehension. The fair, by physical and thematic design, was a sadistic masterwork that inflicted misery at every turn. Crowds far outnumbered the capacity of participating countries’ modest pavilions, from which emerged endless lines stretching inconceivably beyond shaded waiting areas. Cramped blacktop pedestrian avenues left you shoulder to shoulder (and less desirable body parts) with a teeming, international mass of humanity, for far too many of whom the word deodorant was the most foreign of foreign words.
The very focus of the fair — energy, for crying out loud — led to exhibit after less-than-scintillating exhibit on ways to harness the sun, oceans, cow farts, you name it, to produce energy, which would bring peace and prosperity around the world, but none of which could seem to be used for the moment’s most pressing need: an adequately air-conditioned space on the World’s Fair grounds where I could park my husky ass until this living nightmare was over. (I will always have a fond spot in my heart, though, for Hungary, which had the balls to say, “Fuck it. This energy theme sucks. Let’s build a giant replica of a Rubik’s Cube.”)
And then there was the Sunsphere. That goddamned towering gold disco ball on a stick that must’ve been a gift from the nation of Hades itself and clearly served no other purpose than to absorb the sun’s rays and redirect them, intensified a zillion-fold, onto the suffering multitudes below. Like ants we were — ants, I tell you — on a suburban driveway begging for mercy from a cruel bully with a magnifying glass.
Any normal family, of course, would’ve bolted back to their faux-wood-paneled station wagon and gotten the heck out of Dodge. But no, not us. My parents, for reasons no amount of psychotherapy will ever allow me to grasp, were fond of group travel by tour bus. So I was stuck — trapped for a countless number of scorching sunlight hours until we were allowed to re-board our bus and travel back to civilization.
A lesser child would probably have panicked. But there was no time for that. My very sanity depended on level-headed choices, and when I finally spied a fair information booth, I pounced.
“Show…tunes,” I gasped in throat-parched desperation. “What’s that, sweetie?” came the response from a surprisingly chipper woman behind the counter. I somehow managed to swallow and find my voice. “Showtunes,” I repeated. “Production numbers. Swishy men in form-fitting bodysuits. This godforsaken place bears a passing resemblance to a theme park. There must be a country here that’s telling its energy tale through the medium of musical theatre. There must be.”
“‘Fraid not, gayboy,” she said. (Did I mention that the passage of time requires me to paraphrase my recollections?) “You and your folks should check out Opryland the next time you’re in Tennessee, though. They’ve got a ’50s Sock Hop Spectacular and Three Faces of Patsy Cline revue that’ll just tickle you pink.”
Useless creature. My only hope, it was now apparent, was shopping. If I could lose myself in the search for the perfect — preferably expensive — souvenir, perhaps I could survive this day of torment and live to tell the tale. That’s how I became the proud owner of a yellow construction-style hat, emblazoned with the 1982 World’s Fair red-ball-of-fire logo, that was enhanced with a small solar panel that powered a red propeller on top.
I knew the hat wouldn’t fit properly on my unusually large head. I had drawer full of pristine, never-worn, personally embroidered Mickey Mouse ears at home to attest to that harsh reality. But it was something like thirty dollars, and the minute I saw it and my parents balked at the price, the hat’s destiny was sealed.
A tantrum wasn’t necessary, just the look of unadulterated fury at my parents that told them in no uncertain terms that if they didn’t fork over thirty bucks on the spot to start compensating for putting me through this wretched day in the first place, I would report the whole fucking trip to the authorities as child abuse the minute we got home.
After that, the day became ever-so-slightly more bearable. I found the hat to be useful as a miniature fan, and I relished the envious looks of countless peers in the crowd whose parents had not yet reached that exhausted point of maximum souvenir purchase leverage. And as baked-to-the-core as I was after my day at the World’s Fair, I was even sad when the maddening sun finally began to sink below the horizon, stilling the whirring red propeller until tomorrow.
Maybe those fair organizers managed to get something right after all.