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NEW YORK CITY and the WORLD'S FAIR in 1965

Part One: Before the Fair

When I was a kid, back in the early 1960's, I had two brothers: Howard, 2 1/2 years older than me, and Jeff, one year younger. When we were smaller, our parents delighted in calling us Huey, Dewey, & Louie, since we had these identical caps Grandmother had brought us from Disneyland; but by 1963, when our brother Andy was born, we had developed into very different individuals. Howard was very much my own personal version of Wally Cleaver. He seemed to be very mature and teen-aged, being involved in things that just weren't part of my world, at least not yet. While I eschewed sports, he was very athletic, and was into things like cars, girls and rock and roll. Jeff was fanatically interested in wars. He knew all sorts of things about the Civil War, and he'd reenact famous military engagements with whatever stray toys came to hand. I thought war was boring - I was interested in flying saucers, time machines, ray guns, and little green men - what I'd learned was called science fiction.

By today's standards, science fiction back then was kind of a rare commodity. Now, a space movie comes out almost every week, and all the great classics from the 1950's are available down at the video club. Any library or bookstore has a science fiction section, and TV commercials are souped up with special effects. Not so in the early 1960's. Even those great movies were unseen - only the bad ones seemed to be shown on the local TV channel, on their weekly monster movie show called "The World Beyond!" The networks had better taste than to show that sort of thing - instead they gave us "Lost in Space" and "The Outer Limits". I heard that better things were on, but way past my bedtime, like "The Twilight Zone" and something called "Chiller".

I turned to reading, and found some books I could digest at the library. My Dad subscribed to the Science Fiction Book Club and Analog magazine, but all I could do then was admire the cover art, since my reading ability wasn't up to the stories inside. Comic books were another matter. Marvel comics weren't even available then, at least not in my area, but we did have Gold Key and DC comics, the latter being the home of Superman and Batman. These were especially good when the action took place in the future, as often happened. I liked the curious buildings and the way they'd depict colorful futuristic clothing, with these circular fins protruding from the shoulder blades. But even comic books were rare - I didn't have much money to spend on them, and there were only a few places I knew about that sold them.

One day when I was in the third grade I was down at the local Drug Fair perusing their meager selection. Staff was sparse there, and I could get away with a lot of free reading. Something about the nearby rack of "Classics Illustrated" caught my eye. Unlike the dingy historical cover picture this magazine usually had, the one I'd noticed featured a Martian tripod blasting an infantry emplacement with its heat ray. I parted with some valuable change (15 cents) and took home The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. It was incredible! I went right back to see if they had anything else that good. They didn't, but in the adjacent magazine stand, I came across something very different. A slender publication, only slightly larger than a comic book, but priced at half a dollar! I flipped through the thick, shiny pages, and saw color photos of extremely odd buildings under construction, with slick architectural renderings of their finished appearance, and swirly cartoon drawings of smiling people riding in strange vehicles being dazzled by wonders and entertainments. I didn't understand what it was all about, but I sensed something important, so I begged of my father to buy it for me, which he eventually did. Further analysis seemed to open a doorway into a world as exhilaratingly futuristic as that of "The Jetsons." The magazine was the Official Preview of the 1964/1965 New York World's Fair.

I knew what the World's Fair was. We'd learned about it in school, and on television. The Space Needle was the centerpiece, and you arrived on a monorail! We didn't get to go, since it was in Seattle, Washington, which, like Disneyland, was somehow beyond the radius of my family's travels. But this World's Fair would be in New York City, which was much closer. I wanted to visit New York anyway, even without the Fair. They had the Empire State Building, and the Statue of Liberty, and Hayden Planetarium, and best of all, the subway! I remembered that we'd taken a summer vacation in New England a few years before, and I quizzed my Dad about how we'd missed New York. I found out that he wasn't Gotham City's biggest fan. He said it was crowded and dirty, and travel there could be annoying and even dangerous, and to be avoided if at all possible. He said that his only trip there he'd really enjoyed had been when he was a boy, when he'd visited the World's Fair. This floored me - my magazine said it wouldn't even open until next year. So he told me about the first Fair, in 1939, and his favorite attraction, the Futurama. I showed him an article in my magazine about the new Futurama, but he didn't seem very interested. He'd already seen it. Nobody in the family found much interest in this World's Fair, except me. We might not even go!

I collected everything I could find about the World's Fair, and put it all into a large scrapbook my Mom gave me. As the Fair's opening drew near, the amount of media attention approached a deluge. My scrapbook bulged with reports from Life magazine and the newspaper, advertisements for Official World's Fair products, and seemingly unrelated magazine articles, like the one from Popular Science introducing the 1964 automobiles photographed at the nearly completed Fairgrounds.

Then, one night, we all watched a special on TV. The Fair was to open in a few days, and this program gave us inside tours of some of the most important pavilions. Far too much time was devoted to the Pepsi-Cola "It's a Small World," which I found repugnant and distasteful. Jeff and Howard got a big charge out of the Continental Insurance Pavilion's "Continental Soldier" song and cartoon. Fortunately, adequate time was devoted to the Futurama, which was even more fascinating than the photos and descriptions. The show introduced the Fair's theme music, a melody which I still remember.

Family reaction to this program was positive; perhaps my brothers' enthusiasm had something to do with it. Anyway, it was announced that we would attend the Fair, but probably not this year, due to a major driving excursion planned for that summer out West (but not as far as Disneyland).

By late spring of 1964, I was almost through with the fourth grade. The World's Fair had opened with great fanfare, and by then I knew people who had actually visited it. Both sets of my grandparents passed through our house en route to the fair. On her way back to Texas, my Mother's mother left the Official Guide to the Fair at our house, and it somehow became Jeff's possession (he still has it). I was familiar with this large paperback book-sized publication - by then they had them at all the magazine stands. It gave detailed information on all the sights at the Fair. Since it cost a whole dollar, I never did get a copy for myself.

There was a kid in my class* who saw the Fair right away. This was to be expected, 'cause he had rich parents, and was always coming back from exotic locations, sometimes a day or two after classes had begun. (His family had flown from LAX to Disneyland in a helicopter!) He gave me a souvenir pin from the Ford pavilion. It was made of pale green plastic (that glowed in the dark) shaped in the image of that pavilion, with "Maryland" stamped below. He said they had boxes full of pins for each state at the Ford exit.

That pin was a favorite possession for months. I felt it was my first real connection with the Fair, and I treated it like a sacred totem. I had it with me in the tent's darkness during my first camping trip with the Boy Scouts, early the next year. A few months after that, though, when we finally visited the Fair early in June, it was lost, and almost totally forgotten.

We drove up the NJT in our new Oldsmobile Vista-Cruiser station wagon. This was a deluxe model, new for 1965, which had a radical new body style: a kind of a low sub-windshield set halfway back in the roof, with narrow curving side windows running along from this slanting moonroof to the tailgate, with its new motorized rear window. The machine's color was Sterling Mist, a silver very lightly tinted with blue.

The radio provided an occasional diversion from the repetitive New Jersey scenery with live news coverage of the Gemini IV mission. The launch the day before had a prime objective of the first American space-walk. Now they had the hatch open and were doing some tests. Tomorrow, while we were exploring the World's Fair, Ed White would step out of his capsule and float free, attached only by his umbilical cord, orbiting high above us.

It was 'late' by the time we arrived at our hotel. Our room lacked a view but seemed standard. Soon we discovered just how 'standard' it was: every table, lamp and chair had been strategically re-located to cover a stain or a burn left behind by previous guests. I was very hungry, but the others were just tired, so Dad took me down the elevator and across the street to the closest place to get something. This turned out to be a little corner store, and also a revelation: I had this isolated suburban kid's vision of New York similar to a stereotype immigrant's, that all the people did there was ride elevators and subways and eat out in restaurants. Yet here was a raggedy little place that had a little of everything, and was more like general stores I'd been hurried through out in the country than my urban expectation. I remember I got a chocolate milk there.

The next day, bright and early, we were out on the street. It was a clear, cool Spring Manhattan morning. A very tall building loomed up above us, and Dad said it was the Empire State Building. Sure enough, those lines did look familiar, but what a perspective! He led us into an Automat, and doled out nickels. All the slots took multiples of nickels. The food was quite tasty, it came on real dishes, and it was great fun opening the little doors and serving yourself. This was a lucky experience - the Automats were closing, and just a few years later, those that were still open had been remodeled into vending machine arcades.

© 1987
Next: At the Fair

* Nuzzy

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