In 1982, my mom let me skip a day of school. She would never do that again.
It was the next to last day of kindergarten, and instead of going to school, my mom and I loaded a bus for Knoxville, TN, and took a little day trip to the 1982 World’s Fair. It’s one of my most vivid childhood memories. I can still, from memory and at a nanosecond’s notice, belt out the signature theme song from the commercial:The 1982 World’s Fair–You’ve Got To Be There!
I remember seeing a presentation on Canada, thinking it would be cool to live there some day and getting a promotional juice-box style milkshake drink from an actor in a Mountie uniform (insert Canadian Dairy Tariff joke here); I remember hugging a big furry Pac-Man, and I remember, when my mom asked me to sit still in a particular spot while she got in line for tickets for some event, that I became very curious about the pay phones that offered free long distance. Just a few feet away.
I had learned my phone number in Kindergarten, and decided that I would call my dad. Who wouldn’t want to get a free long distance call from his kid at the 1982 World’s Fair (YOU’VE GOT To BE there!)? I walked over and confidently punched in my phone number, except for the area code, which no one had taught me. The operator on the other end told me she couldn’t help, and I hung up.
And I had no idea where my mom was.
Tears. A frantic woman, maybe Fair staff, maybe not, ran to me, and started asking questions–what was my mom’s name, where did I last see her. I told her that I was lost–and just before I was able to repeat the script I had learned in school, from my parents, and from every cartoon and after school special I had ever watched in case I was ever lost, there was my mom.
A hug, a “what was I doing?” and an explanation of area codes.
My mom, always the teacher.
I remember resting my tired feet in the cool water of a fountain. And I remember not going up the Sunsphere, the signature architectural draw of the Fair.
I was desperately scared of heights at that age, so that may have been why. It has also occurred to me that that may have been why my mom was in line to get tickets, leaving me within sight, and that she had just made it to the window when she heard me crying, just out of vision but not out of hearing (especially “mom-hearing”) distance, and that meant that plans had to change. The lines weren’t worth it. Maybe we’d make it back to this building of the future one day.
My mom died in 1998, just a few weeks after I graduated from college. The anniversary of her death isn’t something I usually do more than take note of. Sometimes it sneaks up on me–almost like one of those dreams in which you get to school without your homework, and some years I have the photo albums, some notes, some scribbles of my own at the ready.
Twenty years seemed like an important anniversary to mark, however. Two decades seem so long, but they’ve gone by so quickly. In a blink of an eye.
And having lost my mom at 22, It struck me that I’m getting close to having more years in my life without her than with her.
My wife and I brainstormed some possibilities–a special meal? Maybe finally getting our library cards (something my mom would have approved of, but to which she would have said, ‘Who lives somewhere for almost three years without getting a library card?’–a point both my sisters quickly made. Of course)
Then it hit me. We now live in Chattanooga, two hours from the Sunsphere.
I needed to go back to the World’s Fair.
I had to be there.
I quickly did some research, hoping that my day trip would not end up like this infamous trip to Knoxville from The Simpsons. Turns out, about a decade ago (and ten years or so after the Simpsons roasted Knoxville), a park had been designed around the Fair site, the Sunsphere re-opened and Performance Ampitheatre renovated, and I’d be able to return, 36 years later.
I made it to Knoxville around 11:30, found parking, and began walking around. The current exhibition hall, named for the fair but not an original part of the exhibition, was itself being renovated. Families in swimsuits were beginning to unroll beach towels at the gigantic splash fountain and adjacent playground. There were cyclists, runners, some homeless folks, some teenagers holding hands, all taking advantage of the green. I walked along the seats of the amphitheater, following the pool where six-year-old me must’ve rested his tired feet. I listened to the creak of the restored wooden planks beneath me.
And just a few feet away–the Sunsphere. The top floors are now used as event space and can only be viewed by appointment only, but there is an observation deck. I stepped on the elevator that did not have the “out of order” sticky note, held the door for a family behind me, and took a very un-Icarus trip toward the sun.
Another family was walking around, taking in the views. One of the two dads sized the other up, noticing the University logo on his cap.
You from Minnesota?
Wisconsin. We’re neighbors!
Wisconsin then went on to explain that they were on a long vacation throughout the south, heading to Savannah, then Orlando, then coming back through Nashville before heading home. They had stopped in Knoxville because he, as a child, had attended the 1982 World’s Fair (You’ve GOT to be there!).
A couple of other tourists got off the elevator. Wisconsin soon told them that he had been at the fair, and then he told the next family that arrived on the observation deck.
I decided I would be quiet and try to get a panoramic shot.
I read through the history displays (Did you know that the canned version of Cherry Coke was introduced at the 1982 World’s Fair? And more importantly, Johnny and June Cash played there…and I missed it. Maybe those were the tickets mom was trying to get?) and headed down the elevator. I walked the grounds, along the riverwalk, through the amphitheater again, and sat, reflecting while I watched the families at the fountain, parents with children about the age I was when I walked around this same plot of land decades ago.
Time and memory are funny things. The vividness of the memory of that trip. A jingle and phone number I can still recite, area code and all. The speed in which 20 years can seem to pass. The fuzziness of those hard last days. The things you remember and re-tell all the time. The things you never do, and never will.
It is also an amazing thing to see a world exhibition space, built with ambition and good ole boy hubris, with its eye on the future, become its actual future self. As condos go up along the river and another building site expands the footprint of the University that some would say IS Knoxville, I think about the cosmopolitan fantasy of robots and kabuki theater and mounties serving milkshakes. I think about not being able to find my mom then, and trying to find her in the same place. I think about Johnny Cash singing “I still miss someone.” I think about the difference between 22 and 42, and wonder how much life is in 20 years. I wonder about what resilience looks like–the tools we have and the tools we need.
We never know what we’ll become until we are looking back, do we?
I had one more errand before ending my day “with” mom.
Another vivid memory I have with mom came from what must’ve been middle school. My mom was not an impulse shopper, but she loved gelatin-based candies–orange slices, gumdrops, and as my sisters reminded me today, the kind that taste like spearmint, plus jelly beans. And so, on this particular afternoon shopping trip, my mom suggested that we grab a bag of spice gum drops. We ate the entire bag–also out of character for the mom I always experienced.
So–once back in Chattanooga, I stopped by the grocery store and bought a bag of spice gum drops. My Wife and I toasted my mom with them.
They tasted way too sweet for 42 year old me. No way would I eat the whole bag.
I already had everything I needed.