The Sixties were an era rather than a chronological decade. They began on November 22, 1963 and ended on August 9, 1974, bracketed by the events that double-stunned the nation: the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the resignation of Richard Nixon. But there was a period of easing in, a long moment of inflection that began exactly five months after Kennedy’s death. Fifty years. Half a century, well deserving reflection. Let’s journey to the New York World’s Fair.
My title here takes a turn on David Gelernter’s magnificent, difficult to categorize, and mostly forgotten book 1939: The Lost World of the Fair. If 1939 was a lost world, then 1964 was a last world, gone but positively defining everything that we are today in America, culturally and technologically. The 1964-65 Fair echoed the 1939-40 event in the exact same location, Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, New York. I was there, a visitor in both of the Fair’s six-month seasons.
In the summer of 1964 I was nine years old. Five decades later it may be a little difficult to conjure the sense of serene astonishment, wonder, and promise that overwhelmed this kid waving from the rim of Unisphere, the Fair’s symbol. But I loved that place and it’s a powerful part of me. The event was dedicated to “Man’s Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe,” presciently foretelling both Thomas Friedman and Neil deGrasse Tyson (and interestingly, they are my age mates). The theme, “Peace Through Understanding” . . . well, not so much.
My first visit was with my father, his older sister—my Aunt Teny—and my cousin Louise in the role of surrogate older sister that I never had. Teny had been unexpectedly widowed less than a year earlier, leaving her a single mother with a tween daughter, “ahead of her time,” as Louise says now of her 98-year old mother. The two of us appear pretty tenuous at the Fair, snapshotted echoes ourselves of the waning calm before the storm—that stub of an era of folksongs, the Beat poets, thin Elvis, slide rules, the Mercury Seven, Jack and Jackie sailing at Hyannis Port, Playboy, and the station wagon. We have to start there, because what Louise and I saw at the Fair left all of that behind—which was exactly the point of the 1964 GM “Futurama,” even if the grand event is so much of a Boomer icon that it becomes cliché.
We all get derailed in our vantage of the Fair because of The Sixties. The turmoil and social upheavals immediately following—experienced along with deeply emotional personal events—lead you to the erroneous conclusion that the Fair was a relic, another throwaway on the list of stuff dated and irrelevant after Vietnam.
That’s shortsighted. The exhibits and futuretrends showcased at the Fair actually foretold today, not 1970 . . . which makes the Fair at fifty such a powerful moment.
Commerce through the embrace of technology to improve lives was the Fair’s abundantly ascendant theme, and that was natural, then and now. GE saluted “electrical living from the good old days to the present.” Westinghouse prepared a time capsule to be buried next to the one from 1939 that has my nine-year old signature in it on microfilm. We rode convertible Fords through a “magic skyway” of science and technology, STEM in its infancy. In the Bell System pavilion (“From Drum Beat to Telstar”) I made a videophone call—to some other kid a couple yards away, of course, but this was decades before Skype and FaceTime on my iPhone.
My favorite place there was Eero Saarinen’s IBM pavilion, so much so that I insisted on it being the backdrop of my Fair photo of 1965. (Check it out. From the looks of things I grew and got much more sophisticated in that intervening year, by then more Mad Men style than Stand By Me.) Pepsi and Disney gave me a permanent malignant earworm with “It’s a Small World” and in the Illinois pavilion I saw Abe Lincoln stand and deliver, “audio-animatronics”® showcasing advanced analog robotics during the gestation of the digital age.
My stories from the Fair could easily take up a year of posts here on Algonquin Redux . . . but I need to share a few of them to illustrate my contention that the cultural significance of the Fair was as profound as its technological waypointing. Three short-short stories:
The World Beyond Our Shores
For a kid whose worldview was basically industrial Pennsylvania and the Jersey shore, the Fair was my first encounter with internationalism. My father Walt Pocalyko (whom you met here on AR last year) was fascinated with the national pavilions, and so we visited almost all of them. The Pavilion of Paris, Sierra Leone, International Plaza, Denmark, Venezuela, Morocco, the Vatican. (The Fair wasn’t all fantastic to a nine-year old hyperkinetic. I judged the Pietà boring and more than creepy.) In later life I would visit almost all of these places for real. It was very late in the day. The Fair crowds clearing out, the sun long in the summer sky. Dad and I duck into a pavilion—to this day neither of us can recall precisely which it was—for a quick “one more” visit. We start the tour, and it takes Walt maybe three or four minutes to recognize something that I didn’t. He leans over to me. “Hey,” he says. “this is all just communist propaganda.” At the moment, I was not certain what he was trying to tell me. “Do you want to go, Dad?” I ask. “Yeah,” he says. “It’s not even that interesting. You can read about it. We shouldn’t waste our time.” We walk out.
The Equitable had a pavilion as dull as its corporate image: insurance. Yet it had one of the most fascinating simple displays at the Fair. The “Demograph” was captivating to me and Louise on that June day in 1964. It counted up the population of the United States, and we watched as it clicked closer and closer to 200 million people, at a rate of one click every twelve seconds. By 1965 it was way over the milestone number and far less interesting as a Fair exhibit. Today? The number is almost 318 million. The population clock is on-line. And The Equitable is AXA.
Religion was woven seamlessly and apparently without much controversy into the fabric of The Fair. We visit the “Mormon Church Pavilion” and watch a movie, the first exposure for this very Lutheran kid to what seemed a mystic exotic interesting denomination. So I dutifully ask my father what that’s all about. “I was in Salt Lake City in ’52,” he tells me. “They’re Christians. Protestants. But they have some different beliefs from us. That’s okay. They’re great people and this is America.” There are theological nuances of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Protestant tradition that make my father’s explanation technically faulty . . . but he was right about everything else.
The Fair was central to the national experience and to the American Dream. For those of us who were there (and yes, I know just how wildly presumptuous it is of me to speak for a generation) it was our emotional touchstone of deep meaning, an artifact of youth, a journey just begun.
I miss it.