Saturday, April 5, 2008

Meet Me at The Fair

From any perspective, a child’s or an adult’s, at home or abroad, 1933 was an interesting year. Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January. The suspicious fire in the Reichstag broke out in February, the same month that President-elect Roosevelt, not even inaugurated yet, was almost assassinated in Miami (the bullet killed the mayor of Chicago instead). The President gave his first "fireside chat" radio address in March. Congress launched the National Recovery Administration in June. Babe Ruth hit the first home run of the first All Star game at Comiskey Park in Chicago in July. In November the United States recognized the USSR, and in December Prohibition ended completely. Some people read The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Everybody went to see Little Women and King Kong.

And in 1933 my parents’ generation, now called the greatest, went to the World’s Fair. It opened on May 27 in Chicago, where my parents were both growing up a few miles from each other, and so was easy enough for them and their families to get to by a seven cent streetcar ride (one way). Light from the star Arcturus was used, somehow, to spark the lights at the Fair’s opening. It was a celebration of the "Century of Progress" from Chicago’s founding in 1833.

Perhaps, of that generation, not only my parents buy my father-in-law, also a Chicagoan, might have crossed paths there. A ride on the new DeSoto Airflow at the General Motors exhibit would have been a big attraction for the grade school boys, as was free lunch at the food demonstration booths, especially for children who had to reserve fourteen cents of their permitted quarter for transportation. My mother, at four, rode the Skyride across the lagoon with her nine-year-old sister, much to their mother’s distress.

My mother-in-law, an eleven-year-old future war bride in England, could not have seen the fair, but her fictional compatriot, the Provincial Lady, did. She was novelist E. M. Delafield’s wry, shy Englishwoman whose five Diaries – including The Provincial Lady in America – delighted so then with their gentle agonies over bounced cheques and the health of one’s indoor bulbs. She, typical adult, liked the Jade Chinese Temple and the Belgian Village, and was pulled in a rickshaw by a College student ("to whom everyone says it’s Interesting to Talk"). Chinese things were much to the fore, apparently. There was even a Jehol Temple with a gold-leaf exterior, Jehol being a province of that Manchuria so interestingly occupied by the Japanese at the time. Who decided it should be a part of the fair? Was it a topical reference or did it just sound exotic? The Provincial Lady didn’t notice it.

It was an Interesting year at home, too, not forgetting that interesting times are a proverbial Chinese curse. When my father and his thirteen-year-old brother returned from the fair on any bright day that summer, having ridden the streetcar there and back all on their own, they might have come home to any number of things that modern children do not know. Chickens in the backyard, winevats in the basement, paying boarders in the upstairs bedrooms, a younger sister sick – dangerously so, for antibiotics were three years away – in her bed. The thirteen-year-old, being then almost in high school, could have perfectly happily thrown himself on the sofa and lit up a relaxing cigarette in front of everybody the moment he got home. Everybody smoked, and everybody began at about his age.

There was more. It was the Depression, of course, and that year my father’s parents were strapped enough to take in boarders for the money. Several adequate previous sources of income – a photography studio, a home-construction venture, and work as a landlord (sometimes paid in groceries) and in a (until Roosevelt, Republican) sheriff’s office – had dried up. Out of work with a family of six to support, my grandfather had turned, as if by some ancient, convulsive human instinct, to farming to help. He kept between thirty and sixty chickens in his backyard, sold the eggs to neighbors who were patient enough to put up with the noise and smells and the dawn crowing of the rooster, "the Kaiser," and sold the birds themselves to the Kickapoo Restaurant. The Kickapoo would not accept them alive and kicking, so my grandfather had to go get help from a butcher friend who taught him how to kill and pluck poultry in his own basement.

But amateur farming in the midst of a busy city neighborhood was not enough. The ex-photographer taught himself innkeeping, too. My grandparents registered their house as a "Tourist Home" for vacationers – vacationing despite the Depression – to stay in, and pay for, while visiting the World’s Fair. Every few weeks a new family would arrive, having signed up at the visitors’ center and been shown a list of available tourist homes. No regulations, no inspections, and apparently no warnings or qualms about the chicken-slaughtering going on in the basement. So it would have been normal for my father and uncle on any bright summer day to go home to total strangers abruptly placed in the two upstairs bedrooms, as well as at the breakfast table. The boys were sent to sleep in a quickly constructed basement bedroom (again, the basement), while my grandparents moved to the back porch. The family’s two daughters, aged six and fourteen, were lucky enough to keep the last real bedroom on the upper floor, beside the boarders. The income from "roomers" proved so helpful that the home stayed open to them for as long as my grandmother, even past widowhood and past Depression, owned the house. My newlywed parents shared that same house with her, and with a roomer, even fifteen years later.

More. Prohibition was still on, barely, but by March, when President Roosevelt signed a bill making the manufacture of wine and beer legal, my grandfather would at least have the law entirely on his side again for his long-standing basement liquor production. He bought hampers full of grocery store grapes, especially in the fall, had the children help pluck the grapes off the vines, and then put them through all the elaborate machinery of home wine-making, crushers, spinners, vats, and barrels topped with corks and tubing and jars of water to drain off the gas bubbles. There were two or three barrels of wine at the ready for decanting in those days, for personal consumption and for friends. If any very zealous Prohibition officers had wanted to enforce the Willis-Campbell Act (signed by President Harding in 1921) anytime in the previous twelve years – the Act which stated that Prohibition officers could not search private dwellings for alcohol without a warrant – they would probably have been more aghast at the nearby meat-processing plant in this home’s basement than anything else.

And there was more, the worst of all. In the middle of that busy summer of 1933, amid the smoking and the roomers, ominous news from Manchuria and Berlin, the Fair, money problems, clandestine hootch, the six-year-old sister died of bacterial meningitis, a disease, unlike so many other childhood afflictions now eradicated by vaccines, that is still with us, and still able to kill with numbing speed. Death came incongruously, came even amid the adventure and humor and interests of this summer, as it can at any time. As could pneumonia. My father-in-law’s own father died of that, also in 1933, after catching it in a hospital following a minor medical procedure. In either case, very quickly, there was nothing you could do. And following death in 1933 there was the home wake. Three days of the body laid out in the home, and then everybody returning to live and cook and read the paper in the home like always. With strangers upstairs on their vacation.

What is striking about this one year is not merely its "interest," for my grandparents, surely, would have preferred it dull. What is striking is the lack of emotional protection for children, by our standards. (Of course, that generation, if they could come forward in time, would probably look at our divorce rates and our blood-soaked movies and video games, and scoff at "emotional protection".) Nevertheless my father and father-in-law were variously exposed in this summer to things now unimaginable, and were exposed in an era when life was, we fancy, more innocent all around. Solitary gadding about in a big city, tobacco, strangers, personal sacrifice, money problems, livestock right there – and a concomitant awareness of where food comes from. Maybe an awareness of national problems. Illness, death. My father-in-law remembered sitting in the next hospital room watching his father, then in his early forties, snapping at the air for his last breaths. About the only thing kids seem not to have been exposed to routinely was, oddly enough for us, sex. Perhaps this starvation accounts for the wild popularity of Sally Rand, the nude fan dancer at the Fair’s "Streets of Paris" exhibition. She was hauled into court but released uncharged, the judge averring that "the boobs" who came to see her had a right to have their tastes catered to. (The Provincial Lady does not mention any of this.) And the Fair closed in November, and reopened the following spring.

The kids went on to their adventures and interests, went on to being what we call the greatest generation. My mother took ballet lessons and saw dance’s prima stars perform in Chicago, Anton Dolin, Alicia Markova, Maria Tallchief. And saw Harpo Marx chasing ladies in the audience during the course of bond rallies like Hellzapoppin’, and later saw Frank Sinatra, in whose honor she cut school. When ominous world news finally turned to World War, my father enlisted, taking ship for that topical China by way of Australia, India, and a flight over the Himalayas to Kunming, not too far north of Vietnam. My uncle, the thirteen-year-old, served as an Air Force bombardier. My father-in-law enlisted and was shipped to England, where he met my mother-in-law. They would eventually marry a month and a half before my own parents did. The two couples had twenty children between them.

The strange puzzle of how to "protect" children aside, some things from those days have remained the same, which ought to cheer us up when we marvel at the innocence of past interests, and mourn passing greatness. We, too, go to the movies. We are scared of child abduction stories (the Lindbergh baby), we adore figure skating and the British royal family (Sonja Henie; the abdication of Edward VIII), we smack our lips over multiple births (the Dionne quintuplets). We try to follow ominous news. As for World’s Fairs, we go whenever we can afford it, for Disney World on permanent display – minus free food samples – has replaced them. That must be why the official ones are hard to remember now. The most recent in America opened in New Orleans in May of 1984, the same month, if it seems hard to place, that President Reagan was operated on for a polyp. Ominous news in that year came from Beirut, India, and Poland.

Is there some recipe for greatness to be saved across a half-familiar, seventy-year cultural gap? The Provincial Lady, who wept at Little Women, and watched the "extremely nude" dancers awestruck at Harlem’s Cotton Club, who then returned thankfully Home soon to set off for Russia, would probably say ... "Can only leave reply to Posterity."

The End

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