Fair Memories of Two Fairs

I remember my father telling me about the 1939 world‘s fair.  He was only five years old back then. It was only a year or so after his father died suddenly and tragically from appendicitis. My bewildered five-year-old father with his widowed mother and aunt and uncles, made the trip from Brooklyn out to Queens for an emotional escape to a world of discovery and enchantment. Back then, a trip to Flushing must have seemed like a suburban trek to a swampland of sorts, with the new artificial reservoir gleaming alongside the Grand Central Parkway.

I see my father and his family. They enter the fair, passing the iconic Trylon, jagged and sleek, poking six hundred feet at the clouds like a displaced Washington Monument, next to the stolid Perisphere, a giant white orb summoning visitors inside, a great planetary paperweight of sorts.

They approach the Marine Amphitheater built upon Fountain Lake, home of Billy Rose’s Aquacade and wait for Eleanor Holm, the brilliant showgirl, about to partake in a water ballet with her nymph-like assistants in the “enchanting panorama,” featuring “orchestra music harmonizing,” as synchronized swimmers slither through the rays and shadows of multicolored light.

There’s my father, watching himself on television. It’s the first time he’s seen a TV. He waves and on the screen, in real time, sees a boy looking very much like himself, dressed in the same slacks and lumber jacket, a boy with the curly reddish hair waving with his right hand just as he is doing now, only it’s not a mirror image, because they’re both waving their right hands and he sees his mother and Aunt Agnes smiling and waving next to him and they look the same. There’s beautiful Aunt Agnes smiling with all the men around her smiling back.

It’s only a few minutes later in the Amusement Area that they stumble upon “Frozen Alive.” There’s an iceberg of sorts, a giant ice cube. It’s glass. No it’s ice, crystal clear and over one thousand pounds of ice with a girl inside. A young, beautiful girl in a bathing suit, smiling. She smiles and if you listen carefully you can hear her speak.

My father is haunted by the beautiful girl in ice. By her stillness, by her tranquil acceptance and he thinks about her the day after my mother dies. His wife lies in a wooden box. It’s warmer than a block of ice, though my mother feels oddly cold.

In 1939, at the amusement center, my young father spoke to the arctic girl in her tomb of ice.  And In 1964, at a similar age, at another World’s Fair located right on top of the previous one, I spoke to Goofy on a telephone.

And thirty years later, we both speak to my mother in a warm wooden box in a funeral home. The lighting seems oddly festive, not unlike the rays and shadows of Billy Rose’s Aquacade, though the air has a slight chill. There’s the stale scent of death slipping through a weaker one of drying flowers. We say our goodbyes until someone closes the lid leaving my mother in her own kind of sacred space, as if she’s the arctic girl, surviving the impossible, living alone in permanent icy sleep.

Eleanor Holm



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