It truly is a big world ...
... or at least it was 56 years ago, as I looked up, as a 12-year-old kid, at the globe of steel that measured 140 feet high and 120 feet around as the U.S. Steel symbol of the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
Everything at the fair at Flushing Meadows seemed to emphasize that the world was getting smaller, especially the Pepsi-Cola pavilion’s theme song, “It’s a Small World, After All,” as our ride through Disney’s new “animatronic” children in every land sang that line over and over as we sailed by on our ride, and as the melody implanted it in our brains so we can hear it more than a half century later (and as Disney’s world was growing bigger and bigger…)
Some of the exhibits also showed a world growing smaller, whether it was the display of giant Bell Telephone’s picturephones, where we could actually have a televised conversation with someone at a special booth at New York’s Grand Central Station and Disneyland.
Another World’s Fair way of making the word smaller, apart from allowing us to “visit” nations around the world at their more than 140 pavilions, was a Parker Pen exhibit, where we could sign up for pen pals.
I had already filled out an application for a Parker Pen pal when I was visiting the DuPont exhibit -- where there was a musical dramatization of all the wonderful ways DuPont was making better living through chemistry. As I got ready to leave the theater, I looked down and spotted a DuPont brochure questionnaire that someone had filled out but then apparently lost.
This was a treasured find -- a query written in a kid's scrawl like mine from a girl named Elizabeth from Muskegon, Mich., asking "How does DuPont make nylon?" but maybe realizing she was too shy to submit it, or maybe she dropped it inadvertently on the floor while taking in the day's touring with her Michigander mom and dad. So, in addition to applying for my official Parker Pen pal (and eventually winding up with letters an Indonesian girl from the Netherlands) I wrote a letter to Elizabeth.
I can't tell you how DuPont makes nylon, but I can tell you I'd like to be your pen-pal..."
I never did hear from Elizabeth of Muskegon. Instead, I received a letter from his older sister, Debbie, who was my age and told me that Elizabeth was petrified at responding to a letter from a real boy, much less from New York, but that she would be happpy to correspond with me. And we did, for several years. In that first letter, she wrote to me that her town was allegedly named for an old legend who was paddling in a canoe and accidentally dropped his musket, so he named the place "musket gone." And she entertained my by writing, "It must be exciting to live in New York with all those burrows."
It was at the World's Fair that I first learned about Belgian waffles, which I remember enjoying at the Belgian exhibit. And I remember repeatedly visiting the Johnson's Wax exhibit, where the multi-screen movie, "To Live!" almost rivaled the thrill of being carried up in a moving grandstand with 500 other people that rose into a giant egg that was the IBM pavilion, covered with the letters IBM as though it were a Selectric typewriter ball, and watching a 12-minute film comparing the human mind to the "information machine" that this mysterious company was producing.
Yet another pavilion I also visited often, General Electric's "Carousel of Progress" was a theater that moved in a circle around four fixed stages on which a robotic family just before the turn of the (20th) century, the 1920s, '40s and the present 1964 praised the innovations of their particular era and dreamed of the future that lay ahead:
"There's a big, bright beautiful tomorrow,
Shining at the end of every day!
There's a big, bright beautiful tomorrow,
............................................... And tomorrow's just a dream away!"
This was the age when we first heard the Beatles, the age of Freedom Summer and the slaying of three civil rights workers in Mississippi, the year LBJ defeated Barry Goldwater to win his first and last election as president, the age of the Vietnam War's beginning to ramp up.
For me, this marked the age of the Beverly Hillbillies and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. I was far more interested in those days in the Chrysler Pavilion's Carby Carburetor than in the international exhibits. But the singing, childlike Disney robots from all around the globe at Pepsi-Cola's "It's a Small World" through which our visitor boats sailed was as far as this 12- and 13-year-old fairgoer's explorations took him, I'm sorry to say, and the take-home message for me there was simply that Disney was simply too cute.
It would be years before I the fair's Peace Through Understanding theme would take on significance for me, especially I've gotten to see how "Ignorance Through Fear" has played out, even as -- or perhaps partially because -- our world truly has shrunk through technology and our ability to travel.
At the same time, our population has mushroomed (I seriously remember the Equitable Life Assurance' demographics tabulator updating us every 12 seconds the nation's population as around 190 million whereas it's now about 330 million, with the world's 3.4 billion now more than doubled at 7.8 billion) and the mounting complexity of life has made dealing with crises -- like the current global pandemic and especially climate change -- a seemingly impossible political challenge.
But those were the hi-ho, come to the fair days before I knew enough to take off those rose-colored Herman's Hermit glasses and wake up to animatronic anxieties from all those Disney robots that had begun to emerge at Flushing Meadows.
And realize that the World's Fair is really not the real world.