cover_story4 (2007-14)

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Growing up in the aftermath of the 1982 World’s Fair

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A Generation Late

by Leslie Wylie

"Your mother and I used to go to the Fair every weekend," a stout, middle-aged father says to his son as they make their way down the stairs leading from Clinch Avenue to the World's Fair Park. The mother nods solemnly. "Your Uncle Mark did, too," she adds. "That was back when we were in college. That was long before you came along."

The boy, who's maybe six or seven years old, scowls skeptically and tries to change the subject, but it's too late. His parents are already awash in a sea of nostalgia, vignettes from which they're now rehashing out loud--elevator rides up the Sunsphere, inner-pavilion adventures, live music, exotic food... the good old days of the 1982 World's Fair.

By now, though, the son doesn't appear to be listening. Walking a few steps ahead of the family across the park's grassy lawn, I sympathize with his reaction, or lack thereof. For the post-World's Fair generation, secondhand memories and shoddy relics are all we have to go by as we attempt to make some sense of that weirdly colorful chapter of our hometown's past. It can be frustrating, like walking up on a party that just ended and, with an empty keg and a scattering of upturned lawn furniture as your only clues, trying to puzzle back together what happened, deduce exactly how much fun was had.

To be fair, as my own parents are wont to remind me, I was at the World's Fair. They even took me up into the Sunsphere. I was just too young to remember. My mom went into labor with me during Saturday Night on the Town, the big festival on Gay Street, the autumn before the Fair began. At about the same time, my dad was busy building an efficiency apartment over our detached two-car garage in Fountain City, with the intention of renting it out during the Fair. The city had advised suburbanites like my parents that out-of-towners would be arriving in hoards, and they'd need somewhere to stay.

But the apartment, painted that garish shade of gold that was so en vogue in the early '80s, was never rented out; the out-of-towners turned out to be not so desperate, after all. Instead it became a storage place for Christmas decorations and a playroom for my younger sisters and me. The tale of its origin seemed dusty, irrelevant, as did majority of our parents' Fair memoirs. As we grew older, though, and our awareness of place grew keener, the stories began their slow ascent from the page, gradually evolving into mysteries more akin to myth.

As best as I could figure, the 1982 World's Fair must've been something like Epcot Center, sans the creepy life-sized Disney characters, with a gigantic, golden ball standing in as Spaceship Earth. The Sunsphere in particular, spotted during occasional trips downtown, piqued my interest. What's up there ? What does it mean ? (Questions that, of course, still plague many of us to this day.)

From our front lawn, on the crest of Black Oak Ridge, my sisters and I could see the Sunsphere through our parents' binoculars if we looked hard enough, and if trees were bare. Over the years we turned up other artifacts of the Fair as well. Photographs. A handful of pins. The tissue-thin World's Fair T-shirts we discovered in our father's chest drawer, which would disappear sometime later in our youth. Mom probably took them to Goodwill, a shame considering the money they'd fetch on eBay today. If nothing else, the shirts would've upped our cool factor in high school.

World's Fair T-shirts, as if you haven't already noticed, are all the rage. (World's Fair tattoos run a close second.) And the trend isn't limited to East Tennessee. Three or four years ago, at a bar in San Diego, I saw a surfer kid wearing a threadbare, canary-yellow one, emblazoned with the red flame logo. I approached him after he finished his game of pool and asked him if he was from Knoxville. He replied with something to the effect of, "Nah way, dude."

Surprised and probably feeling homesick--I was a couple months into a cross-country road trip--I got a little defensive: "Well, you can't wear a World's Fair T-shirt if you're not from Knoxville. It's wrong. It's posing." I tried to buy the shirt off his back, but he declined the offer. Wisely, I'm sure.

I recently recounted the story to Chris King, the Knoxvillian who now owns the World's Fair logo's trademark and has since applied it to a new line of T-shirts he sells online and, over the holidays, hawked at a kiosk at West Town Mall. His shirts are big in New York City, he says; at least one boutique he's aware of is reselling them for $70 apiece. "And they're getting it, too," he says.

King speculates that part of it probably has to do with the popularity of vintage and vintage-look shirts in general with Generation X. It also has something to do with irony, he says, the fact that this scruffy little Southern city was hosting a World's Fair. "Before the Fair, no one, at least no one from the outside world, knew about Knoxville. The World's Fair made Knoxville a name," he says.

During the stint he worked the T-shirt kiosk, King noticed that the most enthusiastic buyers of the shirts tended to be 16- to 25-year-olds. "Their thing is they grew up listening to their parents talking about this 1982 World's Fair," King says. "They kept hearing about it, but they didn't really have a way of making sense of this history of Knoxville, this ball on a stick downtown."

King himself was 10 when the Fair set up shop and has vivid memories of visiting the fair with his family. (His dad eventually bought the Australian building and dismantled it for parts.) "I'm a kid growing up in Knoxville and all of a sudden here's the world slapping me in the face," he says. King suspects his experiencing the Fair as a child, with all the childish wonder that goes along with it, was probably what led him to become so "fanatical" about it as an adult. Over the past 25 years, he's amassed a huge collection of Fair memorabilia, some of which he scavenged himself while the site was being disassembled. In 2000, following a stroke of curiosity, he managed to secure the rights to the World's Fair trademark, which the Fair's organizers had let lapse in 1988.

But King says his main motivation for keeping the World's Fair in the public spotlight today, by way of his marginally lucrative T-shirt business, is pride. "The main thing was to give kids a way to celebrate Knoxville," he explains. "Otherwise they don't really have anything to celebrate except UT football."

Maybe pride, mixed with possessiveness, was why I felt so insulted by the sight of that Californian wearing a World's Fair shirt. He was confusing my mystery with his fashion statement, oversimplifying the identity of an entire city he'd never experienced and knew nothing about. Selfish? Perhaps. But something trumps nothing, and selfish is better than ambivalent. Selfish implies ownership, citizenry. Knoxville is my home.

The mother and father are still trading World's Fair stories when we part ways on the park's chalky white sidewalk. The son still might as well have his hands over his ears. But someday, he'll start listening. Someday he'll start solving the mystery for himself, piecing it all together one borrowed memory at a time.

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