That's My Story...And I'm Sticking with it...
Traveling with Dad, the Train Ride, the World’s Fair, and New York City
Dedicated to my father: George R Frost Sr. (1930-1978)
My father had a wanderlust that was passed on to me and while he filled my childhood with trips all across New York State. There were trips to other states and even another country, though that country was just a four hour drive, but the most memorable trip was when he took the train down to New York City in 1964 to see the World’s Fair.
I will never know the politics of this excursion as my mother was pregnant with my youngest brother Thomas and Stephen was still a toddler whose scream could be heard in three counties. Still, it was me and dad on a train ride to the Big Apple. If I were to describe it to you in adult terms, this was one of those trips of a lifetime as we spent most of the time skirting the eastern bank of the Hudson River after crossing the bridge in Utica. For those who have never been in New York State, it is one of the richest agricultural states of the fifty. I know this is hard to believe since the popular image has always been of the city, a concrete jungle with the tallest skyscrapers in the world (well, at least in 1964). Every school kid in New York knew that the Empire State Building was the tallest building in the world in 1964. But in between Syracuse, my hometown and New York City was some of the largest dairy farms in the country. As a matter of fact, the best apples I have ever had were from the Onondaga Indian Reservation near Nedrow which is on the border of Onondaga and Courtland County.
One of the largest train switching yards in the country in 1964 was in East Syracuse where I was technically from and my father was one of the very few citizens who did not work for the railroad. Still the depot in East Syracuse was rather dumpy and smelled of cigar smoke. From the red brick walls hung posters of different destinations from the St. Louis Arch to Disneyland which was still under a decade old. I thought maybe the train would get lost and head to Disneyland instead.
World’s Fair? What the heck was a World’s Fair? Disneyland looked a lot more fun from the poster.
An hour later we boarded the train to New York City. The passenger cars had the same decor as the old time movie theaters where I saw my first movie Mary Poppins with Carole, my stepmother. I was lucky that after dealing with me, she still adopted me in a legal proceeding so that I could legally call her my mother. Many years later at her funeral, I would deliver a eulogy where I stated that never once did she ever as her step child, always her child.
Before the Hudson River, the scenery was vast tracts of farmland which to an eight year old was boring as it could be. Dad did his best pointing out different places he had been since he grew up in Cortland County, but after that things got quiet. This was 1964 when electronic devices did not exist and the only entertainment was a book which I had of course. It was a child's encyclopedia, so by the time we got to New York City, I knew everything there was about A and B.
Archimedes took a bath and made an amazing discovery. I had taken many baths, but so far I had not made a single discovery.
Dad tried to excite me about the scenery of the Hudson River once we had crossed the bridge. But let’s face it, after a mile or so of brown water, there isn’t a whole lot to hold the attention of a child.
Now the dining car was different, but the food was not quite the hot dogs with macaroni and cheese mom made. Olives, yuck. Bleu Cheese dressing, double yuck. Dad, who I had known to eat brains and tongue sandwiches, seemed to enjoy the cuisine very much. Chickpeas? Gross.
Since the journey took over ten hours, we got to spend the night in a sleeper car. What was nice is I got a bed all to myself which did not always happen when we traveled and dad snored, a lot. I slept like the dead and woke up to a continental breakfast which was much more to my liking since there were trays of sweet rolls and other delights that I was not allowed to eat on a regular basis.
We arrived in New York City about an hour later. The terminal was jammed with all sorts of people who, like us, were on their way to the World’s Fair. We got into a taxi cab. I had never been in a cab before, but from memory I was not that impressed.
What was impressive was the gates at the World’s Fair. The gate was covered with flags of all the nations of the world at that time.
“Stay close to me.” Dad told me, “Keep hold of my hand.”
He said it like he meant business, but with all the people, some speaking strange words, I knew that this was how it was going to be.
Each building had a different country’s name on it and inside the buildings were examples of the culture of that country along with photographs of some of the scenery and people dressed in traditional costumes. Some of the people in the building were dressed in those same costumes. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. The photographs were as big or bigger than me set in giant frames. Egypt had a real camel and pictures of the pyramids and the Sphinx. In a glass display was the mummified body of King Tutankhamun, but there was a sign telling the people not to take pictures of the sarcophagus.
After a few hours of wandering in and out of different exhibitions, we stopped for a hot dog at one of the food vendors.
“I want to find the Korean Exhibit.” He said.
I had never heard of Korea, but I was with him so I figured I was about to find out. He wiped my mustard covered chin and hand in hand we set off for Korea.
Upon entering, he got really quiet. It was almost as if we had entered sacred territory and at the time, I had no idea that is exactly what we had done. Hanbok dresses and Tang suits were displayed on mannequins in glass displays. There were other mannequins dressed in battle armor with various weapons of war used in their history always caught between Japan and China or as described by one of their statesmen as a shrimp caught between a battle of two whales.
I got a bit fidgety and so dad decided it was time to move on, though I’m sure he wanted to spend a few more minutes at the exhibit.
The next exhibit would become my favorite. Traveler’s Insurance had little cars that took you through an exhibit called “The Triumph of Man.” There was a dramatic narration as you saw fourteen life size dioramas of events in history that shaped our destiny from the days of the caveman to discoveries in flight that would land us on the moon in five short years.
Copernicus was standing in his laboratory with a model of the solar system. There were Generals Lee and Grant standing together on the Chancellorsville Battlefield both of them heads bent in prayer in the aftermath. Three times I rode in the little red cars listening to the bold narration and sharing the moments that made our civilization great. I loved the narration so much, dad bought me the 45 record (look it up) that I could play over and over on my phonograph (and I did).
“This is the triumph of MAN!!!” Still get chills.
Went to China and Russia. I’m pretty sure there was some heavy propaganda, but it was all overwhelming to an eight year old.
Mona Lisa and Pita. Carole told me about this exhibit in the Italian pavilion. She would have given everything she had to see them instead I saw them and while the Mona Lisa was a great work to behold even at eight years old, I was pooh-poohed by the mother holding the body of her dead child in her lap. It was a sculpture by Michelangelo of Mary holding the lifeless body of Jesus Christ after he was taken down from the cross on Good Friday. As an adult, I saw what an incredible work of art this really was as the emotion was overwhelming. Mary was posed forever in granite in the sorrow of a mother holding her dead son. While David gets all the press, the Pita may be his greatest work and his resume is filled with masterpieces. I wish my mom could have been there with us. Her appreciation would have been far greater than my immature, philistine reaction.
For two days we went to this fair and saw other things like the Bavarian Pavilion where my dad drank beer and we listened to polkas. In the British building I got to see some costumes from Shakespeare’s day where one of the guides recited some of the better known soliloquies. In our Greek experience we say some plays from Euripides where the entire ensemble sang apocalyptic chorus. They had life size dinosaurs from Sinclair who was a gasoline company at the time and they had a machine where you could mold your own dinosaur out of plastic. Back there no one spoke of a carbon footprint.
We rode in one of those carriages that rode over the entire fair grounds from about twenty feet up in the air. By the time we got on it, I did not see a single exhibit we had missed. It was time to go back to the hotel.
The hotel was one of those four star places that give you slippers and a bathrobe. We would eat dinner in the hotel’s restaurant which was a formal place so I had to wear the tie I wore for my first communion. I loved salads, so I ordered a Waldorf. This was a mistake as my palate had not extended to having fruit and other odd things in my lettuce such as peppers and chickpeas. I would put something in my mouth and then spit it out into my linen napkin which did not make my father happy in the least. But I learned to investigate what they were putting in my salad before ordering one. When I left the table, there was a lot of food left behind in my napkin.
The next day we had a few hours before our train left, so my dad decided to get up early and explore the city with a trip to the Statue of Liberty. Now my dad was quite a tour guide as he was able to get in and out of crowds with grace and aplomb, but these were skills I was solely lacking and by the third day, my arm was sore from his constant tug.
First we took a cab to the Empire State Building which at the time was the tallest building in the world at over 108 stories. Up we went on the elevator in a ride that seemed to take forever. When the door opened, we were on the platform, hundreds of feet from the street level. I walked to the edge where the coin operated binoculars were. I immediately discovered my fear of heights and while my dad leaned over the rail to see, I stood with my back against the wall, unwilling to move from that spot.
“C’mon, take a look.” He laughed, but I just shook my head and longed to be back in the elevator. In minutes, I got my wish. Back on the street, dad got another cab to take us to the docks where we’d get on a boat to Liberty Island where we would see the Statue of Liberty in person.
The boat ride to Liberty Island where the giant lady stood with a torch in one hand and a tablet in her other was exciting. She was huge and filled with stairs on her insides. We wandered off, but dad, looking at his watch, decided we could not make it to the top.
I threw an eight year old tantrum.
It was bad enough for him to consider leaving me on Liberty Island.
But squatted down and looked me in the eyes.
“Frosty, we have to get ready to go.” He explained.
“But I want to go up there.” I pointed to her crown where I could barely see others looking out from above.
“Sorry. Maybe one day, how ‘bout it?”
There are some days promised that never come. I have kept a Hawaiian shirt in my closet. It belonged to him. He was going to wear it the year he had planned to vacation in Hawaii, but he passed away a year before. I will wear it if ever I get the chance to go.
Still very upset at missing going to the top of the Statue of Liberty even considering my paralyzing fear on the Empire State Building, we got on the train ride home.
I had no idea that four years later, he would take me to another World’s Fair, this one in Montreal in 1967, but I will let you in on a secret I have never shared with anyone else, the New York World’s Fair was much better. Don’t get me wrong, the Montreal Exposition or Expo was really great, but nothing could top one in New York. I did get my wallet picked in Montreal and lost nine bucks in the deal. Maybe that’s the reason.
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