The day the Seattle World’s Fair opened — a mostly sunny Saturday, April 21, 1962 — I stood on a pitcher’s mound on Bainbridge Island, where I grew up, and looked longingly over the batter’s helmet toward the Space Needle eight miles across the water.
Instead of being at the fair, I was tossing batting practice for my Little League teammates. How could I not be there?
A week later the torture continued, when we had dinner at my grandfather’s house on Prospect Street on Queen Anne’s south slope.
After dinner, in the dark, I crossed the road to look down on the Fair: the colored lights, the Ferris wheel, the whoops of kid-joy coming from the Fun Forest
It wasn’t until many years later, when I read “The Great Gatsby,” and came across the mysterious phrase, “orgiastic future,” and the image of Jay Gatsby standing in the dark staring across the bay toward the light at the end of Daisy’s dock, that I said to myself: That’s exactly how it was. That’s what it felt like to a 12-year-old boy.
Over that summer I visited the fair many times and wasn’t disappointed.
It all seems so innocent from here.
For starters, you didn’t have to be rich, or mortgage your life away, to live on Bainbridge Island or in the Seattle in 1962. My paternal grandmother, St. Louis Irish, lived in the Grosvenor House with my unmarried aunt, who wouldn’t marry until my grandmother died.
My grandmother said things like “Youz” and “Cincinattah” and didn’t believe John Glenn circled the earth. I’d be surprised if anyone living at the Grosvenor House these days says “Youz.”
And my grandfather, a man of modest means, lived on Queen Anne because he could afford to. The house is still there, tucked against the hill, now with a second storey.
The much-ballyhooed decline of the American middle class hadn’t gotten underway. By the late 1980s the average income of the American taxpayers was $33,400, adjusted for inflation. Two decades later that number remained unchanged.
Meanwhile the 1 percenters have seen their incomes grow by some 33 percent in the past two decades.
By the dawn of the 21st century, the average American family spent twice as much on their mortgage, adjusted for inflation, as did the previous generation. Never mind health insurance.
Back in 1962, Seattle was very much a Boeing town. If the engineers and executives tended to live along Lake Washington, blue-collar workers could live pretty much anywhere else in the city, including Queen Anne and Magnolia.
One of the World’s Fair guides featured an essay by Emmett Watson, the late Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist, in which he quotes a young lawyer: “I could make twice the fees in Chicago, but who wants to live in Chicago? I could never live there the way I do here.”
No doubt Seattle’s legal fees have caught up with Chicago’s.
On the day the Fair ended, a warm October Sunday, our family drove to Port Gamble on the Kitsap Peninsula to survey the damage done to the historic old hotel by the Columbus Day storm. I kicked the orange and brown leaves in the pioneer cemetery and wondered what was going on across the water that bittersweet afternoon. I couldn’t believe grown-ups could stage a World’s Fair and then just pull the plug.
As evening fell in Seattle, the last words of “Auld Lange Syne” sung, the end had come. C. David Hughbanks, who worked at the fair and would go on to be a major player in civic affairs, once told me what he remembered about that moment.
When the plug was pulled, he said, the leaves near the all-night lights curled up in the crisp October air like a scene out of a speeded up Disney nature film.
The next day President Kennedy would take to the airwaves to talk about the Soviet missiles in Cuba, employing words and phrases like, “provocative,” “clandestine” and “full retaliatory response.”
For this 12-year-old — never such innocence again.