The World’s Fair came to New York in 1964, and a few of us skipped school to check it out, among them my friend Bob. We watched atoms collide at the General Electric exhibit, journeyed into space in the Hall of Science, flew to the moon in an easy chair courtesy of General Motors, saw ourselves on color television at RCA, then zipped above it all in a monorail. At the Coca Cola exhibit we walked through a humid Cambodian rain forest, a noisy street in Hong Kong, and an Alpine ski lodge that smelled of snow and peppermint. Loftily dedicated to “man’s achievement on a shrinking globe in an expanding universe” the fair was in fact mostly about big corporations and gee-whiz technology, but its official theme was Peace Through Understanding, and for a handful of kids from Central Islip, this was pretty heady stuff.
At the Parker Pen Pavilion, Bob and I filled out forms for computer-matched pen pals. I answered in ways I believed would garner me a cute British boy, but my pen pal turned out to be a girl from the Netherlands, who really was a perfect match; we exchanged letters for years before we finally lost track of each other, and I still wish I could find her again. The grand finale of the day was ascending on an escalator in the Vatican Pavilion that moved us slowly past Michelangelo’s Pieta, its white marble lit eerily against a blue backdrop.
I do recall an ominous display of global population growth sponsored by Equitable Life Assurance whose astronomical and continually increasing numbers gave me a vague sense of anxiety, but overall the fair presented a breathtakingly optimistic view of the future. Tomorrow would bring affluence, convenience, and steady, full-throttle progress, with American industry at the helm. Oh, we knew there was turmoil in the world, and plenty of it: Cold War tensions, escalating war in Southeast Asia, the civil rights movement heating up and impossible to ignore. Even the shiny façade of the World’s Fair itself hid ugly politics and behind-the-scenes racial inequities. But Bob and I were sailing ahead with idealism and confidence, certain of great possibilities. He was a restless and creative person, determined to get out of town as soon and as far as he could, and in the meantime, he approached life with curiosity and enthusiasm, paying attention, recognizing opportunities, stepping forward from the sidelines.
Naturally, when Robert Kennedy’s Senate campaign announced a series of stops in Long Island later that year, it was Bob who knew we should be there. He had a sense of history, a sense of occasion. We walked downtown together and waited among the crowds that lined the main street. Soon the vehicles approached and there was Kennedy himself, his hair a thick shock of sandy brown, his features youthful and handsome, smiling and waving and reaching down to accept the hands offered up to him, including ours. “Well, that was something we’ll remember,” Bob said.
The future came. It came far more swiftly than we could have ever imagined and, as the World’s Fair had predicted, a great many marvels unfolded, but things were also terrible and complex. In the spring of our senior year of high school, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and two months later, Robert Kennedy. Our class graduated, proceeded into summer jobs and colleges, or went to fight a war. The following year, a man walked on the moon, and we saw pictures of a tiny blue planet, fragile and beautiful and beleaguered, already threatened by the very industrial progress we had celebrated, and we drifted further into our challenging and distracting lives.
I never saw Bob again; he went to Los Angeles, achieved some success in television, and died in his 40s. I moved to a ranch in California where I live to this day: still anxious, still amazed, growing old. The news is always dire. But some kind of crazy hopefulness took root in me long ago, and I can’t shake it.
“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself,” said Robert Kennedy, “but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.” With naiveté and wonder, we imagined the future, influenced our own small portion of events, succeeded, failed, continued. And collectively, intentionally, maybe we can still bend history.