April 1991

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Harpending's Corners


Edwin N. Harris

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The Chicago World's Fair

The 1933-1934 World Fair at Chicago was hailed in the news as the largest ever, the fair that might well end all fairs in the foreseeable future. The world then was larger, not a place one could circle in a couple hours in a space-craft, or commute from London to New York on a daily basis.

When Ralph Smith, a boy two years older than I, invited me to join his group of three others to motor to Chicago, I was pleased. Ralph estimated the total cost for each of us to be thirty-five dollars (gasoline was about 22 cents a gallon). Grandma Dillistin, always determined to get me out of Dundee, "So you can some day amount to something," insisted that I go, and she furnished some of the money.

And so, early one late June morning in 1934, we headed west in Ralph's Chevy sedan with passengers Howard Harper, Merlyn Wheeler, Kenneth Smith, and myself, all with adolescent anticipation of great adventure. The excited talk in the car was often about Sally Rand, the exotic fan dancer we had read about. She was in the papers!

As we crossed Ohio and Indiana, we learned that a stop at a mid-west farmhouse for a drink of water would often yield food from a generous farmwife, who as often as not was blessed with a friendly daughter or two. When this was the case we loitered for a while to chat with the girls.

After about three days we rolled into Chicago and found a hotel in the loop, near downtown, where Ralph negotiated lodgings in two rooms that would cost us each three dollars a night. A four-star hotel it was not, but it gave us a base of operations, and the five hayseeds felt that Chicago was indeed theirs.

We boarded a trolley bound for the fairgrounds, eager to see the wonders of the world. But alas, the famous Sally Rand was not performing that week and we had to settle for "Little Egypt" who practiced her aerobics for a brief viewing in dim orange light behind a green gauze curtain. Howard Harper, whom we considered to be our most obvious rustic, was duly shocked by her suggestive movements. Ralph consoled him. "Aw, come on Howard—we'll take you over to the agriculture exhibits where you can look at some real cows." Tall, tow-headed, gangly and raw-boned, Howard was so bashful that it was eventful if he uttered more than two words in an hour. Howard's sleep habit was to retire at dusk and rise very early. Upon awakening, his roommates would find him dressed and staring out the window with a melancholy countenance, this at any time after 5 am.

Our two adjoining fourth floor rooms were connected on the outside by an iron fire escape, so that by climbing through a window we could harass our buddies from the outside. Ingenious Ralph hit on a plan that involved four of us chipping in enough money to engage a prostitute who would be instructed to climb in bed with the snoring Howard. Ralph described the payoff.

"Boys, this will be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see what reaction we get from our rural friend in this situation. "We'll watch from the fire escape."

Of course we were all pretty "rural." With the covert aid of the elevator operator, the plan was deployed as designed, except for a short delay when the lady of the evening became suspicious that she was being used for a practical joke with an uncertain outcome. Ralph calmed the dark-eyed brunette with two more dollars, and assured her that we would protect her from harm. She muttered something about too many goddam farmers in Chicago these days, but finally dropped her shift, or whatever it was she wore, and headed for Howard's bed as instructed.

We took up our positions on the fire escape to watch. Howard was slow to awaken, but when he discovered the source of his molestation, he let out a shriek and jumped a foot or two off his bed. Then as a red fox, startled from his nest on a grassy slope by approaching danger, first runs a circle to locate the danger and find the safest escape route, Howard, confounded and confused, also ran a couple of circles around the room, hollering "Get out of here, you darned old bat." Our girl, now sure she was being rejected, bolted out the door where she found us in the hall, holding each other with laughter. After some scathing remarks about our ancestry, the legitimacy of our births, and our queer sexual preferences, she demanded taxi fare and left.

The next day Howard sulked in the car, warily watching our every move all the way to Detroit, where we visited and freeloaded at Wheeler's aunt and uncle's, who had two daughters—who had girl friends, one of which I guess I made some wild promises to. I was quite unsettled when a month or two later she phoned me from a cottage on Seneca Lake where she was visiting relatives with her parents.

By this time I was quite involved with the lady who would be my future wife, and the whole situation was awkward, to say the least. I visited the Detroit lady to explain my case, and received about the same response that our touring group got from the gal in Chicago.

© 1991, Edwin N. Harris
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