Here was a time, as I was growing up, when my mother seemed a constant embarrassment to me. So when she offered to take my sister and me to the 1939 New York World's Fair (I was 11, Katharine 9), I had mixed feelings.
On the one hand, I was dying to see Johnny Weissmuller, whose third Tarzan picture I'd just seen, do his daredevil dive at the aquacade. And I'd be happy to spend the rest of the day at "The World of Tomorrow." All my friends from school had been to the fair, some more than once. But even though Katharine and I had been begging our parents to take us for more than two months, I knew there would be one big hitch. I could count on my mother doing something really embarrassing.
She couldn't resist talking to strangers. And eventually she would talk about us. The time Clintie fell down the well. That was a favorite. She even spoke with Dr. Finnegan's Irish accent when she delivered the punch line: "Sure and it just goes to show you that the lad's been saved for the ministry." It wasn't even funny unless you knew that my father was an Episcopalian minister; but of course she would have told them that by then. It always got a big laugh.
My mother told lots of jokes. She sang comic songs. She did her best to drive us crazy. If my father had come along, he might have been able to control her. But he wasn't coming. He had too many other things to do.
I was wearing my new blue suit for boarding school in the fall. (One more year of short pants.) It was scratchy and very hot. Katharine was all dressed up, too, and very grumpy from having to wait so long to get into "The World of Tomorrow." To me it was worth it, though, just to see the transparent car.
My mother was behaving pretty well, too. She hadn't even talked to anyone on the train. Only one embarrassment, when she made me take a picture of her poised in the arms of Electro, the talking robot. Something to show Dad.
We were actually headed for the exit when my mother said, "Wait a minute. We've got to go in there." It was the telephone company's exhibit. Her friend Mrs. Hazelbach had told her it shouldn't be missed.
Inside, we were given headphones, and a man on the stage read out some numbers. The people who had them got to make phone calls to anyone they wanted to in the United States. The first winner was a lady who called her husband in Cleveland. When they finally got him - he was out in the yard, or something - all he could say was, "What? Speak up! I can't hear you!" There were a few titters, but mostly just silence.
And the other winners weren't much better. You were supposed to be impressed by "the magic of long distance." There was a big map of the United States on the wall, and for every city the call went through, a light would go on. It took forever.
WELL, the fourth number called out was mine. Katharine kept hopping up and down, saying: "Oh, boy! Call Daddy!" She didn't understand it at all. The whole idea was to call someone far away.
"Uncle" Charlie, I thought, suddenly. He had just moved to Phoenix and was a bigwig.
"Perfect," I thought, as I walked up onto the stage, went into the transparent phone booth, and gave the operator his name and where he lived. Uncle Charlie would be sure to say something funny.
As I waited for the call to go through, however, I began to get nervous. There were hundreds of people out there looking at me, and they'd be listening to every word we said. The lights on the wall were blinking away: Detroit, Chicago. My knees began to quiver. I wished there was a place for me to sit down.
"Clinton?" It was Uncle Charlie, at last. "Tell me: Did you make it through sixth grade?"
"Sure," I said, though actually it had been close.
"Good," he said, " 'Cause I know your parents were worried about you."
I could hear the laughter. I explained where I was and what was going on, but I don't think he got it.
"So how's your mother?" he said.
"OK, I guess," relieved that he'd stopped talking about me.
"Her feet still giving her trouble?"
"I don't know," I replied. "What do you mean?" I could hear the laughter building.
"Is her toe still bothering her?" I felt myself turn red in the face. "With those big feet of hers, she ought to know better than to wear high heels." I shouldn't have been upset. My mother was the one getting it. But I was getting upset.
"Well, tell her to try Blue Jay corn plasters," he said. The audience went wild. "OK?" I couldn't say a word. "Clinton?" he said. "Are you there?"
I kept my eyes lowered as I walked back to my seat through the laughter, expecting my mother to suddenly grab me by the hand. I was certain that now the three of us would stalk out of there, march straight down to the station, and take the train home.
But she didn't come, and when I got to my seat, I couldn't believe it. She was laughing, too, louder than anyone. "OK," I thought. "If she doesn't care, I don't either."
And it didn't even bother me, later on, when she told how Clinton got a free, long-distance call to Uncle Charlie at the World's Fair and....