Every summer for the rest of my life may remind me of one particular summer a long time ago. Sometimes it’s an afternoon rain, or a bright humid morning, or an accumulation of sunburned people in silly T-shirts, and for a moment I’m back there in that strange place and time.
In the morning I put on a red polyester shirt and blue polyester pants and walked from my apartment to a gate in a high fence. I showed my ID, and a guard let me into the big compound. The room where we clocked in was down below the street level of a viaduct with a plaque that still said Asylum Avenue. The room, fluorescent-lit, didn’t suggest anything about where we were. It was a big, dirty room in an old industrial building. A fan whirred and pendulant yellow strips were covered with dead and dying flies. The strips were never enough, because there were always live flies. And I’d clock in, literally, with a long card with my name on it and an old-fashioned gray steel stamper. But it was only for a moment, and then I’d be out in the sunshine, walking vigorously as a very young man in a bright and empty place, stopping now and then to roll white plastic stanchions, with bases filled with sand, and stretching light plastic chains. At some of the pavilions, Mexico and Saudi Arabia, we arranged the stanchions into a square maze of back-and-forth crooked lines. At some, like China, Egypt, and Peru, we stretched the chains in two very long lines.
That was the easy part, just before opening, when everything seemed orderly and when it seemed like maybe today, this time, it was going to work perfectly. A World’s Fair with nobody in it is a beautiful and perfect thing.
We arranged the chains every morning. Then, for a few minutes, we waited. The wait was most dramatic just south of Cumberland Avenue, where a tall square tower with a pagoda roof said CHINA in big red letters.
Located somewhere between Maplehurst and Neyland Stadium, it was the pavilion all the travel agents told their clients not to miss. People traveled many hundreds of miles to Knoxville to see China. It was the first time the Peoples Republic of China had ever participated in a western world’s fair. To encourage them, Knoxville had relaxed the energy-centric rules by which the other pavilions abided. China brought a small load of big bricks, presumably non-load-bearing ones, from the Great Wall itself; dozens of real-live artisans, performing their crafts in jade, ivory, glass, and silk for the millions; an ivory carving of a dragon boat; a token energy-science exhibit, a polite nod to the fair’s theme; and two terra-cotta warriors, older than Jesus, frozen in mysterious poses, as if preparing to strike. Everybody in America wanted to see it all. Or so it seemed that summer.
Across half a mile of shimmering white concrete, we could see them coming, like a stampede in a cowboy movie, not raising dust perhaps, but a colorful band that thickened and became more distinct with each second.
They were the first of about 100,000 people who would visit the World’s Fair on a typical summer day. Four minutes after opening, they were always running, the older and more corpulent people not keeping up, the children yet to be seen, the teenagers too cool to care; this first morning wave was a phalanx composed mainly of the most aggressive young and middle-aged adults, the most insistent arriving first. And we would stand there in our red shirts, directing them, knowing they’d never been here before, funneling them in between the white chains we’d stretched there to contain the China Line.
They were easier to deal with than the ones who came later, because these first ones got what they wanted, and got it fast. By 10:20, the line was dependably two hours long. I never clocked it, but there were repeated claims that by 11 it was four hours long. The slower people, the ones who stayed in the hotel for one more cup of coffee, were often disappointed and angry.
We weren’t trained to deal with them. We weren’t trained for anything. We were —as the woman who hired me described it—just young, male, and “strapping.” We enjoyed our status as uniformed members of a ground force known as Crowd Control.
We always told disappointed tourists it would be easier later. In the afternoon, after 3 or so, the China Line was rarely more than half an hour long. By 4, sometimes you could just walk right in. People from Iowa and Connecticut and Florida looked at us skeptically. We were strapping, but not credible.
We tried different tactics. Tickets with stamped times to visit, but it lasted one week. We even tried to stamp people’s arms with times, though it sounded like something the Nazis would do. I’ll always cringe when I think of some interchanges. We had to do it all very fast, and once I stamped the decorative print sleeve of an old man’s shirt. He looked at it silently and moved on, and I was stamping other people.
Every alternative turned into a small disaster. By mid-summer, we were back to the long line. It was easy to understand. But it sometimes stretched more than a quarter of a mile, from the pavilion north across the bridge over Cumberland, all the way to the IMAX theater and beyond, sometimes even to the Tennessee Amphitheatre.
A few weeks later, after some complaints, the unseen exposition adminstration hired other crowd-control assistants who were more personable than we were. Most were pretty young women barely out of high school. One was an especially extroverted black man of indeterminate age who knew how to talk to strangers.
It’s hard to make disappointed people laugh. But when he announced, “Slow Boat to China,” to whole sections of the line with a smile, and the older people laughed. They were the ones who remembered the 1948 Kay Kyser song. There were a lot of people around then who did remember it, and for a moment perhaps they began singing the song in their minds, and maybe it made the wait in this concrete hothouse more tolerable.
Celebrities got special treatment, led in by the elite security crew, to which we deferred. I regret that I was not on duty there on the day the B-52s, about the era of their album Mesopotamia, came to investigate the China pavilion. But I was there when boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, just before he announced his retirement, got an eyeful of the China pavilion and came back out, smiling and waving to the crowds. Less noticed, another morning, was President Carter’s controversial budget adviser Bert Lance. “Was that—?” a tourist asked me. Yes, I said. I couldn’t remember his name, either.
Some people were infamous, though, like the line-cutting New Jersey teenage—or so I judged by his accent, when he whined, “Get oaffa me!” as I had to drag out of China’s foyer. It was the first time I’d been inside the pavilion, myself.
Sometimes people had heart attacks. The ambulance cart would take them away. There were always rumors that they died. I don’t know whether, somewhere, there’s a list of people who died at the 1982 World’s Fair.
The most motivating complaint about the China Line came from the Coca-Cola people in Atlanta. They were complaining not about the wait, but the line itself. This wall of people was blocking other people from getting to, or even seeing, their late-arriving surprise, which was by the hill just south of Cumberland. It was just a little shed, nothing like a pavilion, but they expected it to be a big draw. Coca-Cola was offering samples of experimental new flavors of their famous product, in cherry, vanilla, lemon, lime, chocolate. In my opinion, chocolate Coke was the only one that didn’t work, and I told them so. (Pre-mixed cherry Coke showed up in groceries a few years later. I’m still waiting to see those others.)
On these hot days, it should have been mobbed. But the China Line blocked the stand, and casual strollers at large couldn’t get to Coke’s amazing new flavors, couldn’t even see the signs advertising Coke’s amazing new flavors, through the great wall of tourists.
Our solution, sophisticated by crowd-control standards, was to create two gates in the chained lane, opening a passage of about 10 feet. Kind of like operating a lock in a dam, we’d let the line flow for a while until it filled up the front part of the line, then we’d cut it off, and let people go back and forth to the Coca-Cola concession. It took two people to run it, and if we didn’t watch carefully, as the line slowly drained into the pavilion, anarchists would slip under the chain and cut line.
The Coke experiment was never the sensation it might have been. When they chose to put it there, along the World’s Fair’s tightest bottleneck, so close to the exposition’s most popular attraction, it would have seemed ideally situated to draw big crowds, but it wasn’t.
They didn’t reckon on the fact that the fair’s single biggest phenomenon was the China Line itself.
Our long, narrow creek-gulley was pretty unusual for a World’s Fairgrounds, but it provided a surprisingly handy escape. At lunchtime, I got a sandwich from the hearty blokes at the window of the Downunder Pub, which was down under the Australian pavilion, and disappeared down into a shady little stone-lined wharf of sorts by Second Creek, which looked as idyllic as a rural scene in an old Salem commercial. It was a mystery to me why it wasn’t more popular, for the same reasons that I liked it. It was accessible to all 100,000 people at the fair, but I hardly ever encountered anyone else down there except, once, a mother changing a diaper. Downstream, a couple of times, I could see the Chinese pavilion’s employees, in the creek, catching fish, carp especially. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but they seemed amazed by our natural bounty. Or maybe, like me, they just needed this break from the ridiculously attractive sensation that they created.
Today, as strange as it seems, it’s hard to identify exactly where the China Pavilion was, the big House of Wonders visited by tens of thousands every day one hot, humid summer 35 years ago. There’s a university parking lot along where much of the World’s Fair’s biggest line marched. But China was somewhere along that now-wooded hillside above the Second Creek Greenway. On a busy day, you might see two or three people there at once, jogging or riding a bike.
Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.
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