(Note: I grew up living with my grandparents, Sadie and Elton Wood, and as more time goes by, the more I appreciate the years I spent with them. This is the only time I remember that my grandfather disobeyed his wife. Grandparents Day is the first Sunday after Labor Day, Sept. 11.)
My grandparents, Sadie and Elton, took me to the 1939 New York World’s Fair when I was 11 years old. The first sight of the symbolic Trylon and Perisphere standing over that sparkling wonderland I’d seen in the newsreels was enough to make me jump out of my skin.
The Depression years were coming to an end, and the fair was all about giving America hope for the future. We weren’t thinking about Hitler’s march through Europe, and that some of the countries, like Poland and Czechoslovakia, were closing their exhibits because of it. I only remember Elton saying, “Nancy, when you’re our age, this is what things will look like,” referring to the shiny, curvy cars and trains they called streamlined, the wringerless washing machines, and the electric typewriters we were allowed to try.
Sadie and Elton were as eager as I was to cram in all the sights. The building that housed the baking exhibit was in the shape of a loaf of bread with fat red, blue, and yellow balloons festooned all over, so it would look like the Wonder Bread we all loved and kept in our bread boxes. Elsie the Borden Cow was cute, too. But I was more excited about seeing Johnny Weismuller. With stunning waterfalls behind him as he dove, the show was spectacular. He was Tarzan, one of America’s heartthrobs, and he attracted crowds like a rock star.
I knew there was an amusement park at the fair, but when I mentioned it, Sadie said, “No, dear, you can go to an amusement park any old time. You need to see these wonderful exhibits so you’ll remember them.”
I wonder if I pouted and seemed ungrateful. I hope not. But you couldn’t miss the parachute jump, the tower pointing upwards, all 265 feet of it. I’d seen movies where people bailed out of planes; my Uncle Clarence had jumped, and it was positively something I’d planned on trying. So far, jumping off a high diving board was the closest I’d come to the real thing.
“Sadie, she wants to see that parachute jump,” Elton said. “I can take her over to look at it and you can stay here and watch the style show. What do you say?”
“All right, I guess, but I don’t want you two to even think of going up on that thing. I mean it, Elton.”
We set off to see the jump. My grandfather had surprised me, and every once in a while I glanced at him to see if he looked worried about the way he’d pushed Sadie into allowing us to see the jump. Elton adored my grandmother, and almost always heeded her advice. She took good care of him, and they were happy the way they were, with Sadie ruling the roost. But as kind and gentle as Elton was, I admired daredevils like Errol Flynn, who would never have allowed women to boss them around.
On the way along to the tower, Elton explained to me that the parachute jump was not an ordinary amusement park ride. He said it was constructed like the ones used to train paratroopers, that Amelia Earhart’s husband had built one, and that Amelia, someone I admired more than anyone, was the first person to jump from it.
Arriving at the gate, we watched the riders, two at a time, drift down in the chute, some smiling, some quite pale. The harnesses looked safe, and the parachute stayed open with only a slight bouncing at the end of the ride. My grandfather must have seen the yearning in my face when all of a sudden he was taking my arm and steering me to the end of the line.
“What, we’re going?” I asked, astonished at such a turn of events.
“We’re going,” he said, “but you must never tell your grandmother, because it would upset her too much.”
Soon we were strapped into the canvas seat, and as we ascended, we could see the fairgrounds below, magical, like the Land of Oz. We reached the top, and the jump began. When the parachute opened, my insides left my body and I was nothing but air, just as I’d imagined it would be. I loved the feeling, it was pure rapture, and I wished they’d built the tower higher. Remembering my grandfather belted in beside me, I peeked over at him. I saw that his face was drained of color as he sat, stiff as a board, hands clutching the bar, his elderly knuckles strained and white. He looked petrified. I pretended I didn’t see.
When it was all over and our shaky legs touched the ground, Elton said, “Well, that was quite a ride. But remember, we only looked at that tower. Never tell your grandmother we went on it.”
“I won’t, cross my heart,” I said. And I never did.