Jen sat across from her grandfather and asked him a question. He gazed at her from behind his glasses and spoke slowly, “I was ten years old when the World’s Columbian Exposition came to Chicago.”
She knew that this would be the final interview for her thesis. After this interview, she could begin writing and soon obtain her master’s degree that she had been working on diligently for most of her late twenties. Like the icing on the cake, this interview would be an integral part of her research into the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. She had been waiting for her grandfather to share his story for years now. Especially because she didn’t realize at first that, of course, her grandfather was in Chicago in 1893. Of course he was at the fair. Of course he would have stories to tell. It no longer seemed a coincidence that she was interested in the most innovative and intriguing world’s fair in history.
She poised her pen and began to take notes. “Go on,” she encouraged.
Her grandfather paused and regained his thoughts. “It was all my parents talked about, leading up to it. All I could imagine was that it was akin to the carnival that would come around our town when I was growing up. ‘No,’ my mother had told me, ‘this is much, much larger than the annual carnival. The whole world will be there.’
The whole world? How was that possible? Of course, it wasn’t the world’s population that was present, but instead, a small sample of each corner of the world. Tribes from faraway countries, food from continents I hadn’t heard of. The Fair was like a floating foreign city that invaded Chicago for months on end. A brand new city with its own census. For a boy who hadn’t ever left the neighborhood he was born in, the mass of people was unending. But absolutely enthralling.
There were inventions, languages, art, ideas, books, theories, wonders, and so many buildings. The city itself was a character in its own play. I remember asking my mother why so many of the buildings were big and white. She said, ‘They are calling Chicago the White City because of those buildings.’ She was right. The buildings were like castles in a fairy tale to me.
We waited hours with people my parents had met at the fair to ride this huge contraption. Today it’s called a Ferris wheel. And it’s at ever amusement park and carnival there is. But when I was ten, it was a moving building. Some odd structure that took people up in the sky in circles. How was I supposed to know if we would ever come back? My father looked at me, ‘It will be fun. You’ll be able to see everything from the top. And we will make it back down, I promise.’
It was true. We sat with sixty other people in one car, revolving around like a wheel. There was a dining table in the car to eat at. But I was more fascinated with looking outside than I was eating. I could see what a bird saw when it flew. I could see all the way to the Lake and wondered what was beyond it. It was exhilarating.
The fair was the most magical thing of my childhood.”
They talked for hours, and when her grandfather had completed his detailed experience, Jen finally stopped writing. She had everything she needed and more for her project. For as many unanswered questions she had, she gained that many more answers. And she knew that this time spend talking was for more than just her degree, it was to hear stories from the source, from those who were actually there at The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.