Charles Demers: The Summer of ’86

Thirty years ago, Expo made an indelible mark on this city—and the people who lived here

June 24, 2016

By Charles Demers

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

Try to imagine, if you can, my surprise upon learning that William Wordsworth wasn’t writing about Expo 86. Thirty years ago, more or less exactly, the provincial backwater of Vancouver opened itself up to the world through the prism of a transportation-themed minor World’s Fair, and my most emblematic memory of the event doesn’t even take place on the official fairgrounds. When I think of the moment that best defines the brief and prosperous reign of Ernie the First, the fair’s robot king, I’m nowhere near the glint of what was not yet Science World, nor the shady wonder of what was not yet among the most valuable stretches of condo-dense real estate in the world.

Instead, the memory that sums the whole thing up for me takes place east of Boundary Road, in a first grade classroom on an autumn day in Burnaby, where a teacher—my teacher—is trying vainly to explain to her six-year-old charges that just because Expo 86 is over doesn’t mean it’s 1987. For a small child in the Lower Mainland, the extents of Expo 86 overlapped with the extents of the known universe with the perfect symmetry of the hot and cold polystyrene hemispheres of a McDLT served on the McBarge.

It still gives me vertigo to imagine that some people experienced Expo 86 as adults, or teenagers—that is to say, as a phenomenon that merely took place in the world rather than giving birth to it. My old sketch-comedy partner, Paul, worked there in the prime of his breakdancing adolescence; my producer on The Debaters, Richard Side, was a youngish but fully adult improv comic, putting on a show in the Amiga Theatre with Ryan Stiles (on which a man who was not yet my uncle, having not yet married my aunt, was working as a tech). The idea of Expo as a place where a horny teenage boy might try to meet girls, or a comedian might kick off a career, is alien to me—I thought the whole thing was built for us kids to thrill to Colour Wars. In the same way that if you can remember Woodstock you weren’t really there, well, if you were tall enough to ride the Scream Machine then it didn’t really mean anything to you.

Equally jarring was my discovery that Expo was a commercial and political project I’d likely have opposed as an adult—with prefigurations of the boondoggles and mean-spirited exclusions that marked Expo’s sleeker, higher-end mutant child, the 2010 Olympics. And yet six years later, who talks about the Olympics? Besides the heroics of a goaltender not yet returned to Florida, who remembers the Games with anything approaching the blinding nostalgia we reserve for a dumpy little fair about monorails? As Wordsworth wrote, “They who had fed their childhood upon dreams, / The playfellows of fancy, who had made / All powers of swiftness, subtilty, and strength / Their ministers”—and what’s swifter or more subtle than a McBarge?

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