Drive In, Conk Out

A drive-in with an inflatable movie screen in Brussels, Belgium
A drive-in with an inflatable movie screen in Brussels, Belgium Wikimedia Commons

In the age of DVDs, I doubt whether it’s a thrill anymore for kids to be able to watch a movie while they’re in their pajamas. But back in the 1950s, my sister and I considered it a treat to have Mom and Dad throw coats over our pj’s and take us to the drive-in. I loved the idea of getting to stay up late, but Dad always deflated my expectations. "Listen," he’d say, "it won’t be such a tragedy if you conk out. I’ll tell you all about the movie tomorrow."

We piled into our green Studebaker, looking like we were going on an expedition. Mom carried a giant bag of chips, which would be gone by the time we were five blocks from our apartment, and a cooler with watery orangeade that nobody ever drank. Risa was allowed to bring her wetting baby doll and her cap gun, although Mom had a strict rule that there was no peeing or shooting in the car. I schlepped along a pile of five or six comics, even though I knew it would be too dark to read. My taste ran to second-string heroes: J’onn J’onzz, Manhunter from Mars; Turok, Son of Stone; Tomahawk (a Daniel Boone rip-off); and, hidden among the macho stuff, Little Lulu, which was really my favorite, even though I felt compelled to say, "Hey, how did this get in here?"

When we arrived at the drive-in, Dad would begin looking for the spot farthest from the concession house. "Do me something," he’d say. "You don’t need French fries and chocolate-covered raisins to watch a good story. Anyway, you kids’ll be asleep before you’re hungry."

Next to the concessions, though, there was a small playground where dozens of children ran wild in the vanishing light until the movie started. Mom’s idea was that Risa and I could get ourselves exhausted on the swings. "Don’t park a mile away," she’d command. "The kids need to play."

"I’ll move my seat up," Dad would say. "Didn’t they play already today?"

I had no intention of romping with strangers while I was sporting my fireman shorties. But I voted with Mom because I knew that eventually she’d send me, over Dad’s protestations, to buy Necco wafers and bonbons. If the car was too far away, I was afraid I’d get lost.

Risa and Mom seesawed while I nervously stood in line to get refreshments, picturing myself hopelessly wandering the parking lot forever in my slippers. I’d crane my neck to keep my eye on the car. Here’s what I’d see: Dad fiddling with the sound contraption. You were supposed to pick the speaker up from its holder, lean it by its metal ledge onto the side of the window, and roll the window up to hold it in place. But Dad could never get it to work. He’d put the speaker on the outside instead of the inside. Or he’d forget to roll the window up, so that the speaker crashed to the ground as soon as he brushed against it. Or he’d try to stretch it into the car and balance it on the dashboard. Finally, he’d just hold it until Mom returned. "You’re the mechanical one," he’d say. "Fix this stupid thing."

Right before the show, Risa and I would be packed in with pillows and blankets until we looked like a pair of reluctant mummies. "I don’t wanna hear a peep out of anybody once my story starts," Dad would warn us. My parents’ idea was that we kids would stick around for the introductory cartoon and maybe the first 15 minutes of No Time for Sergeants or The Spirit of St. Louis, and then fall into a stupor. But it never worked that way.

The first one to go was always Dad. He’d be snoring before the coming attractions were over. "Lend me one of your pillows for your father," Mom would say to me.

Three or four hours later, I’d finish off the last of the Necco wafers and rouse everybody. "Hey, it’s over! Time to go home."

"What the heck are you doing up?" Dad would ask, yawning. "Was the movie any good?" "I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow," I’d say.

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