It’s always late afternoon when we visit her. The sun’s journey is almost complete. The evening sky is orange and there are long shadows on the ground. The last rays of the fading sun reflect off my wife’s auburn hair as a passing breeze sends it into a muss. We approach from the south on a two-lane road that once served as a highway. I assume that was before Eisenhower’s interstate system made the scenic route less desirable. One of the highways that Eisenhower commissioned is less than a mile to my left. I can hear the cars whizzing by behind a small arborous area containing a white water tower emblazoned in purple with the words, “Portland Panthers, 2001 3-A State Football Champions”. As we approach, there is a cemetery on the right that only contains grave markers, no tombstones. At the far end of the cemetery is a mausoleum with a white granite statue of Jesus standing in front, his arms outstretched and welcoming. Behind Jesus and his mausoleum is a hedge.
Just behind the hedge, sitting slightly off the road in a well-manicured lawn next to a long pavement driveway is a white sign trimmed in blue, with a blue arrow pointing down the drive that reads, “Star Wars IV: A New Hope – PG/The Wizard of Oz – G”. The drive is filled with cars of all makes and models. The cars curve out of the driveway and onto the roadside curb where the line continues. Even though we are an hour early, we still have to take our place in the already packed line. Across the street from the entrance sign is a small black and white house with a sign in the yard reading, “Cat Daddy’s Pay Lake”. Behind the house is a small, man-made pond with water erupting from a fountain in its center. The water flies up in the air, folds away from itself and cascades back into the pond.
There is a line of cars on the other side of the road as well. With no curb to pull onto, the vehicle’s drivers turn their blinkers on and wait. The travelers who aren’t going to the drive-in theater pull around them while trying their best not to veer off the road. We wait in the drumming heat of a late July afternoon with our windows down. There is no point in turning on the air conditioner yet. There will be plenty of time for that later if the night remains hot. We are submissive to the summer’s thermostat. While we are waiting, we listen to our radios a little too loud. A passerby can hear music from all genres represented. The excitement is intoxicating and the waiting will soon be done.
When the gates open, we slowly start to inch forward. Turning into the driveway, there are two lines formed. Each of them are full of cars heading towards a small white box office with blue trim. To the right of the driveway is the hedge where Jesus stands welcoming on the other side. To the left is an 8 foot white fence. Over the fence is a parking lot that is starting to fill with all vehicles facing a large, outdoor movie screen. We pull up to the box office and pay the $15 admission. On the front of the box office a sign reads, “Please turn your car radio to 91.5 FM”. The attendant hands us a black trash back to throw our concessions waste away and a paid ticket stub, the kind you would get in a raffle.
As we pull into the parking lot, we can hear the crackle of gravel under the tires of our car. The road is paved, but it’s paving happened in 1969, so a lot of the parking lot is covered with macadam now. Throughout the parking lot, there are white poles marking which sections of asphalt are for parking and which are for driving. When I was young, these poles housed speakers that would hang on each car’s driver side window so that the passengers could hear the movie. That changed years ago. Like the sign on the box office said, we listen to 91.5 FM now.
We pull into a parking space, backing up and pulling forward only to back up again until we are in just the right spot to see the movie screen. Then we shut the car off and get out. We stretch. Our bones pop and our muscles ache because of the long wait. We have procured our very own piece of movie watching land. The summer heat continues to beat down on us as we walk to the concession stand. I’ve waited all week to veg out and watch movies. The concession stand is filled with greasy, fatty foods. Juicy burgers covered in melting cheese. Starchy, crisp potato wedges. Cold, frothy soft drinks.
We go into the white, wooden concession building and take our place in line. Along the walls are posters for movies that will be shown later in the summer. Waist high stanchions lined with metal chains establish a line for the patrons. We wait in line and it moves quickly. Most people know exactly what they are here for. Waiting is a pleasant experience. The concession stand has two wall unit air conditioners pointing towards the serving area at all times. The cool kiss of the frigid air sends a shiver down my spine and goose pimples down my arms. The cold is a wonderful contrast to the heat and humidity of southern summers. We grab a cardboard product box and fill it with our edible treasures before surrendering again to nature’s blistering wrath.
The sun’s cycle is almost complete as we head back to our car. We sit and talk as we enjoy our snacks. Children play under the movie screen. The boys are throwing footballs while the girls play with glo-sticks. Under the screen you can also see the 31-W traffic pass. Going to and from, they occasionally honk their horns. I don’t know when this tradition started, but I have witnessed it my entire life. The honking isn’t an insult. It’s a gesture, a way of saying, “I wish I was there with you.”
Our bellies are full as night settles in. There is a flickering of light on the movie screen then a commercial comes up telling us that, “This drive-in is radioactive!” The next advertisement is a dancing hotdog who invites us, “Let’s all go to the lobby to have ourselves a snack!” There is a cool breeze in the air circulating through our windows breaking up the monotony of the summer heat. The movie is about to begin.