The cheap seats
Christine couldn't believe I had never been to a drive-in.
In fact, I kind of have trouble with it myself. Ever since I first saw Indiana Jones run from a boulder and E.T. phone home, I have been pretty much hooked on the theater experience. In my teen and college years, I became a fan of the kind of cheap horror movies that made drive-ins famous: films with rubber and stop-motion aliens, movies where valley girls save the world from comet zombies.
Sometimes, watching an old movie on my flat-screen TV, I feel like it's wrong somehow. This belongs on a video store VHS tape that's been rented out a hundred times, getting fuzzy and worn. The drive-in has that same distressed charm, like listening to old records with all the little crackles and hisses.
So when we were in southern Maine a few weeks back, we went to a drive-in.
Driving toward it, you see this big, almost rusty looking rectangle, the back of the screen, above a gate that's kind of grown over. If you go by when it's not open, it looks like something out of “Life After People,” like the theater at Chernobyl.
Our first mistake was bringing the kids and going to one of these computer-animated things about a racing snail, the kind of thing that doesn't belong on a drive-in screen. If only it had been “They Live” or “The Shining.”
We pulled into the gravel lot and tuned the radio to the right station. This is where the sound comes from.
I could tell right away other people there knew what they were doing in a way we did not. They were out of their cars in camp chairs with big speakers blaring. There were little kids lying on the top of SUV's.
The movie started kind of late for a kid film: 9 p.m. so the sun would be down.
We immediately had the problem of four of us being in a car and only the two seats up front afforded much of a view. I gave Wesley, my 12-year-old, my front seat and Samantha, 7, could sit in the middle of the back seat. I went off to look for food.
Inside the concession stand, it was summery with high school or college kids working. I realized this drive-in was an icon because it sold T-shirts and souvenirs. I grabbed a bag of popcorn and was trying to decide if there was some other snack we needed. We hadn't had dinner. I ordered a couple fried doughs. Why? Can you think of a worse car food than fried dough covered in cinnamon and sugar? I knew as soon as the words were out of my mouth I had made a mistake.
Eventually I arrived back at the car and the kids were having a great time watching the cartoon snail race around.
Now I had another problem. I was wearing a new T-shirt that I didn't want to get food on. Every shirt I own has a little stain or a rip, and Christine has informed me this is not cool.
Well, no problem. I'm in my car, and using the swimming hole rule that car equals privacy, I just peeled my shirt off.
“Aw Dad! Gross!” the kids moaned. Of course they've seen me walking around the house without my shirt on, so this was just drama for the sake of it.
Samantha refused to move an inch to the left of center, so to view the movie around Wesley's head rest, I had my head bent over at a weird angle. After about two minutes, my neck nerves began sending complaint emails to the home office.
Meanwhile, Christine couldn't figure out how to keep the car's lights off and the radio on. You can't leave the car running for two hours and modern cars like to decide for themselves when the lights are on. So every so often, the radio would just click off and then Christine would mutter, fiddle with the keys, and accidentally blind people in front of us with the headlights.
I decided maybe I should go back outside, so started shaking the car around to get my shirt back on. Then I got into the back for my camp chair.
Back outside, I could hear the movie from the people with the big speakers, but now I was alone. Except for the bugs.
On a side note, back on July 4 before heading to the fireworks, we all stood on the front lawn spraying bug spray on ourselves. A couple days later Christine and I noticed all the grass right there was dead and brown. I haven't been into bug spray since.
After a few minutes in the dark, alone, serving as a buffet line for invertebrates, I headed back to the car.
“Dad!” the kids hollered as I opened the door, turning the little light on.
My flip-flops were on the littered floor, covered in popcorn and powdered sugar.
“Well, now you can say you've been to the drive-in!” Christine said as we headed back to the motel.
And next time, maybe I'll see some of the movie.
Daniel Dunkle is editor of The Courier-Gazette. He lives in Rockland with his wife, two children and the ghost of his cat. Email him at email@example.com.