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Growing Up at the Drive-In

The local drive-in theaters were kind of a hit-or-miss affair, but we loved every minute of it

Growing up in California, I saw some of my first movies from a playground at the drive-in. I can remember sitting in a swing, arching toward the screen, watching the coming attractions and cartoons between the feet of my pajama bottoms. When the actual movie began, we would head back toward my parents’ station wagon (later traded in for a VW van) where we would invariably pass out while mom and dad watched the double-bill from the front seat, as childfree as they could be in those days. It was a bargain for the G.I. Bill bunch: $1 a carload, and no babysitter.

There were five of us kids, though my dad later insisted they only planned on two. What I remember is waking up near the end of movies and trying to figure out what was happening. The final shootout of "One-Eyed Jacks" (1961) was particularly disturbing; Marlon Brando and Karl Malden — the father figure who had double-crossed Brando’s “Kid,” whose nickname naturally was “Dad” — did not square off, "High Noon"-style on an open street, a convention of nearly every western. They were shooting at each other around buildings in what looked alarmingly like little towns we’d visited (the movie was shot in nearby Monterey, Calif.). In the end, the Kid ran out from behind a fountain and shot the surprised Dad.

Not long after that, we moved far north to Crescent City, Calif. — a logging and fishing town that had seen better days. The local drive-in was kind of a hit-or-miss affair. The town was surrounded by a rain forest (though no one called it that then) and sometimes fog would become a drizzle and then a steady downpour — but just as often it would stop altogether. You just had to wait and see.

My parents soon divorced and a trip to the drive-in was much more a feature of our occasional weekends with our dad, who (following several notable transgressions) had moved to a trailer outside of town. I remember visiting him there once on my own — I have no memory of what I had done to deserve the honor — and he made us enchiladas and brownies from a Betty Crocker box and then let me choose our evening’s entertainment.

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I wanted to see "Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors" (1965), a British fright film playing at the drive-in. He took me reluctantly and I still remember the setup: A mysterious stranger on a train tells the future of the other passengers with tarot cards. Each story is worse than the next — a creeping vine, a severed hand — and when they reach their destination, they find themselves in a netherworld. The dealer turns out to be Death. I awoke screaming later and my father vowed to never take me to another scary movie.

I might have been afraid of my own future then; my parents’ divorce was traumatizing. Though it could have been the enchiladas.

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