“Name something you did as a kid that is no longer possible to do,” read the meme on social media, the other day. I guess this probably has nothing to do with physical capabilities, because there isn’t enough ink or paper to list them all, so I will go with the “drive-in movie theater” experience.
A family could pop up a grocery bag of buttered popcorn, pile into the station wagon and mosey on over to the local drive-in, to catch “How the West Was Won.” Depending on the establishment, patrons either paid by the carload, or bought individual tickets to get in.
|My first car|
I have ridden in the trunk of a car to gain entrance to drive-in theaters; I have driven my brother Noel and his then-girlfriend, Sharon, into a drive-in, while they were in the trunk. I have sat up on the roof of a ’64 Ford van in 107 degree heat, in Weed, California, and watched a movie (“The Magic Christian”), while consuming vast quantities of beer.
Finally, together with my then-girl friend, Nancy, I have fallen asleep while at a drive-in, and awakened in the wee hours, only to discover that the car wouldn’t start. The culprit was my ’64 Chevy Nova, rocking a small-block 283, which had been “bored-out” to a 301.
It had a Holley 4-barrel carburetor, with a float valve made for sticking. As inconvenient as it sounds, what used to happen was that this valve would become stuck, causing the carburetor to fill up with too much gasoline, which would then overflow.
I had just enough knowledge to be able to troubleshoot and attempt a repair job, but not the experience to be able to see it through. When the carb acted up, flooding was the technical term, the only thing I usually could do was wait.
|Brian, letting his beard|
"hang in there."
So Nancy and I woke up, I tried to start up the Nova, but it wouldn’t. Sure enough, within seconds the inside of the car reeked of gasoline. I stumbled over to a pay-phone, and called my big brother Brian, to see if he could come bail me out. Brian alternated between staying at the house on Fellowship Street, in La Puente, and out at his apartment in LA, where he attended Loyola of Marymount University.
He was understandably groggy. After explaining the situation from the beginning to end, he asked if I could repeat it. I did so, after which he said, “Fine. I can come and pick you guys up. Just answer me one question: Where am I now?”
True story, though it may have been Brian’s way of letting me know that 3AM in the morning is not specifically the best time for this kind of favor. Meanwhile, partly out of boredom and partly out of frustration, I “tinkered” with that carburetor while waiting for Brian.
I had no flashlight but the [empty] theater parking lot was kept lit by random lights atop high poles, needed to facilitate hundreds of cars entering and exiting a venue which by definition only functioned after dark.** Let’s be clear about one thing: Tinkering is loosely defined as messing with something that defied being understood.
In this case it translated into taking a crescent wrench, encasing it in a engine rag, and tapping on the side of the carb to see if I could “unstick” that float valve. To my utter astonishment, either what I did produced results, or more likely, what I did came after matters had been resting long enough to allow the flooding to recede. The car fired right up.
|Nancy, Mark and Pauline|
Bottom line? When poor Brian rolled in at whatever time it was, Nancy and I were sitting in a car with its engine idling, while the heater kept our feet snug and warm. Had I been thinking, I would have gotten the car started, warmed it up and then shut it back off again.
At least Brian need never have known that he made the rescue attempt in vain. Nancy could have driven me back the next day in her little white VW Bug, and no one would have been the wiser.
As it was, I could not help but marvel at the memory of Brian asking me, where he was at. Growing up, my father would frequently ask me, particularly after a shot of bourbon (strictly “for medicinal purposes, you understand”), “Mark, do you know where you’re at?” Naturally, I would reply, “I’m right here, Papa.”
Eyes twinkling, he would nod appreciatively, as if to say, “Well, there are worse things in life than a young man who knows where he is at.”
Drive-in theaters are gone now, long since having been outdated by the onset of technology. It seems inconceivable to me, that this was once a prevalent form of entertainment in our culture, and that the modern theater-goer will never get to experience this thrill.
|Mark at 19|
Not only did we get to see a top-shelf film, but we got the added kick of getting over on the system, by sneaking in, hidden in the trunk of a car. I will admit, it was even better when I managed to avoid lying on-and crushing-a tube of axel grease while in the trunk. It wasn’t that bad. I guess.
But hey, I saved $1.65, the average price of a movie ticket in 1971, while ruining a ten-dollar pair of pants.
Fun memories, those.
** I would be remiss if I did not mention that on weekends, these drive-in theaters became “swap meets” or “flea markets,” but they still began when it was pitch black.