Monday, July 27, 2009

Drive-In Rituals

When she learned that the new Transformers movie was coming out this summer, my seven-point-five year old daughter sat down and composed a to-do list of preparation for our eventual going-to-the-drive-in-to-see-it. Then she promptly hung it up on the refrigerator:
pillows, blankets, soda, hamburgers, bug spray, pop corn, clean car, get candy, take flip-flops...

My daughter’s list was spontaneous, without prompting or help by me, or older sisters, and it made me smile. Getting ready for the drive-in when I was young was tantamount to a religious ritual, much the way a parachutist will pack his chute, Fox Sports will lead up to the Super Bowl kick off, or that guy you work with and his friend Steve prepare for their annual Oscar party.

An early memory I have is my father washing our station wagon in the driveway on the afternoon before we saw The Poseidon Adventure at the Vegas 4 Drive-In. I remember every door open and the tailgate down as my mom vacuumed out the interior and ever since then I've always associated going to the drive-in with dutiful preparation.

When you’re a kid, you have a personal responsibility to gather your supplies, and for me this entailed picking out the right pajamas to wear, grabbing my pillow and blanket, and making sure my butt was in the backseat when Dad said it was time to go. (No, we didn’t have seatbelts that I remember, and if we did…please, who wore them? It was the 70s!) Our red metallic Coleman ice chest we used for camping was loaded with chilled Pepsi on ice, and not those plastic bottles you get today. These were the long neck glass bottles that you needed a bottle opener to pries off the metal bottle cap. Say what you will about the convenience and safety of plastic, but glass bottles held the cold better and the taste was superior. (OK, mostly because they used pure cane sugar as a sweetener instead of today’s high fructose corn syrup. You can re-experience this retro flavor by trying Pepsi Throwback this summer, if you can still find it. Vastly superior taste.)

On our way to the drive-in we’d stop at The Pizza Hut on Decatur Avenue and pick up their Supreme Pizza on their traditional thin crust, and sometimes their Thick and Chewy (before Pan Crust’s greasy mess). Instead of boxes, the pizza was wrapped in a paper teepee, of sorts. Whenever I see Pizza Hut I always remember that fond association with the drive-in, and if I get a thin and crispy supreme pizza, its familiar taste resonates with me. Other than that, the Pizza Hut franchise is bollocks, having gone the way of overpriced franchise restaurants like Applebees and Outback.

Jump ahead a few years, now living in a new state, having new drive-in theaters to experience in the city of Yakima, Washington. Instead of pizza, we’d make pizza boats on French bread using spaghetti sauce, chopped onions, green peppers, hamburger, Canadian bacon, pepperoni and lots of cheese. Very filling and very scrumptious. We’d wrap them in foil, place them in a box. On our way to the drive-in, we’d stop at 7-11, or the AM-PM and get 32oz drinks, which at the time were a novelty item, and for me, the most soda I’d ever seen personalized for one person. (Today, 32 oz drinks are small compared with the 44oz and the jumbo 88ozers, if such a creature exists.)

Pillows and blankets and wearing pajamas obviously fall by the way side when you get older, but when you have your own kids, you take your own traditions, implement them, and gradually they evolve into new ones. While I was always envious of families who hit McDonald’s on the way in with their bags of fires and hamburgers, in the hot summers in the Yakima valley fruit basket it became a family tradition to pack in our ice chest with bags of big, fat bing cherries. Oh so crisp and delicious cold. We’d also pack nectarines and peaches to go with our pizza boats. And who among us NEVER stopped at Safeway and grabbed their candy bars that were always on sale two or sometimes three for a dollar? For me, it ain’t the drive-in unless I have my Snickers bar. On a recent venture to the drive-in my seven year-old and I packed root beer on ice with a big bag of Rainer cherries, popped a sack of popcorn, Nathan hot dogs (no mustard for her), jo-jo fries and chicken tenders. No sense starving, you know. We're Americans.

"Did you clean the windshield?" A lot of time this really isn’t an issue. I hardly remember staying in the car to watch a movie. If I’m not sitting on the tailgate or on a lawn chair, I’m in front of the car on a "bed" constructed out of half a dozen blankets and sleeping bags we packed away in the trunk. But as a matter of protocol I’d make sure the windows were scrubbed clean, inside and out, as I vacuumed out the car.

Prepardness for nighttime weather is a must. Thank goodness we packed light jackets and a blanket the other night as a layer of marine air came in and chilled us down. But right now the Pacific Northwest is pushing into a monster heatwave and with another venture to the drive-in coming up, weather forecasts put dusk temperatures around 94. Yeah. This might mean mucho-on-the-mosquito-repellent that night because all the windows are going to be down (if the little buggers can stand the heat). And mucho-on-the-bottled-water, too.

But you can see this obsession in every car when everyone lines up at the box office each night, the rear window of their cars piled high with folding chairs, blankets, pillows and several excited children. They've come prepared.

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