251. Night at the Movies

Over in Raven’s Run in Serial today, Ian Gunn is reminiscing about:

The feeling in a night drive —- the humming of tires; the warm heaviness of the air, the darkness beyond the car —- when you were a child in the back seat —- and the thick air slid in and out of your throat like oil.

That description is pure memory.

Oklahoma is the edge of the South, with thunderstorms, tornadoes, and hot, humid summers. Air conditioner country – but I lived there before people has air conditioners. Days over a hundred were common, and the nights brought thick, moist, warm air. There were scraggly trees in the creek beds and flattish land between that was half native grass pastures and half grain fields.

Was. Now it grows houses, and people live indoors with the AC running, but in the fifties people were sparse on the ground and they spent most of their time outdoors.

I spent my summer days driving a tractor. There were no air conditioned cabs – no cabs at all, actually – but it wasn’t bad. There was an umbrella clamped to the seat, and as long as I was moving, which was at least ten hours a day, there was a breeze.

Nevertheless, nights were a pleasure by contrast. After the cows were milked, we sat in the living room with the west windows open to the wind. My parents watched TV (black and white, two channels). I joined them, or read a book. Once or twice a year, we would all go see a movie.

Those same years, my wife-to-be lived in Saginaw, Michigan. She used to walk to Saturday matinees. It’s a common reminiscence, but my nearest theatre was twenty miles away, so going to a movie was a family expedition.

After the day’s work, and milking the cows, and supper, and cleaning up, we would drive to Collinsville as the sun was going down. When we arrived, we went right in. There was only one theatre with one screen, and it changed movies every three days, so you went on the day your movie of choice was there. It didn’t matter what time the movie started; we went in, sat down, and started watching. Then we watched the coming attractions and the cartoon, and pretty soon the next showing started. We watched until my dad said, “Okay, this is where we came in.” Then we left, with no wasted time, because four AM was coming all too soon, and the cows weren’t going to milk themselves.

What I remember best about movie nights, is the ride home – especially when I was ten or so. Twenty miles on a two lane blacktop, lying stretched out on the back seat, reliving the movie, and the coming attractions which were pretty exciting for a ten year old in the fifties. Imitation of Life previews were disturbing, largely because I didn’t understand the premise of the picture (see 95. Literature of Passing). Then there was a scene of a girl wearing only a towel in a cowboy movie preview that revisited my libido for months. Mostly though, I remember a science fiction movie – something I would never have seen outside of previews – with animated pterosaurs and dinosaurs chasing people as they fled in their cars. Tame stuff for the Jurassic Park generation, but scary to me.

Outside the car, the night dampness amplified the smell of grass and weeds. The soundtrack of the night was the humming of tires and the unending churr of cicadas. The air swirling in through the open windows was syrup thick, damp and cool. The vibrations from the road, softened by the seat and transmitted through to my spine, was electric, and the little shocks from potholes were like tiny bursts of pleasure.

All this comfort was balanced by the emotional rush of hearing those imaginary dinosaurs in pursuit, along with the scree of giant pterosaurs flashing overhead.

I’ve forgotten most of the movies we saw, but I will never forget what the night felt like.


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