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Hail to the Chief Drive-In
by Lonnye Sue Pearson


In the 1950's drive-in movie theaters were all the rage. My hometown, Cleveland, Mississippi, even had one, the Chief Drive-In, a weekend haven for families, teenagers, and lovers. The lot was always full. My parents loved going to movies, and the Chief was an economical way to take the whole family. We certainly enjoyed ourselves on any given Friday or Saturday night. I remember it as if it were yesterday.

The car would be prepared for the trip--to us, going to the drive-in was a trip. Depending on the season and the possibility of our staying for the second feature, we might include blankets or pillows. And for me there was the old enamel wash pan that I sat on in the back seat. Also, in the spring and summer and early fall, we always packed the PICK. Or was it PIC?

PICK/PIC was a coiled piece of paper filled with insect repellent that, when lit with the car cigarette lighter, churned out a thin wisp of smoke to keep the mosquitoes at bay. (Like that worked in the Mississippi Delta!)

We always arrived early because several speakers had to be checked out before we made the final selection. One might be completely broken; one might have too much static; one might have no volume control and be stuck on extra loud or very low; one might have a short, switching from off to loud intermittently. Eventually Daddy always hit on one Mama approved and he'd ease the '59 Chevy into just the right position to see the screen. I'd settle myself on the wash pan in the middle of the back seat, prepared to be amazed by John Wayne or Gregory Peck or Rock Hudson or Robert Mitchum or Gary Cooper.

The movies were almost always second runs of World War II movies, but sometimes there was a cowboy film or a really funny slapstick comedy. Rarely did I understand why Mama cried or Daddy laughed, but as long as they let me sit in the back seat and eat popcorn and drink root beer I didn't mind. I could watch From Here to Eternity, Imitation of Life, For Whom the Bell Tolls, or High Noon and cry when Mama cried or laugh when Daddy laughed and love every minute of it. No matter that I didn't quite understand the innuendos or the plot.

Eventually my brother Dwayne moved me off the wash pan and made it his own. We argued over it sometimes because I felt it was mine even though my head almost touched the roof of the car when I sat on it. Somehow we came to a compromise. I got to sit on the pan until we found our perfect parking spot and then relinquished it to Dwayne when the cartoons started. Even that had to end when the lady at the ticket booth accused Daddy of trying to cheat her out of an adult ticket when she saw me in the back seat. I had to slide off the wash pan to prove I was really only ten years old!

I don't remember exactly how old I was when we quit going to the Chief. I think the last movie we went to as a family was one in which a couple (maybe it was Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr) conceived a child out of wedlock. Dwayne wanted to know how that happened if they weren't married. In fact, if I remember correctly, we left before the end of that one.

Oh, well, I had seen it before. Anyway, the PICK/PIC on the floor of the back seat was beginning to sting my eyes.


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Mississippi native Lonnye Sue Sims Pearson is now an English teacher (one of those!) in North Carolina. She may be reached at DeltaMiss2002.


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