AASHTO 100th Anniversary Logo

August 20, 2014

Drive-in Memories

By Tony Dorsey

It wasn’t new — far from it, but the Buick Estate station wagon my family purchased in the summer of 1970 was perfect in so many ways. The wood paneling wasn’t real, but it gave the car a look of distinction that I didn’t feel any of the other cars on my street had. It was big and roomy and it had something I’d never seen before — a sunroof. For the first time in my young life, I could look up at the sky while I was moving. I could watch rain and/or snow falling and accumulating above my head — covering the roof top. I could see the trees swaying back and forth as we traveled down our suburban neighborhood street and I saw the tops of skyscrapers like never before as we navigated the avenues of Kansas City.

Our station wagon was a people mover, U-Haul, dog pen for Chester and on more than one occasion it also served as a spare bedroom. My brother and I would spend some summer nights there camping out when relatives or family friends arrived unexpectedly. Our Buick was also a front row seat at the movies. Perhaps my fondest memories of the time spent in in that car were the nights my mother, brother, sister and I went to the drive-in theater.

When my dad had to travel for work during the summer, which happened a lot — Mom would pile us into the station wagon and we’d be off to the drive-in theater. After waiting our turn at the drive-up ticket booth we’d hurry into the parking lot to find the perfect space. It had to be near the middle, but not too far back. We’d back in the space slowly, angling the car just right in front of the giant screen. Then all of the kids would be off to the playground. Children from all over the county were there playing together –sharing the carousel and swings. By the end of the summer we were no longer strangers. We knew faces and some first names and we’d share candy and talk briefly between games of tag.

As the sun began to set, we’d say our good-byes and head to our cars. I always considered myself among the lucky ones because my family had a station wagon.

We’d carefully organize the pillows and blankets on top of the two air mattresses that filled the cargo space to make it as comfortable as possible. We’d position the loud speaker on the window—just right and break out the food. We’d open bags of chips and plastic containers with mother’s delicious fried chicken. Everything seemed to taste so much better under the stars.

The gigantic screen would then light up – and our motionless road trip would begin. This was our escape from the ordinary, everyday world that was summer in suburbia.

As the middle child, I’d position myself between my siblings. My older brother to my left and my sister to my right was always buried in my mother’s protective arms. The two of them would doze off at some point during the film but my brother and I would fight sleep to watch every minute—even staying awake into the wee hours of the night to catch every frame of a double-feature.

It was there in the back of our old Buick that our family watched classics like Jaws and The Godfather and Disney’s The Aristocats. We laughed, cringed and cried together, making some wonderful memories forever etched in our minds.