Last night I took my granddaughter Zadie to her first Drive-in movie. Here in Northern Michigan, The Cherry Bowl Drive-In Theater is still going strong and it’s part of the annual summer tradition. The answering machine has a hyper-1950’s like disc jockey voice announcing the films, the concession shack is awash in photos of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and such, everything brightly-lit and cheery and overflowing with 1950’s optimism. The movie was Finding Dory, perfect for my 5-year old Zadie, but to make this the quintessential American experience, it should be something like Some Like It Hot or Bye Bye Birdie or The Parent Trap or a few thousand other 100% American films.
The 50’s were my childhood years. My life as an American grew from the deep mythology of Leave It to Beaver, the Donna Reed Show, Father Knows Best and a few hundred more TV shows, from baseball with Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, from 4th of July fireworks in the park near my house with hot dog and hamburger picnics and fireflies joining in the lighting up of the night. We rode bikes without helmets, drove in a green Plymouth without seat belts, stayed in motels when we traveled (which wasn’t often), ate Swanson’s frozen TV dinners and were wholly convinced that advancing technology and appliances would lead us yet deeper through the gates of Paradise in that world where gum-chewing and late homework were the two biggest problems in high schools. Parenting consisted of providing food, shelter, clothing, meals and baths and then telling the kids to get the heck out of the house and play.
I came of age in the 60’s, where that bright-eyed optimism changed to multiple assassinations, race riots, a televised war in Vietnam and long-haired hippies telling us that most of the America we thought was right was wrong. And I was one of them. It was the beginning of the change of narrative, of finding out what had really been going on behind my culturally-instilled adoration of Christopher Columbus, Andrew Jackson, General Custer and other terrorists disguised as heroes. It took a long time to discover what was wrong with Tonto and Tarzan and Little Black Sambo and Al Jolson as The Jazz Singer and José Jiminez and hundreds of other stereotypical figures that drove people apart. And I’m still finding out.
The idea of watching movies in cars while eating hot dogs feels American down to its core and part of me is almost nostalgic for it all. Cars brought contact with other places and people, romance in Lover’s Lane, Keruoac’s On the Road, the Sunday drive and the road trip and the drive-in movie, but let’s face, they also punched a big hole in the ozone layer and we still don’t know how we’re going to survive that. Hot dogs brought a food that claimed an American cuisine different from pasta, chow mein and tacos, but also brought unpronounceable chemical ingredients into our bodies, a leaning toward fast food and a national obesity problem. Movies brought release from the workaday world, adoration of the stars, the images and jazz soundtracks and stories that formed our identity, but the once-a-week social gathering has turned into the 24/7 videos and 95% aimed straight at the bottom of the chakra ladder— guns, sex and power.
The “Make America Great Again” movement is based on pure fantasy, mostly people’s weird wishes that they could return to the time when white was right and father always knows best and machines will save our souls, a time when so many suffered so needlessly because the mainstream story excluded them, at odds with its own myth of the melting pot. But we are all nostalgic at least a little bit simply for what was and no amount of fact-finding or shifting narratives will change that. We will still enjoy seeing a movie at the drive-in (with popcorn for me, no hot dog!) and initiating our granddaughter into a taste of the good ole days that never were.