The King Center Drive In

37400793_10204729964807004_1633942547380305920_nA high school friend posted a photo of an empty lot that is for sale in Houston, Texas for $1,975,000. The raw land located at Martin Luther King Drive and Loop 610 was once the home of the King Center Drive In, a glorious place that served up entertainment to the folks who lived in southeast Houston for most of my childhood, teen years and early married life. Eventually the place closed down and went the way of other outdoor theaters, attracting fewer and fewer customers as we became less acclimated to the heat and mosquitoes over time. Nonetheless those of us who saw the image of the long gone movie mecca were filled with grand memories of good times with friends and family.

I have to admit that there was nothing more exciting to me as a kid as going to the King Center Drive In on a Friday or Saturday night. I’d check the newspaper to see what was showing, and if it was fit for family watching I’d connive with my brothers to work with me to get our mother to take us. We often used my youngest brother as our secret weapon because Mama somehow never seemed able to turn him down. He’d go to her with all of his cuteness and hint that he’d love to spend an evening at the movies. Since our mother enjoyed such outings as much as we did it was never really that difficult to get her to say yes to our proposals.

There was always a snack bar at the theater but we were on a fairly strict budget so our mom made sandwiches and iced down bottles of coke to satisfy our hunger. She also made enough popcorn in her iron skillet to fill a grocery bag. We’d stow away our food and a few pillows inside the car and head off for what was sure to be a fun evening.

Mama always wanted to get there early to secure a prime spot. She’d test the speakers before settling for a specific place and then while she set things up in the car we’d run to the playground located just in front of the big screen. We often saw friends from our neighborhood or made new acquaintances as children seem to so naturally do. Mostly though we were eager for the sky to grow dark so that the movie might begin.

Mama always kept something called a Pic in the glove compartment along with a box of matches. The incense like coil was supposed to discourage mosquitoes from entering the car, but we still had a few of the brave pests nipping at our skin. I suppose that it was actually quite hot in the summer, but since we didn’t have air conditioning at the house we never noticed the temperature. Instead we munched on our sandwiches, sipped our cokes and topped off our feast with the popcorn while glorious films of the fifties and sixties played out larger than life right before our eyes.

The initial feature was always a first run film, but it wasn’t always our favorite of the movies. After an intermission designed to lure us to the snack bar there was a second feature that was older, a kind of rerun. If Mama was feeling flush she’d give us some money to purchase whatever we wanted at the snack bar before the next movie began. It was so hard to decide what delicacies to choose. There were donuts, chips, candies of all kinds. Since we never had sweets at home I almost always chose some chocolatey, gooey delight filled with caramel.

Sometimes one of my brothers would be unable to fight off sleep and surrendered to slumber in the back seat. I proudly fought off all inclinations to doze off if only to prove to my mother that I was worthy of the prime seat in the front of the car. Also the really cool movies with more adult content came in the second slot, and I enjoyed feeling a bit more mature than my little brothers.

As I grew into my teen years I began attending the movies with my friends. I was a dateless wonder in high school but I had great fun with big groups of girls. We went with whoever was able to get a car. We did a great deal more talking and giggling than paying attention to the movies. My favorite times were with Karen, a neighbor from across the street. She drove her mother’s big yellow Buick which held enough gals to qualify as one of those clown cars at the circus. At first I was embarrassed when my mother shoved a grocery bag of popcorn into my arms as we were leaving for one of the outings, but the yummy snack was such a hit that the girls always requested that I bring my offering along.

I often laughed at the antics of people in other cars. There were of course the couples whose only purpose in coming seemed to be to make out. Then there were the goobers who honked their horns whenever a love scene came on the screen. There were groups who hid some of their passengers until they were safely past the pay station since the cost was sometimes based on the number of folks inside the car. There were families that made way too much noise, and since we mostly had to keep our windows open that was quite annoying. Then of course there were the malfunctions of the speakers and projectors that drove everyone to honk in protest.

Eventually I was going to to the King Center Drive In with my husband and my small children. Those days didn’t last very long because by then we had become spoiled by the air conditioned comfort that was almost universal. It just seemed nicer to watch a movie at an indoor theater. Of course that meant paying way too much all around. Soon enough it became preferable to wait for the release of tapes and then DVDs to see our movies in the comfort of our homes. For little or no money we could watch while wearing our pajamas and munching on fabulous snacks. By then the King Center Drive In was long gone, but not our memories.

Perhaps we lost something special with the closing of those once fabulous places. Whole generations have no idea how fun it was to wait in a long line of cars anticipating an evening of make believe. The lot for the King Center Drive In may now be empty but our memories of being there are still as vibrant and colorful as ever.

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Another Ding, Another Scratch

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I saw a woman on television laughing about a dent in her car and philosophically shaking off her concern by exclaiming, “Another ding, another scratch, just another chapter in the story.” I had to laugh along with her because in truth she had summed up life quite brilliantly with that little utterance. It seems as though each of us carries dents and scars on both our bodies and our minds that ultimately contribute to becoming the persons who we are. In spite of our own efforts to take control of things, we are continually blindsided by accidents of nature and disappointments from relationships. As we travel through our individual stories we experience collisions with diseases and toxic people, along with all of the regular intersections and interactions that bring the wear and tear that is a normal part of being human.

Some of the things that happen to us are quite natural. As children we may skin our knees or break a bone or two. We form friendships and experience disappointments. We learn and dream and if we are truly lucky we get through our childhoods without too many traumas or losses and work on embracing adulthood. We search for loving friends and partners and attempt to fulfill the dreams and goals that push us to become better each day. We may choose wrong and have to rethink our plans or accept that someone that we loved has betrayed us or simply grown weary of us. If we are lucky our troubles are average, and our health is good so that we make it to our so-called golden years of retirement. We grow older and feel the aging of our bodies a bit more. We must say goodbye to departed friends and look a bit less toward the future and more at finding contentment in each day. Eventually every single one of us reaches an ending, and if we are lucky we will be able to look back on what we have accomplished and the relationships that we have fostered with a sense of contentment and maybe even a bit of pride.

The truth is that living is a bit more complex than that. We are faced with challenges at times that feel almost unbearable. It becomes difficult to write them off as just another ding or scratch. We feel as though our collision with some horrific force has totaled us out, reduced us to heaps of junk. Unless we are extraordinarily lucky each of us has faced a moment in which we might even ask God where He is because we feel so alone in our pain and suffering. I have had my own share of troubles that threatened to overwhelm me, events so terrible that they rendered me almost useless for a time. In those moments I had to rely heavily on faith, hope and love wherever I was able to find it. I was always humbled in learning who my most loyal angels were, because often they were not the people to whom I had given the biggest chunks of my heart, but instead unexpected souls who miraculously came to my aide. Of course there were also a handful of people so reliable that I was able to call on them time and again to rescue me from many difficult situations.

I recently watched a movie called Hostiles. I had not heard of it before, but it had a good cast with Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike, as well as a very decent Rotten Tomatoes rating. It is a western and thanks to my Uncle Jack I grew up loving those kinds of stories. This one reminded me a bit of the old John Wayne movie The Searchers, but with a more modern and philosophical twist. While there was plenty of adventure, the tale was mainly about people caught up in the kind of accident of life that transforms them and provides them with the answers that they have needed. It speaks to the idea that sometimes in our most tragic times we find the faith, hope and love for which we have been searching.

An event can be so unnerving that it causes us to reassess everything that we have believed about ourselves and the people around us. It rips us apart and threatens to destroy us, but we somehow find what we need to repair ourselves and come out whole again. The process of fixing our very souls can be gut wrenchingly painful and lonely. We may not even want to continue down the road because the darkness does not allow us to see what lies ahead. We may cry out and hear no response, lie down and wish it all to be over. That is when we somehow find the tiniest bit of encouragement as though the hand of God Himself is reaching down to rescue us.

We humans are fragile creatures who are nonetheless stronger than we realize. For centuries we have endured the dings and scratches and wrecks that mar our journeys, but also provide us with the character that makes our stories more real. Still there are those among us whose suffering is so intense that they cannot repair themselves alone. They need someone to help them to restore the faith and hope that they require to continue into the future. Love is the panacea that they seek. We need to be aware of them and be the person who gently demonstrates the compassion for which they have been searching.

We all have a ding here, a scratch there, and sometimes a big gaping hole. Some of our injuries are of our own making, but most come from out of nowhere like a speeding Mack truck driven by a drunken driver. We endure collisions that test us more than we believe that we are capable of handling. That is when we often feel the most alone, but in truth there is always someone who will miraculously help if only we allow them to hear our cries. As humans we have two duties. One is to humble ourselves just enough to ask for assistance, and another is to be ready to provide aide whenever someone calls. If we follow these guidelines we are less likely to wind up forgotten and alone in the junkyard of life. We have the power to rewrite our stories and those of the people around us. When we embrace our dings and scratches they take on a lovely patina that brings out the true beauty of life.

A Tortured Mind

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My mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder by multiple doctors. There was no cure for her disease, but there were pharmaceutical treatments that worked for a time and then invariably had to be adjusted. She faced a lifetime of dealing with a chronic illness that required both patience and vigilance, which was not always easy because there were moments when she was not a pleasant person at all. In those instances she was unable to sleep, and lost track of time. She was filled with paranoid ideas and conspiracy theories that she felt compelled to share in the middle of the night. Her explosions of emotion and fear sometimes resulted in vile utterances that were difficult to hear. My brothers and I not only had to be forceful in providing her with the care that she needed, but had to worry about what she might do or say to get herself into a difficult situation with strangers who might be frightened by her aggressive and strange behavior. It was a battle that we fought for her for well over forty years.

I was thinking of my mom and the problems associated with her mental illness when the firestorm over Roseanne Barr erupted last week. The egregious and racist nature of Ms. Barr’s tweet about Valerie Jarret left me loathing her even more than I already did. I think I only watched her show one time back when it was the original series. I loved John Goodman, but I was unable to identify with the crudity of Roseanne. In other words I was not a fan. Still, I knew many people who loved the show and I had to admit that she had a certain talent even if I did not appreciate it. “To each his own” was my reaction to her fame and popularity while I generally ignored her and knew little about her.

When she and her former cast returned for a reboot of the sitcom I found myself wondering why we have so little originality these days that we keep returning to old ideas. Perhaps it is a longing for a quieter past, a time before 9/11, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the civil war of words and political ideas that is so prevalent today. I wasn’t sure what the rationale might be, but I saw no harm in giving a particular segment of the audience the kind of comedy that they wanted while I watched The Middle.

Then came the Roseanne firestorm after her rambling ugly tweets resulted in her firing by ABC. To be clear the First Amendment protects her from punishment by the government, but not from repercussions at work. In fact, all of us would do well to understand that our public statements can and often will be seen as a reflection on our employers who have every right to let us go if they feel that we have gone too far. I can’t imagine anyone believing that Ms. Barr did not go too far. As an educator I recall instances when we meted out severe punishments including expulsion to students who voiced similar racist comments. There are certain lines over which none of us should ever cross, and if we do we must expect to pay the consequences.

By her own admission Roseanne Barr suffers from bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. When she attempted to excuse her horrible tweets by noting that it was the middle of the night and she had taken Ambian I found myself wondering if she was in the throes of a manic episode. It was probably not her sleep aid that caused her rants, but rather her disease and the fact that it does not allow her to sleep the way she needs causes her to lose all caution with regard to what she says and does.

My mother once described bipolar disorder as an illness that caused her to say and do mean things when she didn’t want to do. She explained that she felt a compulsion to strike out at people that she was unable to control even when she tried. I know that I was the victim of her hurtful behavior many times over, but I understood what was causing the disturbances. People outside of the family simply found themselves wounded to the point of wanting to avoid her all all costs.

I in no way defend Rosanne Barr. I find her to be a foul mouthed and hateful person. Even if her tweet was indeed intended to be a joke it was far too ugly to be humorous. Her thoughts rarely change, so I believe that the essence of what she believes is contained in them, and that spirit is highly toxic. My mother was truly like two different people. When she was well everything about her was delightful and loving. It was only when she was sick that a kind of darkness prompted by fears came forth. On the whole she was a good person. I can’t say the same about Ms. Barr who seems to take delight in putdowns and shaming no matter what the situation.

An even more ridiculous argument in Roseanne’s favor is to point to others who are just as guilty of horrific comments and note that they have not been fired. That is akin to saying that just because someone else hasn’t been called to task for bad behavior, nobody should be. It is a circular defense that simply does not fly.

Our entire society is a bit sick right now. We need to be honest with ourselves and step back a bit before we find ourselves up against a wall from which there is no retreat. In many ways we have lost our national honor and are all too often guilty of perpetrating disgusting behaviors by our silence and even misguided support of acts and utterances that we know to be wrong. If we do not get a grip on this situation it will overtake us, for surely we are being manipulated by powerful forces whose only goal is to have power.

I actually feel sad for Roseanne Barr even though I find her to be despicable. I think that she is crying for help and nobody is really listening. I hope that those who love her will see the signs of her tortured mind and get her the relief that she needs. That will require a dose of kindness and medical attention. Hopefully her horrific pain won’t just be ignored, and I pray that we will not further divide ourselves by foolishly agreeing with the wanderings of her very sick and tortured mind.

The Car

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The stories on the television series This Is Us are so heartwarming and real that rarely a week goes by that I do not identify with some aspect of an episode. They have a universal appeal that reaches into the heart and soul of who we are as members of a family. I have duly noted the kinship that I have with the characters depicted on the show. As with my own situation there are three siblings, a girl and two boys, who continue to struggle with the impact of their beloved father’s death. I have known the pain of their loss of their father all too well, and like them I have never quite come to grips with the reality of the situation even years later. The writers of the series are certainly gifted to make each of us feel as though they have somehow tapped into our own personal memories. The title itself hints that we are all part of a great big family of mankind that endures the same types of struggles. The characters are us. Their history is ours.

A recent episode of This Is Us was titled The Car, a brilliant look at how an inanimate object becomes a symbol for a father’s love and all that is good about a family. The storyline was particularly touching for me because it was one car that devastated my family and another that brought us a new day of hope.

My father was a Pontiac man. He loved the sporty nature of that brand and insisted on getting a new one almost as soon as the last payment was made on the one he was driving. He had proudly purchased a brand new Pontiac with all of the bells and whistles for our move from Houston, Texas to San Jose California. It was an automobile boasting the kind of luxury that earned second glances as we drove down the road. It carried us in grand style and comfort thousands of miles to our new home. When things didn’t work out there it brought us back to Houston and the promise of a fresh start in familiar surroundings. We used it to visit friends and family whom we had missed while we were gone. We drove it to inspect houses that we might purchase to set up a household. We were planning to take it to the beach on Memorial Day to launch a summer on the Gulf Coast. We loved that car and the sight of our daddy sitting so happily behind the wheel. How could we have known that it would become the instrument of his death?

He died in that car on a lonely stretch of road when he accidentally drove into a deep ditch that was unmarked and laying in wait on a dark night. It had no seatbelt to protect him, no collapsable steering wheel, no exterior designed to take the brunt of the crash. Instead the car built as it was became a weapon that crushed his chest and stopped his heart. It would change our lives and create questions in our minds that haunt us even to this day.

We would later find evidence of our father’s loving nature in the gifts that he had already purchased in anticipation of his wedding anniversary and my mother’s birthday. A card would arrive in the mail from him with a postmark from the day before he died. He had used his car to plan for a future that would never come for him. He was dead and the car had become a heap of scrap.

My mother had to pull herself together somehow. She began the process of building a new kind of life for us, and for that she needed a car. The one that she purchased became the auto that would carry us through our youth and into our adulthood. It was a homely thing, almost ugly, but it was reliable. It was painted in a two tone pattern of white and a strange beige color. It had ordinary cloth seats and rubber mats on the floorboard. It was as basic as a car might be, not even possessing an automatic transmission or an air conditioner. It was so unlike anything our father might have purchased, but my mother was able to pay for it with the insurance money that she received from his accident. It was so stripped down that there was very little that might break, and best of all she owned it. It was a good car in spite of its appearance and it became the vehicle that drove us into our future.

Once we managed to move beyond our grief that car became a source of great fun. We used it to visit our grandparents in Arkansas, and piled inside on Friday nights to meet up with our aunts and uncles and cousins. We sat inside it at drive-in movie theaters enjoying grand epics on the big screen even as we batted the mosquitoes that buzzed about. We ran our weekend errands and drove to church in our ever faithful auto. We motored to Dallas and San Antonio for vacations, and went to Corpus Christi to enjoy the ocean that our dad had so loved. When we were sick we sat safely inside the car as we traveled to see the doctor. The car took us to ballgames and bowling alleys, pancake breakfasts and excursions at the mall.

From time to time one of our mechanically inclined uncles would change the oil, rotate the tires, or install a new battery. Year after year passed and it was that ugly old car that took us to the places where we celebrated the milestones of our youth. It was ever dependable, always waiting to help us enjoy a new adventure. It helped us to heal and to move on from the tragedy that had so changed us. It served us as well as anything might have, requiring little attention to keep faithfully working.

About the time that I was close to graduating from high school my mother decided that it was time to replace the car which was nearing its eighth or ninth year of service to our family. One of my cousins purchased it from her and our next car was a great deal fancier, but somehow not as comforting as the old one had been. I found myself missing our friend even as we toured the city in grander style more akin to the kind that our father had always enjoyed. We had carpet on the floorboards and air conditioning to keep us cool, but somehow it would never feel as secure as “The Car” had been. In fact, I have few memories attached to the new model. It would always be that ugly old stripped down Ford that I would remember with so much fondness.

It’s funny how a car can become such a vivid part of life, representing all of the things that are good about its owners. That’s the way it was with ours. The car was one of us and we loved it.

Some People Are Too Special For That

2016-09-28-1475071877-4911931-OprahI love, love, love Oprah Winfrey. I used to record her talk show every single day. It was one of my favorite programs, mostly because of Oprah. She introduced me to so many books that ultimately became treasures. I have subscribed to her magazine since its inauguration and garner many wonderful ideas for my blogs from its pages. I probably watch OWN as much as any other cable channel. Oprah understands me and what I like. I almost feel as though we are girlfriends even though we have never even met. I think so much like her that we might as well be sisters. I was certain that she would choose my school for her annual teacher giveaway the year that we took over four hundred kids from New Orleans under our care when their city was so destroyed by hurricane Katrina. The letter that I wrote to Oprah describing the wonderful sacrifices that our teachers had made was heartfelt, just the sort of thing that usually attracts her attention. I didn’t get angry when I didn’t even get an acknowledgement of my efforts. I understand that she is so busy and has the whole world asking her for attention and favors. I still loved her when we did not win and always will, and one of my most cherished dreams is to spend an afternoon talking with her over a cup of tea.

Oprah’s speech at the Golden Globes was wonderful, breathtaking. She definitely knows how to bring down the house. She has such a genuine way with words that few possess. I believe that she is a truly compassionate woman, a role model for all of us, especially young girls. I’m also enough of a realist to acknowledge that there will probably never be an end to the kind of behaviors that some men have forced on women for centuries. I suppose that I am a bit of a cynic when it comes to evil. I don’t see it evaporating any time soon, not even if we work hard to eradicate it. There was a time when I was a cockeyed optimist, but those days are long past. I’ve seen too much to honestly think that the tide has completely turned. We’ll no doubt see some improvement, and that is a good thing, but the beautiful picture that Oprah painted in her speech won’t materialize in totality. Still I suppose that there is nothing wrong with aiming high. After all who would ever have thought that a young girl from Oprah’s circumstances would have become one of the most powerful people on earth? She showed everyone what is possible, and has done it with so much grace that there is now great excitement over the prospect of an Oprah Winfree presidential bid.

I suppose that if a rather ignorant goofball who is little more than a very successful salesman can become president there is no reason why Oprah should feel any reluctance to run. Her  speech was stunning, and proved that she can command our attention. In truth that is part of the problem for me. Oprah provided us with a wonderful collection of words, but the job of president is much bigger than nice thoughts.  Even running a business doesn’t appear to be as important as we once may have thought. I’m frightened every single day by the lack of knowledge and experience of the man who now sits at the helm. Frankly I would prefer that we replace him with someone who has run a city or a state or at least served in Congress.

The problems that we face are way bigger than a personality. We need to tackle real issues and that is going to take a great deal of understanding of how things work in the government. Maybe Oprah is diplomatic and intelligent enough to deal with those who have a handle on things, but I have grown weary of watching an amateur attempt to learn on the job. Then there is also the selfish reason that I so love Oprah that I do not wish to see her torn apart, and that is almost a certainty if she tries out for the job. Every minor blip in her background will become fodder. The most popular woman in the country will gain enemies from among people who were once her fans. It will be a feast of scavengers attempting to dig up dirt on her or her family and friends. It will be ugly and heartbreaking. I so desperately need to have at least one unadulterated icon, and for me that is Oprah Winfree. I want her to be a beacon of hope in a world that is far too dark. I see her purpose as being everyone’s best friend, mentor, sister, inspiration. I don’t want her to have to focus on nitty gritty when she does so much good right now. She has found a beautiful niche that helps us to see the good in the world. I just don’t want to lose that by having her play a very difficult role. Instead perhaps she should stick to finding great candidates and endorsing them like she has done in the past. That is her real talent.

Maybe Oprah can guide us to the person that she views as our saving grace. Perhaps it will be another run by Bernie Sanders, or maybe she thinks that it is Corey Booker’s turn. This may be the moment for Joe Biden. He’s a good man with a great deal of experience and a phenomenal sense of humor. I sometimes think that we need to find our sense of humor again and he’d be great at that. We may instead be more ready for a woman or an Hispanic, but please don’t take Oprah from the things that she does so well. We need her just the way she is right now.

I’ve already heard the rumblings of the kind of critiques that will be hurled at Oprah. There are mentions of some of the pseudo scientific ideas that she has supported. Those will become even bigger issues if she decides to run and we frankly don’t need the distractions. Furthermore I just don’t think that I will be able to handle the insults that will fly out of Donald Trump’s mouth, not the ones aimed at Oprah anyway.

We have had a tendency in the last many decades to choose our leaders based more on a cult of personality than the real issues. We lean toward charisma and dynamic speaking ability rather than a sound resume. We tend to forget or ignore how complex the world has become in the search for easy answers, quick fixes. If the last year has taught us nothing, it should be that we need a president who is utterly familiar with the national government and the issues that are most in need of repair. Let’s keep Oprah as our counselor in chief, the person who cares for our social needs and leads us to knowledge. That’s where her strength lies. I want to know that her lovable reputation will remain intact. I don’t want her to feel anything but the love we have for her. She has provided us with so much pleasure and that’s the way that I want it to stay.

The last years of my professional life were particularly rewarding. Had it not been for Oprah Winfrey they never would have happened. I watched her interviewing Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin the founders of the KIPP Charter Schools and I became intrigued. When I had an opportunity to get a job at one of their campuses I was already onboard based on what I had heard on Oprah’s program. I have her to thank for bringing such great pleasure in my life, and I want her to be free to continue in that direction for as long as possible. We need Oprah Winfrey, but not for President of the United States. Some people are more special than that.