GUESTWORDS: Seduction Under the Stars

By Geoff Gehman

   I’m lying under a blanket in the back seat of our 1964 Chevy Impala, snoring through “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a blisteringly boring film for an 11-year-old who hates science fiction. Sleeping is my only escape from an incomprehensible, insufferable cast of actors dressed as prehistoric apes screaming at an anachronistic monolith, astronauts babbling about a mission to the moon, and a droning, lullabying computer with a superiority complex.
    I’m jolted awake by a racket rattling the loudspeaker wedged into the driver’s-side window. The screeching comes from a space pod rocketing beyond infinity, the only exciting scene in a movie that Mad, my favorite funny magazine, dubbed “2001: A Space Idiocy.” Drowsiness becomes disorientation as stars explode, colored lights erupt, space haywires, and my brain bobsleds through a psychedelic Times Square plugged into Jimi Hendrix’s amplifier.
    This virtual acid trip happened at the Hamptons Drive-In in Bridgehampton, which was a gas even when the movie sucked. The fun usually began in cars and trucks lined up at the entrance. Being a pretty obedient child, I was amused and amazed by kids hiding under blankets in back seats and pickup beds, laughing loudly because they knew they’d get in for free. They usually succeeded because the cashiers accepted petty crime as normal juvenile high jinks. The guardians at the gate expected to get ripped off just as motorists at a safari park expected baboons to rip off chunks of vinyl roofs.
    Once inside the lot, the first order of business was finding a speaker that worked right. It seemed that every third one was disabled — perhaps by the clammy chill of South Fork nights, probably by frustrated customers jamming the contraption between window and door. My father was famously impatient, and hunting for a sufficiently loud, clear speaker turned him into the kind of petulant patriarch found in so many of Jean Shepherd’s shaggy yarns.
    Once hooked up, the next order of business was racing to the playground swings. Yanking my body as hard and as high as I could, trying to touch the dusky sky with my toes, was delightfully liberating and downright magical. It might have been less magical had I known that the kids’ stuff at Bridgehampton was, well, kids’ stuff. Other drive-ins, I discovered decades later, had pony rides, go-cart tracks, and John Wayne promoting “True Grit” by shooting guns on top of a concession stand.
    The Bridgehampton concession stand was the site of a memorable rite of passage. In that cinderblock bunker I bought snacks by myself for the first time, rewarding my parents’ faith I would return to them safe and with their change. For me, adulthood started the night I purchased a box of Raisinettes and an Orange Crush without adult supervision. Waiting on line I entertained myself by imagining the stand attacked by aliens attracted by the garish fluorescent lights that gave everyone an alien glow.
    Back at the car, I engaged in another act of independence. If the night was fairly warm and the crowd was fairly small, my parents let me watch part of the film in a folding chair or, better yet, in the middle of the hood. I didn’t care that, separated from speaker and heater, the sound clattered and my teeth chattered. I just loved staring at the screen and the stars, tuning in natural and artificial frequencies, bathing in freedom.
    Any ex-teen will tell you that a drive-in is all about freedom. Like any drive-in, Bridgehampton was a cheap, reliable outdoor motel for youngsters in lust and on the lam. Being a junior voyeur, I enjoyed spying on the groping and grinding. One night I returned from the concession stand and followed the sound of moaning to my first vicarious blow job. When I gasped, the fellated fellow opened his eyes and shot me a look that could have blasted asteroids as if they were hemorrhoids. Luckily for me, I was in the driver’s seat. He had to shut up because shouting would have distracted his lady, attracted the flashlight detectives, and blown his ecstasy big time.
    There’s a saying among Woodstockers that if you remember all the musicians who played the three-day festival, you either weren’t there or you didn’t drop enough acid. The drive-in spawned a similar saying: If you remember all the films, you either weren’t in the passion pit or you didn’t get enough passion. Since I wasn’t old enough to get enough, I can honestly, accurately say that many Bridgehampton teens spent so much time fooling around in the car, they missed a lot of fooling around on the screen.
    Like so many drive-ins in the late ’60s to early ’70s, Bridgehampton showed plenty of skin. On one hand, the drive-in’s owners wanted to cash in on the free-love boom. On the other hand, they needed to compete against racier fare on cable television, a threat they addressed with signs proclaiming “Save Free TV.” Perhaps that’s why cashiers let preadolescents like me see “The Graduate,” in which a middle-age, restless woman commits adultery with a restless, rootless young bachelor, and “Easy Rider,” in which bikers use peyote as an aphrodisiac.
    My parents were agents of corruption, too. They took their kids to R-rated films because they knew we’d be bored to sleep, which would give them a relatively rare night out and still maintain family unity. That’s why “2001,” which was originally released in 1968, was my surreal sleeping pill and hallucinogenic alarm clock in the summer of 1969, when it was re-released to feed the frenzy over the Apollo 11 moon landing. That’s why I saw “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas,” a sex comedy about a bored middle-aged lawyer who clicks with a hippie chick who bakes hash brownies — and who gave my proper, scone-baking English mother a burning desire to make chocolate pot.
    Against all odds the drive-in made me a film fan. Despite being bored and cold and distracted and drowsy, I became an aficionado of all sorts of actors, genres, and formats. At Bridgehampton I saw “You Only Live Twice,” which made me admire Sean Connery’s suave, witty James Bond; the 007 satire “Casino Royale,” which made me admire Woody Allen’s clownish kvetching, and “To Sir, With Love,” which made me admire Sidney Poitier’s radiant, raging dignity. At Bridgehampton I saw my first horror movie: “The Sand Pebbles,” a drama about a U.S. Navy gunboat patrolling 1920s China. For a good week I had nightmares about a hot-headed machinist, played by Steve McQueen, who shoots to death a coolie tortured onshore by nationalists, axes a nationalist after he helps break a blockade of junks, and is shot to death by a sniper in a deserted, haunted palace. The violence, so foreign and yet so personal, scared me into thinking I’d be drafted and become the first 11-year-old American to die during hand-to-hand combat in Vietnam.
    Bridgehampton birthed my bizarre fondness for pastel-colored, flawless-skinned, perfectly fizzy pictures like “Sweet November” and “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.” Bridgehampton can be blamed for my love affair with daffy, only-at-the-drive-in double bills like “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium,” a comedy about tourists breaking down, and “Let It Be,” a documentary about the Beatles breaking up. The only connection between those films is that both take place in Europe. That, and the fact that so many people in a summer resort are so bored at night they’ll watch pretty much any kind of crap.
    Best of all, Bridgehampton encouraged me to dig movies so bad they’re good. Four decades later, “2001” still makes me yawn, still makes me want to scream like an ape, still gives me a good psychotropic jolt. The only thing better would be my mother finally baking me a batch of Alice B. Toklas-toked brownies.
    Hmm. Maybe the only way to really, truly enjoy “2001” is stoned.

Geoff Gehman is a former resident of Wainscott and a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa. This piece is excerpted from “The Kingdom of the Kid,” a memoir of growing up on the South Fork circa 1967 to 1972, to be published in 2013 by SUNY Press.