Spanish folks call these “mechitas”, I’m surprised to see them in Walmart in the garden area. You usually don’t see them for sale in this country at all. These little green incense spirals even come with a nice little clay dish to burn them in. In Panama the first time I saw a meshita at work was in my mother-in-laws house where we’d be living for the next five years. It was smoking in a cast iron frying pan under the dinner table, and I had no faith that something so primitive and simple would defend me from the deadliest creature on earth, the ancient scourge that has killed more human beings than all other animals combined as it whines in my ear and then begins to eat me alive, usually from the feet up. But meshitas work. You can clear a whole room with them, at least the ones in Panama. And we’re going to need it where we’re going tonight.
I push my shopping cart over to the electronics department to pick up some half dozen D batteries for my old boom box radio. We’ll need that too. In front of the Wii and Playstation 3 consoles teenage boys are standing in a kind of sinister wired up Matrix human-farm trance, staring dully and pushing buttons. In front of the TV wall, a tall black guy wearing a doo-rag is waving his hands at the hi rez flat screen images. “No! No – I done tol’ you muhfah, know I'm sayin' ? It's four hundred muhfuckin’ dollars – four hunert!” He’s muttering this to voices in his head only he can hear. And of course the voices, maybe his girlfriend or kid, are answering him back.
The batteries are on a spindle next to the iPod and iPhone players. Two kids are standing silently, way in The Zone with that far away human-farm trance, and little wires coming out of their ears, nodding their heads.
There’s a story about Akio Morita, the chairman of Sony and producer of the first Sony Walkman personal tape player back in the ‘80s. They say when he brought a prototype home with the little foam headphones clamped on his noggin, he got in a fight with his wife. She could feel right away how walled off he was from her in his own little world of private bliss.
Now that I have my batteries I grab some cheap soda, some Fiddle Faddle popcorn and a can of nuts and I’m off to hunt down Big Mo.
Monetta South Carolina is about forty minutes drive from home according to my Yahoo Maps printout. The first twenty minutes is the usual faceless Interstate Highway which always seems to look the same no matter what state you’re in, except for that little thrill you get going over the old concrete bridge high above the Savannah River, crossing over into Carolina. When exit 22 pops up outside of Aiken, we jink off onto County Road 1. County Road 1 is a patched and benignly forgotten strip of old tarmac that probably goes back to the invention of the car or maybe the Civil War. This is a stretch where Robert E Lee or Sherman’s armies may have marched, where cotton was picked and the blues invented, crosses were burned and black folks hung, church picnics celebrated and the newly saved baptized in rivers, chain gangs chanted as they banged their hammers and people lived and died without leaving so much as a mark in this world.
We pass through some old half deserted towns. A dried up wooden building that maybe eighty years ago was a gas station and general store. Old men sitting side by side in faded denim overalls on rocking chairs with their old ‘coon hounds on gone-to-shit porches watching the traffic pass. An old juke joint with a neon beer sign goes by on the right, a beat down BBQ joint with a faded hand painting of a grinning pink Porky Pig goes by on the left. For a second you can catch a glance of a side window with bars and a wire screen and a lift up panel, where back in the day a black person would stand to pick up some lunch without being allowed inside with the local whites. A peach orchard goes by on both sides of the road halfway to the horizon, vast and green, majestic as the sea, and I slow down for that. I can’t help it because I have a peach tree in my back yard and I’ve never seen a peach orchard. I get this feeling The Little Prince had in the Saint-Exupéry novel when he discovers that the world is full of roses, and not just the one in the bell jar he’s in love with. He thought it was the only rose in the world and at first he’s hurt. He realizes his rose, its not even a very good rose. But then he thinks – yes, but its MY rose. Me, I think, these are great peach trees. But the one in my back yard I'm personally acquainted with, that skinny little thing – it’s MY peach tree.
Monetta is this little town, the kind that Hollywood loves to make movies about, sticky sentimental movies about noble salt of earth kids who win the football tournament against the arrogant rich kid’s school because of their traditional small town values, or inbred-vampire-zombie town folks that come out at night to chew on the tourists when their car breaks down - take your pick. But it’s beautiful. At the least, it’s a nice place to visit. It reminds me of all the little towns like this in Mississippi and Arkansas I spent time in back in the road days. I go whizzing past Big Mo in my enchantment with the local color and my wife and kid are yelling in my ear to turn around! – turn around! –and I go looping a 180 in a farm road turnoff to go back the other way.
On the West Field is a new Freddy Kruger movie, but on the main field a double feature – “Iron man 2” and “How to Tame Your Dragon”. Two for the price of one.
Big Mo – you are mine tonight.
Rumors had circulated where I work for years about this mysterious beast, one of the last of its kind out alone somewhere in the wilds of South Carolina within driving distance of Augusta. But it took me this long to find an eyewitness who could give me a name and a place. “Big Mo” is one of the very last of an almost extinct species – the American Drive in Movie Theater.
A man in a baseball cap hands me some local advertising flyers for lawn care equipment. I hold out my money to him and he laughs. “That away.” Up there a young woman is sitting at a card table while her little boy plays in the grass with a tin truck. I give her money for three, seven dollars a ticket which is about three bucks cheaper than indoors.
“Iron Man 2? Is it filled up?”
“Gettin’ there honey, maybe two thirds.”
“Its my first time in a drive movie, in fifty years. Can you believe it?”
“Whoo – ee! Well, ya’ll come back and see us anytime.”
We pull into the main field, about the size of a small baseball field. Northeast of the screen is a feed mill grain tower with lights on top. They’ve been bugging the company for weeks to turn off the lights on weekend nights. Big Mo is only open on weekends. Seeing the cars packed about half full down the main field – and the box office (card table) only opened for business about twenty minutes ago by my watch, it occurs to me we got here just in time. Drive Ins, maybe because of their retro- rarity and baby boomer sentimentality are a big deal. There is a great cult loyalty among the drive in crowd such as you see among NASCAR fans.
I pull into a sand paved road with a crazy pile of cars and trucks and campers and pull into an empty space next to an old pick up truck. I do a little wheeling and turning and point the tail end of the van towards the screen and shut off.
My own small town boy scout training on preparedness has caused me to research the Big Mo. I’ve got map directions and the radio stations it tunes into. Radio stations, now that turns out to be a huge innovation. Huge.
When I was a kid the sound posts used these big ugly iron speakers about the size of a Popeye’s Ten Piece Chicken box. They were made ugly and iron for a reason. Ugly meant you didn’t steal them for souvenirs . Big and Iron meant they weren’t that easy to ignore on your window. Cheap and simple meant, that if you’d gone to the drive in for the purpose of you and your horny girlfriend getting drunk out of your skulls and then retiring to the pleasures of the back seat – where many a baby boomer was conceived – and you drove off with the speaker on your window and tore it clean off the goddamn post and drove off with the cord trailing out of your sexually satisfied drunk-ass window – well – it was cheap to replace.
Now its even easier with dedicated radio stations. I suppose if you live within a mile of the theater you might be able to tune in on a radio at home and listen to the movie like an old time radio show. That would be very cool. But what it means to the drive in fan is you don’t have to park facing the screen and watching the movie through the windshield. This is where high tech meets low tech. I pop open the tail gate and turn on the rear car speakers to the station and its clear as the azure sky overhead. My kid unloads the lawn chairs and the ice chest. My wife lights up the meshita coil for the bugs and we set up shop. In a half hour or so, as the sky starts to get red, and my kid is listening to the weird old commercials on the station which have been preserved from the halcyon days, advertising snacks and drinks nobody even makes anymore, an audio museum. My wife, tired from work is stretched out in her chair with her feet up on a pillow on the ice chest. The sky is clear and the first star, Venus, is coming out over the top of the big white empty screen. Under the big screen is a playground swarming with kids. A couple of bottle rockets go up in the air. Not too hot, not too cold. Mama Bear perfect. Now THIS is how you watch a movie.
The family in the pickup truck next to me, you can tell they’ve done this every weekend forever. Daddy, a jolly good ol’ boy with red hair and overalls is coming from the snack shed carrying a hot pizza in a box. His three little kids are fussing with drinks and ice and who gets to sit where and Mama is lifting up some big disco speakers and setting them up on the ledge behind the cab. The speakers look home made. Made for this place, the Temple of the Story.
I get out and go for a little walk. I have to get a look before the lights go down. The field is almost packed to the fringes now. By the snack shed there’s a goofy knocked together choo-choo train ride that runs in a circle on an electric tether on little railroad tracks. A dozen little kids are riding in the train together yelling and laughing.
The back edge of the field stops at the beginning of a thick woods or marsh with trees and tall weeds, fenced off with barb wire. Fireflies winkle over the tall grass. Near the fence teens are tossing a football around and chasing each other. In the last row a party of college age kids has spread out blankets and the girls are chowing down on fried chicken and beer. A little dog is chasing a Frisbee. Black and white kids all mixed together, every combination of white men and women and black men and women together like a wonderful tossed salad of people. Now that is something that would not have existed the last time I came to a drive in, back in the fifties. Not a headset or techo-trancer in sight. A noisy happy swamp of humanity hanging out. The movie is almost incidental because this isn’t just a movie theater– this is Woodstock, baby!!
Big Mo Nation!
You can visit The Big Mo and see what's shakin' this week at :