The team captain said he’d be back in an hour. As I turn away from the county road, the tail lights of the Dodge van wink around a bend and vanish. An hour is plenty time. It’s dark enough now that the movie on the other side of the meadow is well under way.
I’m chewing gum because I’m nervous. Gum calms me, like giving the mind a rubber ball to bounce, a kind of sink for nervous energy. Like fear, a bad case of nerves goes unappreciated. Nerves are good, if you can ride your personal chaos it can push you beyond your limits and tonight I have to get beyond my limit or die. I check the cardboard box I tossed into the grass just before I jumped out of the van, and its all there, mostly Peanut Brittle and Peco Pies. Peco Pies are this kind of Southern thing, esssntially a rock hard kind of peanut brittle made with coconut. Some of them are pink, some are white. Then there several boxes of Old Dominion peanut brittle.
We call it MFT, which means “Mobile Fundraising Team”, but we like to say it means “More Fun Today”. I don’t know if the next forty minutues will be fun or not, but it will be seriously weird. This is the second time I’ve done this. The first time was a disaster, because I was so clueless and it was something no one had done or figured out. I was just tossed in there to figure it out on my own. Which is what I'm usually good at, but not that time. But I’ve had time to think. Now I have an plan. Now I have a clue.
I pick up the box and make my way through the dried up weeds and high switchgrass. it occurs to me that rattlesnakes come out at night in Arkansas to hunt for mice in the high weeds just like these, and I feel a little scared. So I move slow to give the venomous a chance to see me coming. An old farmer with snake skins hanging off his porch told me – after buying some candles I was selling for my church – that rattlesnakes are basically peaceful and shy. Animals in general are practical creatures because they live in a world of sudden violence. Rattlesnakes are practical animals. It takes two weeks to build up a charge of poison they could be using to catch their food. Biting someone out of fear is a waste of juice, it’s a last resort because they’ll go hungry for two weeks. That’s why they rattle at you, they don’t want to bite you.
I shuffle my feet, and freeze when I hear a loud buzz in the grass and something moving away. I don’t know if it’s a bug or a snake. I just move slow, making a lot of noise with my feet until I reach the barb wire fence.
I take a little keychain flashlight off my belt and shine it along the ground under the fence. I know its going to be here someplace. After a few minutes I find it, a hole where the fence has been lifted up because the local kids are always sneaking into the drive in movie to turn on a speaker and smoke and make out and drink, whatever these small town kids do at night. I can see the back most row of cars, and yes, many of them have steamed windows rolled up. One of them has a girl’s bare feet and calves sticking out the rear window. The girl is curling and uncurling her toes.
I kneel down and push the case of peanut brittle and peco pies through and then get down on my back and scoot under. I glance at my watch. Forty minutes to go, minus ten minutes to leave and get to the road. And that’s if nothing bad happens. Here we go.
I skip the back row of cars completely, that was one lesson I learned from last Friday night. If they’re engaged in embarrassing activities, if they’re irritated and suspicious, they’re not likely to buy.
So I move straight to the second row and go right at the first car I see.
I’ve learned not to plan or to think past this moment. That’s what killed me mentally last time and had the manager looking for me in the dark with a big steel railroad flashlight. You can’t think about this. I go into automatic mode. Some things are too weird to contemplate. If you think about what you’re doing, what can go wrong, you’ll lose your nerve. You’ll turn sensible. Sensible gets you killed. That’s what I’ve figured out from last week’s debacle.
When you do something that’s totally weird, totally inappropriate and most of all unprecedented, people won’t know what they’re supposed to think. So, since you’re the guy doing the weird thing – people look for their cues from you. That’s an amazing thing. If you think you’re doing something weird, they think so too. If you think what you’re doing is totally normal, they think so too. It must be normal, or why wouldn’t this guy be embarrassed? When confronted with something new, people want to be told how to respond to it. People want to be told what to feel.
So I go up to the first car, but I don’t want to startle them, so I go “Hi! How’s the movie?” in a big cheery voice from about fifteen feet away so they have plenty of time to see me coming, just like the rattlesnakes. The man in the driver’s seat turns to look, worried at first, but he sees the big happy grin on my mug and the candy case under my arm. “Hi!” he says, like we’re old friends. Maybe for two seconds he even figures we might be. At this moment there’s a rolodex of faces scrolling in his head and coming up empty.
“Listen, my church is fund raising in the drive in movie tonight? And guess what we got? Peanut Brittle! Wow!” I grab a box and hold it up. He has to squint to see it, but yes, sonuvagun, it sure is peanut brittle all right.
“Your church is selling stuff in a drive in movie?”
“Yup! We sure are! Wow! You can get one box for two dollars, or three boxes for five!”
He turns to the young woman in the passenger seat who is slouching down and it looks like she’s quickly fiddling with the buttons of her blouse. “What do you think darlin’?”
She nods. “Yeah, okay. Peanut Brittle’s okay.”
The man fishes out his wallet. “Five?”
He hands me a five. I give him three boxes. God bless you, enjoy your movie, and I move right along to the next car.
There’s not a big crowd tonight. I work through most of the middle and do well on the front row because that’s where most of the families with little kids are, near the playground area under the big screen. By the time I gotten through 25 minutes, most of the candy is gone. One person was definitely annoyed and I’ve kept on eye on his car. He’s heading for the snack stand. Maybe popcorn. Maybe a complaint. Time to go back to the fence anyway. Once I get to the fence, I check my watch again, and hunker down in the weeds and watch part of the movie. After a few minutes a squadron of mosquitoes radios in my position and dives in.
That’s not the weirdest thing I’ve ever done by a ways, but its one of the weirdest things I’ll tell you.
That was a long time ago. I was a different person. I couldn’t do that today. I wouldn't have the guts. I wouldn’t know how. The mechanics of it are simple, a chimpanzee could do it better. What I couldn’t get back is the mental position, the correct state of mind, and the state of mind is absolutely necessary. Here’s the rule of fund raising in a drive in movie – if you believe it, they believe it. If you think its weird, they think its weird. When confronted with something unprecedented, if you’re the man in the spotlight, people around you will take their attitudes by picking up their cues from you. Suspension of disbelief.
When you hear hoof beats coming at you, you expect to see a horse. The one time in a million it turns out to be a zebra you don’t know what to do. So you look to see what the other guy is doing. That’s how 9/11 happened. The first three planes were zebras. By the time the fourth zebra, United 93, came along, the passengers on board that flight had stopped believing in horses and began dealing in zebras.
I think about the drive in, and there were many of them back then, when I watch politicians on TV these days. Its all about the confidence. If you look like you believe something, people believe it. People want to believe it. People want to believe something. If you doubt yourself, even if you’re right, people will doubt you. That makes for so much mischief in this world.