It is summer, 1963. The place is Bay Shore, Long Island, gateway to Fire Island and birthplace to many of western civilizations finest achievements. These include, but are not limited to, Entenmann’s cakes and donuts, the game of Scrabble, and the Otis Elevator. It is also, at this time, part of the mushroom-like growth of suburban America. In less than two post war decades Bay Shore, as well as most of the middle-class settlements on the South Shore, has doubled, and in some cases tripled, in size. This burgeoning population has put many social institutions at a serious disadvantage as municipalities and school districts seek to keep up with surging tide of humanity that keeps washing up from Queens and Brooklyn, huddled masses yearning to have barbecues and lawns bigger than boxing rings. Our story here deals with one particularly innovative solution to this overflow and one small childís perception of it. The point being that no matter how strange something is, given the limited reference points of a nine year-old, the weirdest things seem mundane. To illustrate this point we will descend upon one more or less typical family, mine, and observe them on this hot, summer, Sunday morning.
Being good Catholics we are preparing to go to Mass, 11:00 Mass to be precise. There are six people in my family, my parents, myself and two brothers and my grandmother. My grandmother has, of course, already attended 6:00, 7:15 and 9:00 A.M. Masses and so will stay home to start dinner and watch the youngest child, my brother Terry, who is only two and a half and therefore excused. My other brother, Pat, aged fourteen and I, nine, exhibit the usual dragging of feet and sullen demeanors associated with the immediate prospect of spending a hot summer morning in church. Mom adjusts her flowered hat and Dad his tie as he announces that he will be waiting in the car. Pat and I, faces scrubbed and Madras sports jackets flapping in chromatic delirium soon follow and the men settle in for the inevitable struggle to get Mom out of the house, into the car and out of the drive way before the phone rings. Finally my mother, her florally resplendent hat firmly secured to her head, makes her final approach to the black Rambler Station Wagon and the Moores are on their way. None of this seems especially noteworthy until you notice that my entire family is wearing Bermuda shorts.
While this attire may seem a little odd it is fifteen minutes later, when my father pulls the car into a line of vehicles waiting to enter the place of worship, that we are presented with a truly eerie tableau. For you see there is no steeple towering above, no cross topped belfry beckoning on the parishioners to their hallowed weekly duty. It is instead a large weather beaten movie marquee that proclaims, in large cracked black letters, the imminent and apocalyptic combat of Godzilla vs. Mothra.
It is a scene that could only occur in America, a country that has always fought indefatigably to preserve the right of its citizenry to practice their religion in whatever bizarre fashion it saw fit. In this case the old church of St. Anne’s had burnt down and until a new one could be built an emergency alternative would have to be found. It may never be known what creative, or distorted, mind came up with the idea of using a Drive-In movie theater as a place of worship. What we do know is that not only was this somewhat novel concept accepted by the community it was soon embraced to the point where the theater became more crowded on Sundays then the church had ever been. Picture hundreds of cars lined up, in bright sunlight, facing a huge blank white movie screen and it becomes some weird combination of 1984 and The Day of the Locusts. It is also strangely recognizable as emblematic of mid Twentieth Century suburban American culture. But let us return to our family of erstwhile worshipers.
By now my father has maneuvered the car to a position about midway between screen and exit. He would have parked next to the exit, there is, after all nothing to see, and so avoid the after Mass traffic jam, except that I, being in an irksomely devout stage of development, insist on receiving Communion. Bringing the car to a halt atop the small humped back hill he shuts off the engine and adjusts the rear view mirror so as to best police the back seat, which he knows will soon resemble a scene from All Quiet on the Western Front. My mother fits the small metal speaker in the window and adjusts her hat, all the while scanning the surrounding cars for competitive topiary. We’re in the back seat, me on the left and Pat on the right. And down the center of the car is drawn a line, parallel to the transmission, no less real for its invisibility. Both boys know it well and are familiar, to the exact centimeter, with their respective territories and as fanatically protective of that territory as any Balkan potentate. To cross that line is to risk pinching, punching and indignant complaints to front seat authority. To cross that line is to hazard parental rebuke and retribution. To cross that line is, of course, inevitable. Sitting in the back seat I take inventory of my small collection of contraband amusements that have been smuggled aboard at great risk. In my right pocket are two small plastic gladiators which I can use to reenact anything from the Battle of Hastings to the Punic Wars. In my left pocket are three jelly beans, a rubber band, a small piece of lint covered modeling clay and six Bazooka Joe Comic bubble gum wrappers. In my top pocket is a small magnifying glass which offers not only entertainment possibilities but can also serve as a weapon of last resort against my larger and more powerful adversary. From experience I know that use of each object must be spaced out because as soon as it appears that I am enjoying something my brother will notice and tribute will have to be paid. Content that I am as well prepared as possible for the ordeal ahead I settle back in my seat and stare up at the blank screen.
The parish announcements having been read by a man whose hushed voice sounds just like that of a golf commentator the beginning of the of the Mass is signaled by the chime of a small bell through the raspy speaker. (One of the many advantages to attending church in a car is that it is impossible to stand or kneel, that is except for one time when I, feeling uncharacteristically pious, knelt all through the Offertory with my faced pressed up against the vinyl seat covering of the front seat. This caused my forehead and nose to break out in a sort of checkerboard welt that, while not actually painful, provided my older brother much too much amusement.) If I squint my eyes in the bright summer sunlight I can just make out the small white shack that has been constructed at the base of the screen in which the priest actually performs the ceremony. As the voice begins its familiar drone I look out my window and begin to categorize the people in the cars nearest us. In the course of two years I had discovered that there are roughly five types of family that attend Drive-In Mass, all of which have their own peculiarities and diverting differences in behavior. If you can imagine such a thing as a suburban zoo this would be the natural habitat.
The first type is the Dressed Up family. These are people who actually wear suits and dresses to sit in their car in the hot sun. These people were rather stoic and generally not much fun. That is unless I could catch the attention of one the little kids and stick my tongue out at him. These people were so tightly wrapped that this ploy would usually cause the kid to break out in hysterical screams and, in the best case scenario, get him a whack in the head. I supposed I should feel guilty about doing things like this during Mass but I had decided that it was every kid for himself. Besides, my brother pulled this trick on me all the time. The next category I referred to as the Beetle Bailey family. These were people who pulled in, put the speaker in the window and then started reading the Sunday papers. These people were not very entertaining, although there was the possibility of the children fighting over the comics. A sub category was the Life With Father families in which only the father got to read the paper. I found this cruel and unusual treatment and it probably had a lot to do with my outrage at hypocrisy in later years.
The third type of people were the beach families. These were people who would stop at Mass on the way to a day at the ocean. They would all be wearing brightly colored cabana outfits and have the back of their station wagon stuffed with chaise longues and inflatable toys. These people were great fun because invariably the children, after a half hour of alternately unsticking bare legs that became glued to the super-heated plastic seat cover, would no longer be able to resist the temptation of playing with the inflatable animals. If you were really lucky you could sometimes see a plastic Dino suddenly fly all around the inside of a neighboring Chrysler amid much screaming and, best case scenario again, foul language. The cold weather counterpart to this colorful group was the Pajama Family. These people just came in bathrobes and Dr. Dentons and mostly slept through Mass. They were only fun if they all fell asleep and everyone got to toot their horn at them after church.
My favorite people were the last group, these I classified as the Fighting Families. These were groups of adults and children who started screaming at each other almost as soon as their engine was turned off. Sometimes, if they were Italian, one or more family members would actually run shrieking from the car. When this happened the car would abruptly leave, lurching up and down the hills searching for the escapee. That is unless it was the father and he took the keys. These people would also sometimes get in arguments with other families, usually the Sunday paper people who were trying to do the crossword. After I had surveyed the surrounding automotive family units I carefully withdrew the two gladiators from my pocket and set them on the arm rest ready to reenact the battle of Thermopalye, all the while trying to ignore the fact that my brother had placed his hand a full inch into my territory. While the tinny voice droned on through the Confiteor I successfully immersed myself in the heroic stand of the Spartan three hundred. That is until my brother, realizing that his digital incursion had not elicited the desired effect, abruptly, and painfully, flicked me on the ear. This resulted in a loud “OW” from me, a stern rebuke from my father to both of us and the confiscation of the brave Spartans. Afterwards I was careful not to look at my brother’s smirking face and thereby deprive him of victory. I knew the Spartans would have been proud.
By now it was collection time. Ushers actually went from car to car with collection baskets, which proved very effective as a fund raising technique because if you stiffed them everyone around you would know about it and point. This worked with everyone except the Fighting Families who by this time were tearing the upholstery out of the car seats and generally scared the ushers away. My favorite part of collection were the ushers who had to use the collection baskets that were attached to long poles. This made them look sort of like mine detectors. I spent all of collection time carefully working a jelly bean into my mouth by way of a long theatrical yawn. My brother immediately recognized the ploy, having perfected it himself, and demanded the other two. I had anticipated this action and after surrendering the candies made a mental note to tell my brother later that I had let the dog lick them before we had left home.
A few more chimes on the bell, which made me think of the ice cream man and wheedling money from my grandmother later that afternoon, meant that it was time for Communion. This was always the high point of the morning because it a) broke up the relentless monotony and b) meant that Mass would soon be over. I listened to my mother tell me for the tenth time to remember where we were parked and, getting out of the car, carefully assumed my most pious demeanor. Taking my bearings as best I could, green Chevy to the left, red Buick to the right, I joined in the pilgrimage to the Great White Screen, which by this time I associated with God. I tried not to get seasick going up and down the hills and was almost to the white shack when I remembered the jelly bean that had clearly violated the rules of pre- Communion fasting. Slowing to almost a complete halt I engaged in a feverish round of epistemological debate that would have awed St. Thomas Aquinas. I finally reasoned that the candy was not technically food but instead an edible toy, which was clearly allowable. Having solved this theological conundrum I quickly sped up and caught the priest at the last minute. I received the host with almost the same amount of awe as my First Communion two years before. I still felt pretty overwhelmed at the idea of having God stuck to the roof of my mouth.
Turning to retrace my steps I was presented with a new and much more dangerous problem. Having been the last to receive I now had to dodge the various cars that were making the traditional Catholic early exit to beat the crowd. Cars whose number would have included my father if not for his fanatical son; a fact that he did not hesitate to remark on repeatedly, before and after church. And not only did I have to avoid speeding cars and the spray of gravel their tires inevitably shot up. Because of the increasing exodus my reference points were altered or gone all together. Scanning the unrecognizable sea of cars ahead I calmly reminded himself that panic would be a particularly inappropriate response with the Body of Christ in my mouth. A few moments later I recognized the black Rambler and, congratulating myself on my poise, opened the back door. I was about to enter when I looked in and saw, to my almost communion spitting horror, the face of A GIRL!
Reeling in terror I was about to make a run for it when heard a car honking two rows farther back. Looking around I saw another black Rambler and, flushed with relief, quickly composed myself, trying not to hear the gales of laughter issuing forth from the remaining cars. I didn’t care though, I could stand religious persecution, could even endure having an older brother. Anything was better than the fate that had almost befallen me. I had almost gotten into a car with a strange GIRL. Back in the bosom of our station wagon I carefully ignore my brother’s teasing as my father eases the car up and down the hills, scraping the muffler on each one, trying to make an end around maneuver and so avoid the long line of cars inching their way out. I am happy, serenely contemplating the moment, ideally during dinner, when I will inform my brother of the deadly doggie germs which are even now circulating through his body.
And so we leave our happy suburban family, content in their knowledge that they have once more fulfilled their weekly obligation to worship God, to celebrate the community created by shared beliefs, to remove themselves from the temporal and base world around them and, in one case, to fatally infect an older sibling. The Mass is ended. Go in Peace.