Ava, Doug, and I rolled into the trailer park early this morning in Doug’s 1975 Ford pickup. Earlier Saturday evening I had been eating a fine meal and playing music at Rob and Cindy’s place south of town, a combined social gathering and band practice. The musical energies were waning when I got a phone call from Ava.
“Larry, are you coming to the drive-in with us? Doug and I made popcorn, and we have cold cream sodas!”
I’d been wanting to go sometime to that drive-in movie establishment, which is located a few miles south of Barry, in Pike County, Illinois. I gave Doug directions to Rob and Cindy’s rural home, and after playing a few more tunes with my musical cronies, I gathered up my instruments and waited by the gravel road.
It was a pleasant night for a drive. With both pickup windows open, the three of us eventually arrived at the drive-in, probably the only one still in business within a radius of two hundred miles. Fifty or sixty pickups were lined up before the screen and people had brought lawn chairs and blankets. It was a real slice of Midwestern life. Unlike the window-mounted speakers I remember from my youth, the audio at this theater is broadcast on an open FM channel and can be heard on the vehicles’ radios.
Doug sat in a folding chair in the bed of the pickup, Ava reclined on a cushioned mat atop the truck’s transverse toolbox, while I sprawled out on the tailgate with a pillow against the pickup bed’s side.
All three of us snoozed from time to time. The movies were of the sort which don’t demand undivided attention. I spent some time gazing up at the brilliant stars, trying to identify constellations. Cygnus, the Northern Cross, was directly overhead, as always accompanied by that sportive trapezoidal dolphin Delphinus. I tried to locate that beautiful arc of stars known as Corona Borealis but never did make it out.
Bear with me, kind readers. I admit I have a tendency to approach post subjects tangentially. There is an admittedly tenuous connection between the above account of watching cinematic stories and the following tales of early experiences reading stories.
It occurs to me that a possible reason for the enduring popularity of the personal memoir genre is that a writer’s recollections can bring to the surface neglected memories of the reader’s. An example from my own experience follows.
A passage from Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory caused to slowly rise to the surface of my mind some memories of my own. Here’s the passage, Nabokov writing of some childhood experiences:
I learned to read English before I could read Russian. My first English friends were four simple souls in my grammar — Ben, Dan, Sam, and Ned. There used to be a great deal of fuss about their identities and whereabouts — “Who is Ben?” “He is Dan,” “Sam is in bed,” and so on. Although it all remained rather stiff and patchy (the compiler was handicapped by having to employ — for the initial lessons, at least — words of not more than three letters), my imagination somehow managed to obtain the necessary data. Wan-faced, big-limbed, silent nitwits, proud of the possession of certain tools (“Ben has an axe”), they now drift with a slow-motioned slouch across the remotest backdrop of memory; and, akin to the mad alphabet of an optician’s chart, the grammar-book lettering again looms before me.
…On later pages longer words appeared, and at the very end of the brown, inkstained volume, a real, sensible story unfolded its adult sentences (One day Ted said to Ann: Let us –“), the little reader’s ultimate triumph and reward. The magic has endured, and whenever a grammar book comes my way, I instantly turn to the last page to enjoy a forbidden glimpse of the laborious student’s future, of that promised land where, at last, words are meant to mean what they mean.
This Nabokovian memory caused my recollection engine to rev up. I thought back to my first grade experiences at Wright School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Back then the Dick and Jane readers were still in use, but the stories were so rudimentary that it was hard to stay interested — “See Spot run” may have been one of the more exciting passages. I really wanted to learn to read. My parents were readers and there was alway an abundance of reading material around the house. I made efforts to try to make sense of books I’d pick up but I just didn’t have the necessary vocabulary.
By the time I entered second grade I had come across an old edition of Collodi’s Pinocchio, and it was almost comprehensible. I struggled with this book but certain words threw me for a loop. One word in particular puzzled me to no end. What could a “tawn-goo” be? Each character seemed to possess one, and from what I could deduce the word referred to a part of the body, possibly located on the head.
Finally I asked my mother. “Look at this word, Mom! I keep reading it and I can’t figure out what it is!”
My mother laughed. “Larry, it’s pronounced “tung”! She stuck out her tongue at me and suddenly I realized that English spelling could be quite illogical.
I eventually finished Pinocchio and heaved a sigh of relief.
Towards the end of second grade the reader stories became more interesting. I had checked out a book from the class library shelves and, for the first time, became totally engrossed in a written story. The book was about a family on vacation and I just slurped it down. After I read the final page I was overwhelmed with a desolate feeling. I had invested quite a fund of attention, identification, and imagination in the adventures of that fictional family, and now I was left hanging. What happened next? Will I ever meet these fascinating characters again? In a way they had seemed more real than the flesh-and-blood people in my life. This was my first experience of the power of the written word.