Theater patrons have a sense of entitlement. In movie theaters some see nothing wrong with leaving gum on the bottom of their seat or taking a knife to the upholstery. On a drive-in, speakers and heaters are fair game for extraction. Getting past a drive-in box office with a few extra passengers hidden under blankets or sequestered in the trunk is considered fair play.
One of my main occupations at Westlane Auto Movie was the identification of a car with people in the trunk. Most gave themselves away by stopping on the road and turning off their lights. I didn’t even need binoculars, I could spot a sneak-in a mile away from the front window of our trailer.
Many nights, I stood beneath the projection booth, a flashlight in my hand, with my father or one of his employees. I would watch the movie. I would watch the road. I would answer questions and offer assistance. I even had a badge with my name on it.
My father was a dog lover. Being an apartment dweller and a theater manager, with iffy hours, he was never able to care for a dog. I remember he had a stuffed Scotty that he kept by the phony fireplace the apartment on 35th Avenue in Oakland, but it wasn’t until he took over Westlane Auto Movie that he seriously considered getting a family dog. We were living out in the middle of nowhere. A watchdog would offer security and companionship.
I grew up watching Lassie and Rin Tin Tin. As far as I knew, dogs were the smartest animals of Earth. If you wanted a breed of dog that would save the day, Collies and German Shepherds were the dog of choice. They could smell trouble and resolve any problem that might come your way.
Our first dog was a Collie that I named Whimpy. I must have been going through a Popeye phase when I named him. Whimpy was a sweet dog, but he took to wandering off. We were able to retrieve him the first couple of times, alerted by a rural neighbor who lived across the road from the theater marquee, but Whimpy eventually disappeared and we replaced him with a German Shepard that I named Vaughn. I don’t think he resembled Robert Vaughn from The Man from UNCLE television show, but that’s probably where he got his name.
Vaughn seldom strayed beyond the drive-in gate. He was a noble watch dog. One day I found him in my small bedroom wandering around in circles completely disoriented. We took him to a vet who informed us that there was neurological damage, so we had to put him down. Given our low standard of living, we wouldn’t have been able to afford any extensive treatment, but I am pretty sure I was present for the diagnosis and Vaughn’s condition was fatal.
Soon after Vaughn’s demise, I saw a German Shepherd, playing between the playground and the snack bar with another dog. As it would turn out, the owners were looking for someone to adopt him. I guess they had one dog two many. His name was Eldridge, after political activist, Eldridge Cleaver. Since he already answered to Eldridge, we kept the name. Eldridge was a very good climber. He would often climb up the slide on the playground and survey the fields that surrounded the drive-in. He never strayed.
One night, I was hanging out at the snack bar when a customer came in and told my mother that someone was ripping speakers off their posts. My father told me to go to the trailer and get Eldridge. I quickly put him on his leash and headed for the glow of my father’s flashlight.
I arrived to the sound of a loud voice telling my father, “We paid our money and we don’t have to leave.” My father informed a group of three or four drunken college students that the police were on the way. Since we were out of the jurisdiction of the local police it was doubtful that the police had been called. A call to the County Sheriff would result in a response time of forty-five minutes to an hour, so we seldom bothered.
When Eldridge started growling the situation escalated. One of the young hoodlums pulled a knife and said, “If you let that dog go I will cut him to pieces.” We had no recourse but to back off and call the Sheriff. When the Sheriff arrived the car load of trouble makers was long gone.
The drive-in theater was our front yard. We called it home, but we had no real authority over our visitors. The power of the flashlight and the dog was an illusion. If I had let Eldridge go he wouldn’t have been a hero. He would have been a dead dog. I have no doubt.