Back when I first moved to Texas and started my pretty-much annual pilgrimage to Michigan, there was a drive-in movie theater sitting right there on US-59 in Redland between the historic East Texas towns of Lufkin and Nacogdoches. In their day drive-ins were a big enough deal that the county road just on the north side of this one was, and still is, named Redland Theater Rd.
By the 80's, when I first drove by, all over the nation drive-in theaters were fading rapidly from the roadside and it was somehow comforting, anchoring to the soul, to see the electrified art-deco marque perched out there in front of that big, magical, erector-set screen with it's back turned to the highway to avoid driving distractions and pirate-watching.
But even then the paint was fading, the weeds were filling in under the marque, and she was getting a little worn around the edges, but all could be forgiven for the reminder of a different time.
At first the marque proclaimed a family-friendly double-header playing Thursday through Sunday nights. Then in a few years that was cut back to Friday and Saturday nights. But, since the critical importance of family-time was giving way to the inconvenience of scheduling it within our busy lives, not even that was enough, so a trio of large X's were plastered across the marque and the theater struggled on for a few more short years catering to a different, non-family-outing sort of crowd.
Eventually the inevitable happened. It's hard for me to say exactly when since the marque still stood, year by year gradually loosing more and more of the letters left over from that last carnal hurrah, but it was sometime in the early 90's.
By 1996 the bits that made it a theater were still there, but a large building had been plopped down, seemingly at random, right where cars used to position themselves for the evening's viewing, and the property was being used as a salvage yard.
By 2013 the salvage yard had moved across the highway, the projection booth had been knocked down, and the property was being used as an oil distribution/storage facility. But the screen and marque still stand!
Though it's hard to say for how much longer because the highway out front is now the planned corridor of I-69 and they've already built a land-consuming flyover and ramps just to the north of the theater's location.
It is (or rather was as you'll see in a moment) a sad thing to watch the old girl on her long slide downhill. Painful to watch this iconic symbol of a happy, carefree, yet somehow productive youth slowly slide back into the earth one marque panel and one more dollop of rust at a time.
Of course, being raised in Michigan I was never actually taken to this particular theater when I was a kid, but it was just like the one I did go to, with so much anticipation, a couple times every summer. And every time I drove by the Redland Drive-in Theater I would feel the loss of those days drag on me like the gravity that's dragging on that big old screen.
Then a few years ago I was coming around the curve on the north side of Lufkin, preparing myself for a dose of sadness for that decaying theater I was about to flash by at a tire-singing 60 MPH, and for some reason I decided enough is enough. (Could it be that I am growing up? Oh hell no!)
But, for whatever reason, that day I realized I could make a choice about how I dealt with those losses.
I could mourn this, the loss of the drive-in, and all the other losses that were piling up in the wake of my past, or instead I could chose to celebrate what used to be with a smile. Perhaps a wistful smile, but a smile, as I dwell on the memories invoked rather than on the losses suffered.
Though I try, I can't claim to be 100% successful at embracing this new attitude, but nowadays when I drive that 13 mile stretch of US-59 between Lufkin and Nacogdoches, rather than dwelling on the rust and decay of the Redland Drive-in Theater with a heavy heart, I make a conscious decision to smile and recall the gleeful thrill of a young kid "helping" pack the station-wagon with blankets and coolers. To remember the tingly anticipation as we take our turn in line at the entrance booth, followed by the frantic hunt for the optimum parking slot combined with working speaker. To re-live the interminable wait, despite the playground out behind the concession stand, for the sun to go down far enough for the projector's hot bulb to outshine it, then the carefree delight of laughing happily at the goofy refreshment-stand announcements because I know the cartoons are next.
And, unlike at home where they always seemed to have something else they needed to do, Mom and Dad would be right there to watch them with me. (Yeah sure, brother and sister were there too, but siblings don't count - do they?)
Yep, far better to enjoy the memories of good times that not all have been blessed with than to mourn their passing.