Updated: Jun 24
Growing up on Long Island in the 70's.
Movies in the Boonies
It was 1974, two years after we all moved into the newly-built neighborhood right smack in the middle of Long Island, and kids ran freely all day and night.
That summer afternoon, Mom handed me twenty dollars for both my sister and I with a warning to stick together. I tucked it into my shorts pocket, and we ran outside to meet the neighborhood kids waiting on our front lawn.
We were a group of twelve boys and girls. I was one of the oldest at ten. One or two were a year older, the rest ranged down in age to seven, my sister’s age.
Cackles of excitement rang out in anticipation of the walk to the theater a mile from our houses to see The Towering Inferno.
“Cut through the woods?” Tommy suggested.
“Let’s do it,” Billy agreed.
We followed the ringleaders across my lawn to my backyard where the property backed up to the woods. Entering there, we walked alone - just kids, no adults.
Some of the boys ran ahead and hid, jumping out at strategically timed intervals to scare us girls. Blood-curdling screams echoed through the woods from one or more of us, much to their delight.
“Shhh, everyone, be quiet, walk softly, don’t breathe loud,” James warned as we approached the pond. “You don’t want to wake the seven-foot homeless guy who lives in the new tree house. He has a huge machete and chases anyone who gets too close.”
We picked up our pace, careful to avoid any possibility of running into the machete-wielding maniac, or any one of the many lunatics who made the woods their home. We sure didn’t want to come face to face with the werewolf who dragged young girls to the sump where no one could hear their screams. He was known to creep from the woods and sleep in people’s sheds overnight when it got cold.
The woman who took so much LSD in the 60’s that she killed her three kids and buried them in the sandy hills beyond the trees frightened me the most, even more than the wolves who loved small prey. forcing us to keep the little kids close.
A low, throaty growl arose from beyond one of the old, dilapidated club houses, reaching a crescendo as we tiptoed over the creek that flowed through roots and rotting branches.
“Wolf!” Billy whispered, his finger to his lips, warning us to be quiet.
Mass hysteria ensued as we fled, dragging the smaller kids by the hand. Some carried their siblings piggyback to make for a faster escape. If we made bear sounds, we knew we’d scare away the wolves, and we each did our best imitation. In our panic, we forgot we might wake the seven-foot homeless guy!
When we reached the sump, we looked for remains of young victims. Thank God none were found we agreed. Having to testify in court would make us a snitch. Snitches get stitches, we’d be a marked man.
The trek was more difficult near the old oak tree where the land was rough with stumps, fallen branches, curling roots, and mud. We plunged through the mud, our feet sinking into the cool, wet muck like dipping into dark chocolate pudding. The heavy odor of earth engulfed us and lingered on our sneakers and socks.
“Watch out for alligators,” Joey warned.
Our eyes scanned the terrain, and we called out warnings. Frog on the rock to the left, beehive straight ahead on the pine tree. Our pace fell in time with the chirps of the sparrows in the trees high above, singing their midday songs.
Out of breath, laughing and roughhousing, we forged on. When the scent of freshly-cut grass tickled our noses, we knew we were close to our destination. The high-pitched squeals and shadows of children swinging on playsets from backyards could be heard and seen through the trees and led us to our final approach - the street.
A light summer drizzle cooled our bodies, to our delight, and washed the dust from our faces. It did nothing for the sticky sap on our fingers; we’d wipe that on napkins as best we could when we stopped for lunch. The rain wouldn’t last long, we knew, but any relief from the hot, humid summer day was welcome.
We exited the woods through an overgrown garden and courtyard, hoping we’d make it to the road without some crazed homeowner chasing us, swinging a shovel or pitchfork. One time, some guy had a chainsaw. Our feet barely touched the ground that day, we ran so fast, screaming until our voices went hoarse.
A collective prayer was said each time we made it out of those ghastly woods alive, and we swore we’d never make the attempt again. Until the next time, when we forgot our promise.
Now, to navigate the long block we’d exited onto. It was prime racing territory and we had to take the challenge. Susan screamed, “On your mark, get set, go!” and we took off full speed, sprinting to the end, behind the movie theater shopping plaza, our finish line.
The sweet aroma of pizza and hot deli sandwiches filled the air, reminding us we were hungry for lunch.
No one wanted to be in the back of the shopping center too long, and we rushed to walk around to the main entrance. It was a dangerous place. Huge 18-wheelers parked to make deliveries, and some of the drivers were crazy. We tiptoed past, not wanting to alert any of the truckers who, legend had it, would grab kids and sell them to the circus, never to be seen again.
Making it past the rhythmic slaps of handballs hitting the back wall of the supermarket where teens played doubles was difficult and sent chills down our spines.
“Run, fast, gunshots, duck!” Rose screamed. The boys in our group, armed with rocks, protected the girls and younger kids, who made a dash to turn the corner and navigate the steps to the small movie house.
Our death-defying journey through the woods, down the block, and up the steps left us sweating and starving.
”Pizza or deli, show of hands,” Billy called out as we gathered on the sidewalk in front of the long strip of businesses.
Pizza won. We knew the owners, and they knew us, and they always threw in a little extra to get in good with our parents, who were regular customers.
“Going to see a movie?” one of the pizza guys enquired as he warmed up two recently made pizzas.
Twelve yeses and a detailed account of our near-death experience in the woods later and our food was ready. Between cheesy bites, James told the pizza slinger about how we dodged bullets behind the shopping center and how we were damn lucky to be alive. A quick nod and knowing smile assured us he understood the tragedy of it all.
With our bellies full and the dried mud on our sneakers and ankles flaking off as we walked along the cement walk, we made our way to the long line by the theater, leaving a trail of dirt behind us. Should we all pay or just James? If James paid, he’d then open the back doors so we could sneak in, saving our money for another day like the teenagers did. Of course, we’d split our savings with him, it was only right. It sounded cool, but we chickened out and took the honest route, mainly out of fear of our parents’ wrath if we got caught.
After the frenzy of buying popcorn, candy, and sodas, we made our way inside the dark cinema, juggling our goodies, and searched for seats. We chose the center aisle, 5th row back, the best view, we agreed, and awaited the start of the new thriller. Could it even compare to the fright-filled journey we’d just endured to get to the movies in the boonies?
Based on true events
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