Hey all – One of my goals for 2015 (and for some time now) is to write more short fiction. Here’s a piece I recently submitted to the Toronto Star short story contest; it didn’t make the top three, but I thought you might get a kick out of it. Here’s Born at the Drive-in.
I was born at the drive-in. That’s born, not conceived. My parents were, and still are, good Catholics of the Irish persuasion and waited until marriage, and for a more comfortable and appropriate venue. Or so I’m told, and I have no reason to not believe them. As it was, I was born nine months and one week after the honeymoon, so you can bet the relatives were counting on their fingers for that one.
Of course, I don’t remember being born at the drive-in, but the four people who were present for the eventful occasion have told me the story since I was deemed old enough to hear it, usually at family gatherings and after a certain quantity of alcohol had been consumed. It became one of our favourite family stories. And, like most family stories, the drama and urgency of the situation have snowballed over time. The most believable version of the story goes something like this…
It was early on a Saturday night during a blistering heat wave in the middle of June, 1963 – back in the days of no central air conditioning and a lot of people didn’t even have a window unit. My parents lived in a four-story apartment building on Mohawk Road in Hamilton. No amount of fans placed around their one-bedroom place could cut the merciless humidity, and Mum was already dealing with having to pee every time she turned around, so cold drinks – and the time spent standing in the cooling draft of the open fridge door – only offered momentary relief. I was a week late and counting, and between the crazy high humid heat and first-time parent nerves, the folks were understandably going a bit mental. Mum was a nurse and, with 84 first cousins and a younger sister, was no stranger to childbirth and kids – she just lacked the personal experience. Like most men of the time, Dad had little to no experience with kids, not even babysitting, so he trusted her to know what she was doing and take the lead – even if the thought of being a father secretly scared the crap out of him. (He never admitted this, but a few little birds have since told me.)
Shortly after dinner, there was a knock on the door. Dad opened it to find their friends Jake and Susan Goldstein standing there. Susan was also a nurse, a co-worker of Mum’s at St. Joe’s, and they’d been best friends since nursing school, making the four of them into a well-knit group of pals that my friends and I today would refer to as “chosen family.”
“We were on our way to the drive-in and Susan said ‘Let’s see if Pat and Mary want to come along.’ So here we are,” Jake grinned, somewhat apologetically.
“We would have called first, but I just thought of it in the car. It’ll be good for her to get out of the apartment and get her mind off this heat. It’s a double feature: The King and I and State Fair,” Susan offered enthusiastically.
Dad hesitated. He was seriously considering declining, what with Mum about to pop out a baby any time and all. But before he could say anything, Mum was beside him with her purse and a pillow.
“We’d love to.”
So Mum and Dad decided, ‘what the hell, let’s go to the drive-in with the Goldsteins.’ Maybe somewhere in the back of their minds, they were hoping that this would induce labour. Like eating Jalapeno peppers or going for a jog. Or having the sex. (I have to write “having the sex” – it is my parents we’re talking about here, after all.) Of course, that last option was what got them into this mess in the first place. But I digress. And Jake even offered to take all the bumpiest roads.
They arrived at the Starlite Drive-in (it’s still there, in Stoney Creek) and got set up in time to catch the opening credits of The King and I, the 1956 musical starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. Nowadays, when you go to the drive-in, you get the sound through your car radio – back then, you had speakers that you hung on the inside of your window, which Dad says always made him cringe, as he was concerned about scratching the glass. Jake and Dad went to the concession stand to get popcorn and drinks, while Susan and Mum talked shop in the car.
“So, when am I finally going to get to meet this baby of yours?”
“Soon, I hope. I feel like a beached whale. And this heat is —”
“— I know! It’s killing me. I’m telling you, I don’t know if I can take another week of this. Are you comfy enough back there? We have a blanket in the trunk if the pillow isn’t enough to prop you up.”
“Thanks, but I’m fine. I just need this baby out of here.”
And, almost like I’d heard my Mum say this, her water broke. Right there in the back seat of the Goldsteins’ car. She was mortified, but grateful to be sitting on the pillow she’d brought with her. She also knew that it was going to be some time before labour actually resulted in birth. So she said nothing. She figured it was going to be a while before they needed to get to the hospital. Besides, she was a big Yul Brynner fan and really wanted to see The King and I. (This is one of Jake’s embellishments.)
The King and I is a little over two hours long. (IMDb says 133 min.) While the rest of the gang was enjoying the romance, pageantry, and snappy Rodgers and Hammerstein soundtrack, all in glorious CinemaScope, Mum was timing her contractions. And they were getting a lot closer a lot faster than she expected, especially for a first-time mother. By the time the closing credits started rolling, the contractions were getting more frequent and intense. It was then that she finally spoke up.
“The baby’s coming.”
“I sure hope so. We were expecting its arrival a week ago. I’m going to have to have a chat with him or her regarding punctuality.” Dad was oblivious.
“No. I mean, the baby’s coming. I’m in labour!”
“WHAT?” Now he got it.
“Jake, we need to get her to Henderson.” This was Susan, taking charge.
“Right. Don’t you worry, Mary. I’ll get you there in a flash.”
And you know that saying about how we make plans and God laughs? Well, God must’ve been laughing his ass off at Jake just then.
The engine made a sad, choking sound, like a cat trying to dislodge a fur ball.
“JAKE…?” To say that Susan was unimpressed wouldn’t have even come close.
“Don’t worry. Probably just needs a jump.”
Jake retrieved jumper cables from the trunk and popped the hood, while Dad went to the driver next to them to ask for a jump.
God kept laughing.
“How far apart are your contractions?”
“About 10 minutes. It’s happening so fast.”
“Well, there’s a first time for everything, I guess. Let me have a look-see.” Susan joined her in the back seat.
“So stupid! I should have said something. But I was embarrassed, and I thought it would take a lot longer.”
After a few tries trying to jump start the engine, it still wasn’t turning over. Also, the other drive-in patrons were getting annoyed with the noise. One guy, however, heard the noise and came over to help. Turns out, he’d graduated the previous year from the high school Jake taught at.
“Need a hand, Mr. G.?”
“Steve! Yes. Yes, we do. Our friend’s in labour and we need to get her to the hospital. Engine won’t start.”
While Jake, Steve and Dad continued to look under the hood for the problem, Mum’s labour pains were coming on quicker and stronger – and much faster than expected. Apparently, God had me in on the joke.
Susan was timing the contractions now. “That’s five minutes.”
“It’s happening so fast. It’s not supposed to happen this fast on the first one!”
“I guess nobody told your baby that. Honey, I need to check your dilation, okay?”
“I’m just going to go to the trunk for the blanket. I’ll be right back.”
As Susan exited the car, knowing how close to delivery Mum was, she mentally prepared for the worst, and her previously calm and quiet voice turned firm and authoritative: “Jake, go call the ambulance.”
“This baby’s coming sooner than we expected. Then go to the entrance so you can guide them to us.”
“What can I do?” Dad was turning a bit green at this point. After all, he’d expected to be pacing in a hospital waiting room clutching a rolled up magazine while waiting for the doctor to emerge with news of the birth, not assisting with it.
“Go find me some alcohol. Vodka, if you can find it. And give me your pen knife… (It was common knowledge that my Dad carried a sharpened pen knife with him in his pocket everywhere he went; he still does.) …I’ve got some rubber bands in my purse.” She was mostly talking to herself at this point.
“I’ve got some vodka in my car,” Steve offered. There was a brief, uncomfortable silence. The drinking age was 21 back then and he was underage. “My girlfriend likes Screwdrivers,” he shrugged, grinning sheepishly.
“I won’t tell your mother. Now, go!”
Steve directed Dad to the red Thunderbird a couple of rows over, where his girlfriend and another couple were sitting, and resumed work on the engine while Jake ran to the concession to use the phone.
Susan turned her attention back to Mum. “Honey. This baby is coming soon and I don’t think we’ll have time to get you to the hospital.”
“I’m having this baby HERE? I can’t have this baby here!” Mum hadn’t dreamt that she could be even more mortified, yet here she was.
“Yes you can. Don’t you worry. Between the two of us, we’ve helped deliver dozens of babies. Remember that baby-faced resident who fainted? We can do this.” Trying to keep things calm and light while she draped the blanket over Mum’s legs, Susan was the picture of strength and efficiency, but when recounting this story later, she says she was scared to death.
Dad returned with a bottle of vodka, with Steve’s girlfriend and their two friends in tow. Susan used the vodka to wash her hands before inserting a hand to check the status of dilation.
“Ten centimetres. Okay, sweetie, it’s time to push!”
“How can I be ten centimetres already? Are you sure?”
“As sure as I’m gonna teach this baby how to dance. Yes. I’m sure. And now it’s time for you to breathe. And push. So we can get this baby out of here. So take a deep breath…,” she inhaled. “I’ll do it with you…,” she exhaled. “And breathe…”
“I can’t! I can’t have my baby at the drive-in!”
“Mary Frances Nolan! Yes you can. This baby is coming and you are going to push and I am going to catch her. Now push!”
And as much as my mother didn’t want this to be happening there and then, she couldn’t deny the fact that this baby was coming whether she wanted it to not. So this was happening. Mum was having this baby at the drive-in, a detail that seemed less and less important as she and Susan focused on the progress of her labour.
By this time, word had spread around the drive-in that some lady was having a baby in the back seat of a mint green Chevy Bel Air. And so it came to pass that a small crowd gathered around Jake and Susan’s car. Women were offering Susan and Mum towels, advice, an extra pair of hands. Men were offering Dad swigs from flasks, cigars and congratulations. Steve kept working on the engine with his friend Mike while, much to their chagrin, their girlfriends discussed favourite baby names. And, all the while, Susan and Mum were working like crazy to get me out into the world safe and sound.
After some time had passed, with a roar as powerful as the MGM lion – the engine rumbling back to life in unison with the final birthing effort – my Mum gave one last push and out I came, all goopy, moist and crying, into Susan’s waiting hands.
“It’s a girl!” Susan proclaimed. “It’s a girl and she’s beautiful! And healthy. Ten fingers, ten toes.” She wrapped me in a corner of the blanket and was putting me on Mum’s belly just as Jake reappeared, rushing back to the car with the drive-in manager close behind, ushering the ambulance.
“They’re here! Over here!” Jake was running and waving his arms at the same time, almost tripping over himself until the sound of newborn cries stopped him in his tracks, allowing him to pause and see the broad smile on his wife’s face. (Jake is not ashamed to admit that he cried too.)
At that point, the paramedics took over with actual medical equipment and Dad’s pen knife wasn’t needed to cut the umbilical cord after all. There are conflicting reports as to whether Dad actually swooned or merely lost his balance at this point, but we what we do know for sure is that he was grateful and relieved.
So that’s how I came to be born at the drive-in just after midnight on June 16, 1963. In the back of Susan and Jake Goldstein’s car. I’ve since seen The King and I several times – and even had the pleasure of seeing Brynner’s marvelous performance in the 1984 stage production at what used to be the O’Keefe Centre in Toronto (now the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts). Unlike my mother, though, I’m more of a Deborah Kerr fan myself.
And to this day, if I ever win the lottery, I’ve promised the Goldsteins I’ll buy them a new car.
Jake and Susan Goldstein are composite characters, inspired by real-life family friends – and honourary aunts and uncles – Jerry and Lynda Bromstein, and Bud and Stella Jackson. And, while Mum’s water really did break in the back of the Bromsteins’ car at the Starlite Drive-in, there was no engine mishap and I was born at Henderson Hospital in June 1963, but not on the 16th. Sadly, the Bromsteins are no longer with us; this story is dedicated to them.