The moments of purest joy in my life were moments spent with my brother and sister before I turned 15. I won’t lie and tell you that I haven’t been happy since, that I haven’t had moments of joy with my children and my husband and my granddaughter, but those moments of joy have been weighed down by my fears and sadness and memories. Pure joy was riding bikes in a bicycle train with my brother and sister on bright summer afternoons in Montana. Pure joy was my brother, my sister, and me all sneaking into the same bed and giggling under the covers until we were found out and sent to our own beds. Pure joy was dancing with my brother and sister on an empty stage in the dark. Pure joy was Buddy, Pal, and Friend.
There were 5 years between me, the oldest child, and Sean, the youngest. At some point when we were living at Malmstrom we began calling ourselves “Buddy, Pal, and Friend.” I’m willing to bet it was my idea; Sean was a little young to have an extensive vocabulary and I was a voracious reader from the moment I understood that ABCs could be arranged into words. I was Buddy, Tonia was Pal, and Sean was Friend.
We were a military family and moved more often than we kids liked. We grew up far away from our grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Throughout all the moves and all the travel, my brother and sister were a comforting constant in my life. Every time we moved, before we made new friends, Tonia, Sean, and I played together. When the family went ‘home’ to Pensacola where our family was strangers and we had no friends, we kept each other company. When we went on camping trips with Joyce and Larry, we explored together. When we went camping with Joyce and Larry and their friends, Tonia, Sean, and I watched the younger children together.
Airmen don’t make a lot of money, so to be able to afford motorcycles, hunting and camping equipment, a second car, and extravagant Christmases, Larry found a second job. He became projectionist and then manager at the base movie theater. Joyce got a job at the base commissary, first as a cashier and later as a stocker. If the two of them were working while it was daylight out, my siblings and I were left at home alone with strict instructions to stay inside, don’t answer the door, don’t answer the phone, don’t cook anything, and be quiet.
We played hide and seek all over the house, found ways to climb walls, built tents in the living room. We dug through drawers and closets and played dress-up. We created elaborate Barbie and matchbox towns in the basement. We ate a ton of cereal and drank gallons of koolaid. We played the ground is lava, climbing, leaping, and jumping all over the house. We found Larry’s porn magazine stash and poured through the pictures, bewildered and kinda grossed out. We colored, played my toy organ, invented games, assembled puzzles, cheated at Monopoly, watched hours and hours of TV and read shelves of books. We fought with each other as hard as we played with each other and since there was no one there to stop us our fights were very physical.
If both parents were working at night, we couldn’t be left at home alone, so we went to the movie theater with Larry. This was in the before-times, before multi-plexes and modern one-reel projectors. Only one movie was shown at a time because it required 2 projectors and an alert projectionist to screen a movie. The movie theater at Malmstrom AFB at that time had two carbon arc projectors, meaning carbon arcs provided the light that illuminated the film and was thrown down to the projector screen. The rods lasted about 20 minutes before they burned out and had to be changed, which was convenient, because one reel of a movie lasts about twenty minutes. Most movies are 5-6 reels long. The projectionist starts the first reel, waits for cue marks on the film to tell them when the reel is nearing the end, and starts the second projector already loaded up with the second reel and brand new rods. While that reel is playing, the first projector is loaded with the third reel and new arcs, and repeat until the film is over.
Many things can go wrong in this process: the projectionist can miss the cue and the changeover isn’t smooth, the film itself can slip off its track, the film can break, the rod can burn out early, the rod can get too hot and melt the film, the arc rods can start an actual fire. The film reels also have to be prepped; it’s unwise to just throw a reel into a projector and hit play without checking it out first. The reels are supposed to be rewound as they come off the projector, but you shouldn’t put faith in the last person to handle the reel; distractions happen. You should also check the film itself for damage, breaks, weak spots, etc. Prep time to show one film was easily 2 hours.
Tonia, Sean, and I weren’t allowed to touch the equipment, but we watched and asked questions so we probably could’ve done the work if we got tall enough stools. At the time the projectors seemed 10-15 feet tall and it was impossible to see out of the booth to the screen without climbing on something. Looking for pictures of carbon arc projectors, I realize now they’re a little taller than your average adult male and the projectionist’s window is pretty easy to look out of if you are an average height adult. ( I still can’t see out of the window without standing on something. *sigh* )
The carbon arcs made the projection booth very hot; checking a movie reel for damage is kinda boring. After I and my siblings learned how to do everything in the booth, we had to find other ways to occupy ourselves until the movie started and we could sit down with all the free popcorn and soda pop we could stuff down our throats to watch 70s movies that we probably shouldn’t have been allowed to watch. We explored the building: the custodians closet, both bathrooms, the concessions stand and popcorn machine.
Next we ventured into the auditorium and played in the aisles and the seats. Larry would pipe music into the auditorium to keep the place from being deadly silent and he’d bring the lights up enough so we didn’t trip over ourselves in the dark. Before multiplexes were a thing, movie theaters were modeled after live theatres: there was a stage in front of the screen. Since this was a theater on a military installation, it was multi-purpose and used for briefings, ceremonies, etc, so they stage was a good size, flat, wide, deep, and well-maintained. The floor of the stage was hardwood. There were steps on either side leading up from the audience.
After the rest of the building had been explored, it was time to venture up to the screen. It was vast and actually silver, with a pleasing texture that we felt surreptitiously and only on the edges so as not to leave smudges and ruin the movie. We checked out behind the screen but that was just dark, dusty and boring, so we went back out and sat down on the stage, wondering where to go next. Sean stood in the middle of the stage and let out a whoop. It echoed! Tonia and I joined him, shouting each other’s names, singing, screaming at different pitches, until Larry opened the projectionist’s window and told us to knock it off; we were giving him a headache.
Tonia asked if we could sing and he said yes. She requested he play the ‘OZ man.’ Elton John. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The first piano notes rolled though the auditorium and we stood on the stage and sang with all our hearts. And we danced. We danced and danced. Exploring the theater building was out forever, we danced every time we went to work with Larry. We danced to Elton John. Jesus Christ, Superstar. Chicago. Paul McCartney and Wings. The Stones. Paul Simon. The Eagles. The BeeGees. The Carpenters. The Grease Soundtrack. The American Graffiti soundtrack. Queen. Carole King. Carly Simon. Billy Joel. Barry Manilow. Credence.
At home alone, we played the stereo or the radio and we danced. We choreographed. We freestyled. Partner dances, group dances, solos. We danced in the yard, in the driveway, in the basement. We would’ve danced in the street and on the roof if we’d been allowed to. We knew all the words to all the songs, all the special beats and sound effects that called for a change in the dance. We leapt, we tumbled, we twirled. We danced. We danced. And danced. And danced.
When we moved to Minot AFB Larry again got a job at the base theater. It, too had a vast hardwood stage. And Sean, Tonia, and I danced. We learned disco dances, line dances. We learned ballet, tap, lyrical. We jitterbugged and waltzed and two-stepped. We did the twist, the bump, the hustle, the bus stop, the hully-gully, the electric slide. We made up our own dances. We jumped and spun and gyrated and rocked out. We danced.
When it was decided we were old enough to stay alone at night and we were deprived of our beautiful vast hardwood stage, we shoved all the furniture in the living room up against the walls and we danced. We did interpretive dance to the sad songs. We acted out the story songs. We were back up dancers to the soloist.
When we had sleepovers, we danced with our friends in the basement. When we went camping and there were no other kids to play with, we danced to the radio in the forest. We danced in a treehouse in Florida during hurricane Frederick. We danced with Nora down by the river. When we lived with the wicked stepmother and were left alone with the stepsiblings, we’d put them to bed and dance very quietly in the living room. When Joyce and Larry told Tonia she couldn’t dance because she had no rhythm, we danced. When they told Sean boys didn’t dance ballet, we danced. When they told me I could never be a dancer because I was too short, we danced. We danced and danced and danced.
It was always the three of us against the world, but wherever we went it was the three of us together. We couldn’t always dance wherever we were, but sometimes, just being there with each other is all we needed.
If there is an afterlife, I hope I can spend eternity dancing with Tonia and Sean on a vast hardwood stage, with Elton John as the main soundtrack. My children and grandchildren and friends can all join us and we can just dance forever. If you want to imagine me happy, imagine little Michelle dancing with her brother and sister, trying to figure out what exactly the crocodile rock is.
Because one day, they finally broke us, and Sean, Tonia, and I never danced together again.