I have always been a fan of Ron Jolly’s morning show on WTCM 580, broadcasting from Traverse City, Michigan. Listening in, you can learn, laugh, hear different points of view, keep abreast of what’s going on in our area, and most importantly, hear what fellow citizens think about the goings on.
One morning, I turned on Ron’s show as he was taking calls from people about their very first jobs. Growing up on the Old Mission Peninsula in the 1950s and 60s, my first job was pretty much like everyone else’s – I worked on the farm. I thought, well, that’s not very interesting, but then I got to thinking, what was my first job off the farm? I smiled and called into the show.
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I related to Ron and his listeners the story of my first job off the farm. I believe I may have been around twelve years old at the time. After I finished, Ron and his next few callers seemed to be taken aback, though humorously, about what I had told them. None of them had ever heard of such a thing. Not only were they shocked that such a job actually existed, let alone on the Peninsula, but mostly that someone my age was hired to do it. As I think back to those days more than 50 years ago, I guess I’m a little shocked, too, but man, was it fun!
Coming of age on the Old Mission Peninsula in the early 1960s was like living in a Norman Rockwell magazine cover. We had a new school, with a bunch of our moms and grandmas cooking us lunch in the cafeteria, and seasoned, experienced teachers in the classroom. Winters were hard, but it seemed like every family had a snowmobile. Summers were long and hot, but the beach was only a short bicycle ride away. All of this was occurring at the peak of the Baby Boom.
The summers got especially interesting by the end of June as thousands of Mexicans (the name they referred to themselves back then) began arriving to pick the cherry crop. Some spoke English, but many did not.
During this time, a middle-aged man arrived from Wisconsin. The story goes, he was driving a white Ford Econoline van pulling a small house trailer, which he strategically parked in the middle of a field located off Peninsula Drive just north of Bowers Harbor. If you’re standing at Bowers Harbor Park and look north across the road, you will see some houses with woods behind them. On the north side of that woods is where the aforementioned field was located – it’s now a subdivision.
After Mr. Hoffman – known as “Hoffy” – unhooked the trailer, he went down the road and hired a farmer with a tree hole digger (a large auger attached to a tractor used to make holes to plant new cherry trees) to help him. In the middle of the field along the edge of the woods, he instructed the farmer to drill several deep holes in a line. He then went up to the Peninsula Telephone Company and purchased some telephone poles. Once they were on site, he had the farmer and his tractor/front end loader assist in erecting the tall poles. Using the loader and a rope and pulley system attached to some of the trees, they managed to place the poles into the holes.
Hoffy then made several trips to Traverse City to haul numerous sheets of plywood and 2x4s to his project site. Using the loader and pulley system, he proceeded to construct what appeared to be a giant billboard. With that done, the whole thing was painted white. As a finishing touch, a huge speaker horn was hung on the upper right corner. This took several days to complete, as farmers and their families would drive by scratching their heads and wondering what in the world he was doing.
A friend of mine happened to be riding his bike past Hoffy as he was stringing Christmas lights on some fence posts along a makeshift driveway next to a sign by the road with an arrow that said “Entrance.” He asked my friend if he or any of his friends would like to work evenings for a dollar an hour. Once the word got out, I had a job!
Later on, my fellow employees and I met at what appeared to be an elongated fruit stand located on the east side of the field. I noticed the stand was equipped with a snow cone machine and a cash register. Hoffy instructed the girls that they were going to run the concession stand. Two of my other friends were going to operate the ancient carbide projectors pointing out the front windows of the little trailer parked in the field.
That left two of us who were told that we had a very serious job – we were to prevent people from sneaking through the woods and getting in for free. We were to be border guards! I was now officially a border guard for “The Cine Mexicano,” better known as “The Mexican Drive In.”
I knew my first evening on the job was soon approaching, because suddenly, on every store front, on phone poles from one end of the Peninsula to the other, Cine Mexicano posters appeared, advertising the opening of the drive-in.
(Editor’s note: The following poster for the Mexican Drive-In is courtesy of the archives of Katy Kern, a longtime summer resident at the Neahtawanta Resort. It appears to be one of Hoffy’s earliest attempts at advertising. -jb)
There was no doubt when the drive-in was in session, because you could hear it all the way from Archie Park to Old Mission. I felt sorry for those who lived in the neighborhood, as things didn’t get started until late evening and didn’t get over until one or two in the morning. It might not have been so bad if the neighbors and their kids could lie in bed and listen along. But alas, the movies were all in Spanish.
The first day on the job, my routine, which I was to repeat many times, was to leave home around 7 p.m. and ride my bicycle from Bluff Road to Bowers Harbor. I then reported in at the concession stand, gathered my border guard equipment, and headed for the woods line. My equipment consisted of a two-foot-long chrome multi cell flashlight, just like those used by the deputy sheriffs. We considered them our backup, as they were always lurking around the area when the drive-in was in session.
I also wore a shoulder holster with a Co2 pistol in it. This resembled a German Luger to give the impression that sneaking into the drive-in was a life-and-death situation. Really? The ensemble was rounded off with a free bag of salted-in-the-shell peanuts. Life was good!
My job was to patrol the east woods line from the corner of the drive-in to Bowers Harbor Road and the stretch of road that bordered along Bowers Harbor Park. My partner patrolled from there to Peninsula Drive and north to the drive-in driveway.
Piece of cake, right? Not really. For starters, the woods were surrounded by a thin wire electric fence. The path along the fence was right up next to it. Wading through the late night dew and inadvertently brushing against the wire was an intensely shocking – pun intended – experience. I referred to it as standing up convulsing while tasting the color purple.
The other problem was that on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, Bowers Harbor Park was filled with migrant families picnicking, children playing, and hundreds watching or playing softball on several baseball diamonds that existed there at the time. These long, hot afternoons required copious amounts of refreshments, and let’s just say that the Bowers Harbor Store had to be resupplied with more than one beer truck during the day.
Towards the end of the day, the families would leave, but a hundred or so young men would stay at the ball diamonds. Eventually, as evening approached most would leave, but there were always some who lingered around til dark. Having spent the day and evening as I’ve described, a few of those men would now be suffering from a lack of good judgment or enhanced bravado. It was my job to prevent them or anyone else who decided to try sneaking into the drive-in through the woods from doing so. “At all cost,” said Hoffy.
Rather daunting, I might say, keeping in mind that I was just a kid, along with the fact that the action didn’t start until it was pitch dark out. I soon learned that the aforementioned electric fence was my best friend. After dark it was invisible, so when I heard the inevitable vocal reaction to touching the fence, I aimed my flashlight in that direction, and that was usually enough to send them fleeing away.
Through the middle of the woods, there was a barbed wire fence. If someone made it into the woods, you could usually hear them trying to sneak through the brush, and this is when you hit them with some light. Most would turn and trot back where they came from. But once in a while, there was the one who would try to run through the rest of the woods and lose themselves in the crowd watching the movie.
Unfortunately, they would encounter the barbed wire fence and yell their displeasure as I approached with the light and assistance to help dislodge and untangle themselves.
This is when my friend’s father who owned the woods would call the sheriff for backup and then come to the rescue. Seeing that his son would often help us, he spent many a night on his back porch drinking beer with his friends and waiting for the action to begin. I could often hear them laughing through the evening at my predicament back there.
While I was out walking the beat, a typical evening back at the drive-in went like this: First, Hoffy would be at the entrance collecting money from the patrons in the glow of the Christmas lights. The cars would park up front, but there was plenty of room for blankets and chairs between the cars and the screen. In the back, the flatbed trucks that hauled legions of Mexicans to the Peninsula from down south would turn around – the flatbeds made excellent viewing platforms.
I must note that “cars” and “trucks” are by no means good descriptions of these vehicles. Many were pristine, beautiful, well-maintained custom works of art. Exotic land cruisers with fender skirts, external windshield visors, and every color from turquoise to copper. You wouldn’t think a flatbed truck could be a cool work of art, but they were.
You have to understand that these vehicles were a major part of their lives. They spent a lot of time in them and depended on them as they picked fruits and vegetables from as far south as Texas all the way north to the Peninsula, only to turn around and do the same back to where they came from.
The people were beautiful, too. They would put on their Sunday best – the women and girls in colorful, flowing dresses, and the guys in white cowboy hats, white shirts with the tails hanging out, and pointed shoes that were slightly curled up at the toe.
They were hard working, polite, religious, and well behaved, for the most part, and they seemed to laugh and smile more than we did. Walking through the lot at the end of my shift taking it all in is one of my favorite memories.
When my shift was over, I would make my way to the concession stand, punch out, get a free snow cone, and hang out for awhile. It was great fun and adventure for a kid at that age. There were, however, a few occasions at the concession stand when I was confronted by someone with whom I’d previously made an acquaintance while performing my border guard duties. I’ve had a knife at my throat, been threatened with great bodily harm, and held up by the neck against the stand.
Luckily, I was rescued each time by Hoffy holding up the biggest handgun I had ever seen. He would state to the offender, “Do you want to go home right now or go to jail?” It was times like these I would wait for the drive-in to clear out before sneaking out the back way to ride my bike home at two in the morning, hiding from any cars that came along the way.
Well, there you have it – “my career in movies.” Not quite what you envisioned, I’m sure, but a true account, nonetheless. I was very young, and if you’ve read any of my other stories, you know I was also very foolish and very lucky – a luck that has served me well all my life. Without it, I most certainly would not be here to write this account of my foray into the movie business at the Cine Mexicano.
But I am still here and have more tales to tell. Stay tuned.
(Editor’s Note: If anyone has any photos of Hoffy or the Mexican Drive-In, feel free to send them along, firstname.lastname@example.org. – jb)
For a great conversation starter, get the Mexican Drive-In Cotton Tee at our sister site, OMPstore.com.