[1980 - Somewhere in Alabama]
I am heading south through Alabama on US Highway 231 pushing 90 miles per hour, traveling from Tulsa Oklahoma to Largo Florida. It would be nice to think that I was driving my own fairly newish Econoline Van complete with luxury carpet and a premium sound system, but this would be me living the dream. The truth is, after checking a student bulletin board, I have found another Floridian heading home for Christmas break who needs money for gas and will also be passing right by Largo on his way. It is a win-win situation for both of us.
Benny from Hollywood Florida is sleeping somewhere way in the back of this monstrosity. He told me early in the drive how he came to be the proud owner of such a huge van. His father...a used car salesman and apparently rather good at it...would often park a car with one side against a fence with the car’s “good side” facing out toward the sales lot. The “fence side” of the car might have a scratch or two or sometimes even a dent but with a lot of confidence and some fast talk, his dad could sell that car to just about anybody. The van was one of the good ones, purchased at an auction, that he decided to pass on to Benny as a “going off to college” gift. About 11 hours into this 19-hour trip and running out of things to talk about, his eyes are finally weary of watching the road. I hesitated briefly before agreeing to take the wheel. My driver's license had just expired, and I had plans to renew it when I got home. I decided not to let him in on this small fact and so now here we are…midnight with me speeding along jittery on caffeine and him snoring from somewhere behind.
The tunes are loud, and I am singing along, and we are passing through Alabama when I spy flashing lights coming up fast in my rear-view mirror. Dread fills me as I remember the expired license and poor Benny snoozing without a care in the world. I slow down and ease to the shoulder as flashing lights follow close behind.
I see a rumpled head of hair and squinty-eyed Benny spring up in the back seat, looking around with a puzzled expression.
“Uhmm…I might have been speeding and my license might be expired,” I mumble. He is instantly alert and crouches forward to plop into the front passenger seat and he looks pretty mad.
I watch as a beer-bellied Alabama State Trooper swaggers to my window and notice his hand resting on his firearm. My hands grip the steering wheel and I do a double-take when I see that he is wearing mirrored sunglasses...at midnight. I feel like I am in the movie “Smokey and the Bandit”. I look to my right hoping to see Burt Reynolds in the passenger seat, but it is still angry Benny.
I hand over my license. He begins a slow head shake and his eyebrows lift as he drawls, “This is not uh valid liiicense. Doo yooou have uh valid liiicense?”
“No sir,” I respond, and I am asked to step out of the van. I was apparently going to be driven down to the “station” to be detained and the details were unclear as I could only hear the sound of my rapid heartbeat pulsing in my ears. I had never been in trouble in my life and this was not a good time to start. Christmas. Just a little babysitting money in my wallet. Benny, a boy I barely knew, and would he just leave me stranded?
I was ushered into the back seat of the police cruiser and Benny was ordered to follow. A big hand rested on my head as I ducked down and slid into the back seat. I noticed another man in plainclothes already seated in the front passenger seat. He briefly glanced back at me and I looked down in shame.
We started the journey as Smokey, still in sunglasses, spoke into his handheld mic alerting the “station” that he was bringing in a...I wasn't sure but thought he said…prisoner. I looked back and good old Benny was still close behind.
Smokey asked me where I was going in such a hurry and I told him that Benny and I were students at ORU (Oral Roberts University). We were going home for the holidays, so I had planned to renew my license while there. He chuckled and looked over at his friend and they both looked back my way as he asked if I liked gospel music since I was a student at a Christian university. I told him that I did indeed like gospel music and used to attend all-night “Gospel Sings” in North Carolina with my Aunt Joyce and Uncle WT as a young girl.
I saw his eyebrows arch up above the top rim of his sunglasses, registering surprise as he asked who my favorite gospel group was. I thought back to my childhood and of the electricity in the air as group-after-group of old-time gospel singers and bands would perform...each selling original cassette tapes in the back of the auditorium once they finished their set. There was no doubt in my mind who my favorite group was. They were the reason I loved attending these marathon events that ended in the wee hours of the morning.
“I always loved a group called The Florida Boys,” I said. Looks of surprise were directed my way from the officer and his under-cover passenger.
“Why were they your favorite?” the trooper asked.
“They had this great piano player. His fingers would fly over the keys and he would turn his back to the piano and could play with his arms behind him and it sounded perfect. He was a real showman but the things I most remember were his big mustache and the red socks he always wore. He always got teased about them but would just laugh it off.”
A smile passed between the trooper and his friend as he asked, “Do you recognize this man?”
I began to look at the passenger in earnest now. He had a mustache and a little gray in his hair and maybe looked a little familiar. The man lifted his leg and crossed it onto his knee and pointed at his ankle. He was wearing red socks with a pair of scuffed black leather dress shoes.
I was baffled but my curiosity was peaked. “Are you a fan of the Florida Boys too?” I inquired.
He laughed and said, “I like their music a little bit. Not too sure about that showboat piano player though.”
The trooper piped up and said, “He IS the piano player from The Florida Boys.”
I looked at him even closer now adding about ten years to my mental image. It was true. This was the piano player from my favorite group, The Florida Boys. He was on a ride-along with his friend, the Alabama State Trooper and I was let off with a warning and an autograph from my childhood idol that said, “Slow down! Derrell Stewart”.
By Lisa H. Owens
Inspired by true events - 1980 Somewhere in Alabama headed to Pensacola, Florida