* * * * * DO WHAT YOU LOVE * * * * *
[1980 - Somewhere in Alabama]
I was 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 that would be me living the dream. The truth was, after checking a student bulletin board, I’d found another Floridian heading home for Christmas break who needed money for gas and would be passing by Largo on his way. It was a win-win situation for both of us.
Benny from Hollywood Florida was 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 were 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 were…midnight with me speeding along jittery on caffeine and him snoring from somewhere behind.
The tunes were loud, and I was singing along, and we were passing through Alabama when I saw flashing lights coming up fast in my rear-view mirror. Dread filled me as I remember the expired driver’s license and poor Benny snoozing without a care in the world. I slowed down and eased to the shoulder as flashing lights followed close behind.
A rumpled head of hair on a squinty-eyed Benny sprang up, rudely awakened from an all too short nap, looking around with a puzzled expression.
“Uhmm…I might have been speeding and my license might have expired,” I mumbled. He was instantly alert and crouched forward to plop into the front passenger seat with a grouchy look on his face.
I watched as a beer-bellied Alabama State Trooper swaggered to my window and noticed his hand resting on his firearm. My hands gripped the steering wheel and I did a double-take when I saw that he was wearing mirrored sunglasses...at midnight. I felt like I was in the movie “Smokey and the Bandit.” I looked to my right hoping to see Burt Reynolds in the passenger seat, but it was still-angry Benny.
I handed over my license. He glanced down and began a slow head shake and his eyebrows lifted (barely visible above the mirrored glasses), as he drawled, “This is not uh valid liiicense. Doo yooou have uh valid liiicense?”
“No sir,” I responded, and I was 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 radio alerting the “station” that he was bringing in...I wasn't sure but thought he said…a 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 again, 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 sets. 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. 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 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, “I see your point. That dang piano player is a big ole ham.” They both laughed and then he continued on, “But seriously! This guy 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)