Russ Ringsak

Where to Find Free Orange Juice in Florida

July 1, 2003

A few weeks ago I wrote a story heard from a couple of different musicians about Bill Monroe's mandolin being smashed by a jealous girlfriend and then repaired by Lloyd Loar at the Gibson factory. A Michigan fellow named Steve, who knows a lot more about these things than I do, wrote and set me straight on the facts: First, they never found out who smashed the mandolin, but it happened when Bill wasn't home, and it could have been almost anybody; and worse, Lloyd had quit Gibson in 1929 and had been dead for 40 years when the instrument was smashed. And I must have made that up.

I'm flattered to be accused of practicing fiction, because I'd gladly do that if I was any good at it, but those players actually did tell me that story in that way. It's a darn good story, but it's not true. It's semi-true—maybe what you might expect from a semi driver—and perhaps that's a flaw, and perhaps others would say it's not a big deal. My own view is that religions have been founded on stories less believable than that one.

But it's a good thing to learn the truth, and I thank Steve of Michigan for the facts. And if anyone has any clue as to who actually smashed that mandolin—or even the category of the perpetrator, be it vandal, rival musician, grudgeholder, or girlfriend—I'd like to hear about it, and probably so would Steve. As for the repairs, the factory did an amazing repair job, and we state with confidence that the instrument is now one of the world's most valuable mandolins.

Left Marianna on a Tuesday morning and barely got comfortable on I-10 when a lady Florida DOT cop pulled me over for not having signs on the side of the cab. Used to be that you didn't need them on a short-term lease, but things have changed, and she said I'd be lucky to make Miami without getting stopped again. There was a lot of police protection on the freeway that morning, I noticed. She went through the log book, checked her computer, made a radio call, dragged it out for over a half hour, and finally, smiling, laid the ticket on me. Seventy or eighty bucks, I think it was.

I drive pretty much like most truckers, and if somebody's dragging their butt at 55 in the go-fast lane, what we call the hammer lane, I generally try to let them know they'd be doing the right thing to move over. And someday these same people might come to our show, and I might rather they didn't know who they were dealing with. But two weeks later I went and made the signs anyway. I can be intimidated by 70 bucks as easy as the next guy.

A highway sign at a bridge in the Florida panhandle says "Historic Suwanee River" and then shows four bars of music, the melody of the song. I can't say I've ever seen an official highway sign with actual music on it before. And there are other names here we don't have in the Midwest; not just Key Largo but names like Apalachicola, Ochlokonee, Immokalee, Chocktawatchee, Wewahitchka, Lake Panasoffkee, Miccosukee, Kissimmee, Okeechobee. I pass a truck out of Okahumpka. There are also places like Panacea, Corkscrew, Homosassa, Zephyrhills, Sopchoppy, Mossy Head, Mary Esther, and Doctor Philips. And one to rub our northern noses in, Frostproof. Two. There's also West Frostproof.

A sign on I-75 reads "Cafe Risque—We Bare All, 24 Hours—Food And Fun—Trucker's Discount and Showers," the first of a few of such and a good example of the perils we steadfast truckers face in moving the nation's essential goods in a timely fashion.

The Florida Welcome Station then offers a 17-foot Great White Shark and Free Orange Juice. Subsequent billboards for the same place refer to a 13-foot 'gator, beach towels, Indian River fruit, "Florida T-Shirts 2 for $7," shell gifts, "See Disney Free," "Beanie Babies At Cost," and always "Free Orange Juice." A much better choice of words, I thought, than "Free O.J." You pass a billboard for "Antiques Antiques Antiques! — Smiley's Huge Antique Mall!" Another for the Christian Factory Outlet. A sign for Jai Alai, a high-speed hardball game originated with the Spanish Basques that has yet to catch on in Minnesota, although it is played and wagered upon in Connecticut. I didn't make that up.

The sky clears for the first time in days, and off to the right you see tree-lined thoroughbred horse stables with trainers and riders out on a practice track working elegant and beautiful animals, and you think that horse right there, that shiny deep mahogany one with the restless energy, tossing his head like that, that one fabulous horse right there is probably worth more than this truck and trailer and everything in it five times over. Farther south there is a small lake on a lush green farm and you see three Holsteins standing knee deep in the glassy still water out there, some distance from shore. It would be an odd painting if it were a painting. Looks like a digitally altered photo.

You crest a rise and enjoy a distant view, kind of a surprise. First I've seen in Florida except from a hotel room on an upper floor. At a junction called Yee Haw they have a big sign advertising Tourist Information without specifying its nature, leaving you to wonder if it is the sort of information that would actually make you holler "Yee Haw!" Beyond that you come upon a truly amazing sight: a long and high grassy berm along the road, above which hundreds and hundreds of buzzards wheel in the sky, a throng of thousands, an end-of-the-world aerial show not easily forgotten. You can only imagine what apocalypse lies beyond the berm but you can tell it doesn't smell good. ("SomeWHERE, over the road berm, big birds fly; Birds fly, over the road berm, Why then oh why ...").

A late-model sedan on cruise control slowly overtakes the rig. The driver is talking to himself in a most animated way; perhaps lecturing to a crowd, pointing emphatically down or up or forward, punching the air with hard gestures like karate chops, or hands flat with palms down and outward, like the "safe" sign in baseball. He's worked up, redfaced, veins standing on his neck. He's shaking his head, he shouts a single word over and over, probably "no," and then he's really on a roll, steering with his knees and waving both arms. You speculate on whether he's ranting to a packed stadium or at his in-laws in a crowded apartment. Not the goofiest thing you see in a car, but still entertaining.

The gates of the city idea never really took hold here in the U.S. and you slide without fanfare and almost without noticing into the big metropolis on a gradually increasing intensity and broadness of traffic, building to five lanes and the usual tall downtown buildings and flurry of exit ramps. You see a sign that says "Welcome to Miami, the Magic City," find a large parking lot downtown that will have you, and you hog up about seven spaces and pay the man, and you drop the trailer to go unload your luggage. In front of the hotel canopy an important and officious Head Bellman confronts you and says you can't park this truck here and you must leave right now, this minute, immediately, and you tell him you are registering and you'll move the truck when your stuff is tagged and stored, and he huffs off in a perfect little snit, making your day. You unload, take the truck back to the lot, and back in your hotel lobby restaurant you see clocks showing the time in Lithuania, Bosnia, Japan, Poland, and England. In the main corridor there are signs directing delegates to the International Money Laundering Conference. You wonder when they have the International Truck Driving Conference.

The Miami show was in a good outdoor amphitheater in the downtown waterfront park, surrounded by lush fat-grass lawns, exotic plants, palm trees, cruise ships, tall hotels, and interesting people. By the time we were loaded after the show, many of those people had parked their cars on the quay behind the stage in such a way as to allow the winding passage of sport coupes but left our truck the tightest and most tortuous of all possible escapes. Slow forward until you almost touch the Corvette, crank it hard left, back up a foot, crank back right within an inch of the black Chrysler, forward 6 inches, back left again and watch the Jaguar; moving delicately and very slowly, like levering a large stone into place in a pyramid. We drew a lot of help, both professional and otherwise. It took a full 45 minutes to spring free.

In Florida they say the 80-year-olds drive 20 miles an hour and the 20-year-olds drive 80. I did the math and found we had negotiated that last hundred feet at an average speed of .025 miles per hour, or one mile in 40 hours. If you drove 60 hours a week at that rate and never took a vacation you could actually make it coast to coast, say from Boston to San Francisco, in just over 40 years. It felt like it would take longer, more like three or four lifetimes.

But we parked the truck and went to a great cast-and-crew dinner on the wharf, and on Sunday morning slipped through downtown and found the northbound ramp onto Interstate 95 and Jacksonville. Winding it up and snicking into high gear, heading for the next city, feels about as good as it gets in the trucking trade. Especially when the weather's good.

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