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Orange Blossoms, Fake IDs and Old Grandad

by John Siebenthaler: photos©john siebenthaler

siebenthaler photo florida pantheroctober, 2002 I've been thinking about the changes in my state of Florida that have so altered the world I grew up in, turning it into the strange landscape that surrounds me today.

Back in the day, Spring riding usually meant the heady orange blossom perfume that flooded uninterrupted miles on end with the fragrance from thousands of acres of groves, no matter which direction you traveled. Of course, this was only considered heavenly if you actually enjoyed the scent of orange blossoms. And I did. And gardenias in May, and the June citrus bloom that followed.

Then, rides were broken up by lunch breaks in places like Crystal River or Orange Park or Williston, where the one diner in town usually offered homemade pie, real baked ham, snap beans, sometimes stewed chicken with greens, and always sweet tea for your beverage, with biscuits and grits as breakfast staples.

One memorable image remains of riding through the outskirts of Deland, in the Sixties, and happening across a black church conducting a full immersion baptism in one of the lakes that dot the region. Ebony skin and white robes, a still life set in the lush green vegetation of a humid Florida wilderness, against the backdrop of segregation that still persisted throughout the South, with no hint of the theme parks and condos and timeshares to come. I drifted by without stopping, slowing enough, though, that the recollection can be replayed in slow motion, from a third person's vantage point.

On another occasion, returning home from a Summer spent driving trucks and working pipeline up north, I can clearly recall the warm relief that flooded over me as I rode south on then still fresh Interstate 75, crossing the Suwanee River up around White Springs shortly before midnight and inhaling the damp, earthy scent of early fall in the air. The road was solitary, the moon was up, and even the hard shelled bugs sandblasting my face were a welcome sign I was home.

As a kid, we'd once in awhile skip school and run up to Daytona, 60 miles up the road, for the day. This when the speedway was so new you could still smell the asphalt. Oh, and the latrines, which in the infield consisted of 55-gallon drums cut in half with a plank across the top for comfortable seating and surrounded by privacy fence of corrugated tin. You won't hear that mentioned on Speed Channel.

Why Daytona, when we had a much better beach of our own in Brevard County? Mostly, it was the ease of buying cheap ABC beer and Old Grandad when your fake id said you'd be 32 on your next birthday and you still looked a skinny 12.

Orlando before Disney was a sleepy crossroads, suffocating in the then still mostly unairconditioned heat of a stifling Florida summer. North to south traffic moved mainly along 441, up through Leesburg and Ocala, Gainesville and Alachua, south on 27 through Winter Haven and Sebring, and before Interstate 4 came along to became the traffic joke it is today, coast to coast meant Routes 50 and 60, connecting Vero and Titusville, Lake Wales and Dade City, Bartow, Lakeland, and Mulberry to Tampa and the bay area.

Today, with over 14 million residents and well in excess of 60 million tourists annually, we're choking on our exhaust. Then, a trip to the beach meant driving along the water's edge for just the right spot beside a dune. Now, it's a dash for one of the few public parking spots sandwiched between million dollar condos.

I'm glad I grew up then. I wish it could be that way again.

footnote: Since this was written, I've had occasion to view John Sayles' critically acclaimed "Sunshine State", in a theater packed full of like-minded retros. "It was a land populated by white people - that ate catfish! And out of all this, we created nature on a leash." Personally, we ate mullet. A lot easier than catfish.

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