It is a sunny Saturday afternoon in the fall of 1988. I am heading back to college from Thanksgiving vacation with my two best friends, Mark & Chip. I have known Mark since high school, and Chip even longer. They are good company for a drive.
We are moving down the highway in Chip’s new baby: a 1980 Volvo station wagon with a metallic, mint-green paint job. Chip's dubbed it, "The Mullet." It is a glorious vehicle. Chip has even been kind enough to let me drive it. I am honored. Although it’s almost December, the day is still hot. Chip has the stereo up loud, so we can hear it over the wind rushing in through the windows.
We were heading back from vacation a day early to see the annual FSU – UF football game. At that time in our lives, there seemed nothing finer and more natural in the world than descending into the frenzied, beery, carnival atmosphere of the contest. And we would arrive in style—Mark’s roommate had waited in line that week, and had three tickets waiting for us at his apartment when we returned. It was good to be alive.
A little bit west of Jacksonville, on a lonesome stretch of I-10 hard by the side of Osceola National Forest, The Mullet suddenly lost power. Not electrical power, mind you, but engine power—torque, oomph, thrust, guts-- whatever you want to call it. Even with the accelerator mashed down onto the floorboard, our speed dropped from 70, to 40, to 10. The Mullet was gasping for air.
Fortunately, we were just short of the exit for Sanderson, Florida, and managed to limp onto the off ramp just as the engine croaked. I steered the car over onto the shoulder and turned off the ignition. Then we looked around.
Those of you who have driven Florida’s highways in the modern era may find this hard to believe, but we found ourselves at what must surely be one of the few exits in the state not ringed by gas stations, fast-food joints and the like. Instead, all we had was a two-lane road lined by scraggly pines and fire ant mounds poking out of the sand..
We got out of the car and popped the hood to inspect the corpse. Lets just put it this way: we were not exactly a mechanically inclined bunch. The entire sum of our knowledge regarding the internal combustion engine was exhausted by checking the radiator hose for leaks, and making sure the spark plug wires were still connected. Once we were done pretending we had the slightest idea what we were doing. there was nothing left to do but lock up The Mullet and start walking for town.
We came to the "town" of Sanderson about a mile up the road. There was little more than a few trailers up on concrete blocks, and an all-purpose general store that looked like it might have a phone and running water. We headed for the store.
The inside was heavy with hunting gear and knives, and it was almost exclusively decorated with Polaroid pictures of hunters standing proudly next to dead black bears sprawled on the hood of their pickup trucks, or lying in the back of their pickups, or posed behind the wheel of their pickups wearing "Diesel Cat" baseball caps. They let us borrow the phone to call a tow-truck, which met us at the store about 20 minutes later and gave us a ride back to The Mullet.
Now, "Cooter" and "Clem," as I am want to call the tow truck operators, were nice enough fellows. But I am willing to bet they weren’t really used to a Volvo-driving clientele. I say this because once the hood was popped, they, too, stared down at the engine with the innocent look of a newborn baby. It was as if they had just seen an engine for the first time, and though they hadn’t the slightest idea how it worked, they knew it was something beautiful and powerful—yet completely alien. Then they checked the spark plug wires to see if they were loose and …
We soon learned the nearest shops that could work on a Volvo were either back in Jacksonville, or in Lake City up the road. This being Thanksgiving weekend AND the night of the FSU – Florida game, we were not exactly confident about the prospects of finding a willing auto mechanic at 6 pm—let alone a sober one. So we asked the obvious question: "How much to tow us all the way?"
Cooter turned to Clem and smiled. "You wanna go to Tallahassee tonight?"
After agreeing on a price for the tow, they hooked the Mullet up to some cables and dragged it up onto the rear flatbed of their tow truck. We were almost ready to go when a problem arose: how to fit 5 adults in the bench seat of a tow truck. Cooter suggested that perhaps we could just ride in the Volvo, if we were inclined to do such a thing. We were. There was a cooler of beer in The Mullet.
And so, as the sun finally set after a long afternoon, we found ourselves doing the unexpected. We were seated high, high above the road, in the back seat of a driver-less Volvo, drinking beer and rocketing down the Interstate, strapped to the back of a flatbed truck driven by men we didn’t know.
It was actually a nice view, sitting way up there. And with nightfall, the air had cooled to a pleasant chill. We turned on the radio and tuned in the game just in time for kickoff. The miles flew by.
We finally pulled into Tallahassee about 8:30 pm. As we drove down West Tennessee Street, the road was nearly deserted. Everyone in town was either at the game, or hunkered down in front of their television sets. Unfortunately, though, the site of a tow truck ferrying a green Volvo with three people seated in it did not escape the notice of the local police, who pulled us over by the Popeye’s just east of campus.
After checking the license on the tow truck, they decided to let us off on one condition: we could not get back in The Mullet. So we made a quick decision. Chip would ride in the tow truck to the auto shop where he planned to leave the Volvo. Mark and I would run the mile or so back to his apartment and hopefully find the game tickets waiting for us. After all, it wasn’t even halftime yet.
Mark’s apartment was only a few blocks away from the stadium, so we started heading in that direction. Even from a half-mile away, through the thick limbs of live oak and pine, you could see the stadium lighting up the night sky. The faraway boom and rumble of the marching band drums echoed across the deserted campus like thunder. And every so often, a great cheer would erupt from the crowd, like the sound of a giant wave breaking in the distance.
As we neared the stadium, we could see the crowd gathered on the Pensacola Street bridge. In a certain place, the bridge was elevated just high enough so you could peer in through the corner of the stadium and see a wedge-shaped slice of the field. It wasn’t a great view, but it was a view. And for people who didn’t have tickets—or couldn’t afford them—it was a time-honored spot to stand and watch the game.
We got to the bridge and were able to watch the last few moments before halftime. This was still back in the day when you could leave the stadium at the half to go back to your car, or apartment, or wherever it was that you had stashed your liquor. It was an enlightened policy. We figured if we were quick, we’d still have time to run back to the apartment, pick up our tickets, and be back in time for the start of the 3rd quarter.
Unfortunately, though, the tickets were not waiting for us at the apartment. We searched high and low before deciding that his roommate had probably decided to sell them. Mark decided to watch the rest of the game on TV, but I wanted to go back to the stadium and soak up the excitement. FSU was winning the game, and I wanted to be there for the end.
As I walked up to the stadium, I saw that someone had dropped a ticket stub on the ground. I walked up to the gate, and they let me right in--as if I was returning from halftime.
As I made my way out of the bowels of Old Doak into the stadium lights, I found myself swept into a sea of 75,000 joyously inebriated primates celebrating one of the most lopsided wins in the history of the series. Final score 52-17.