Monday, April 6th, 2015 by tamara
The year was 1985, wind had been blowing mostly out of the West all day at a pretty brisk clip and Fred Crosby and the Ruskin bunch were calling for it to shift to the North about sundown and maybe die down just a bit. No clouds tonight, clear as a bell as they say which does not bode well when you are looking a temperature expected to be in the low twenties and even into the teens in colder pockets.
No micro jets to run, just return stack heaters filled with diesel fuel ready to light when the time came. Growers spent time riding back and forth to the old thermographs stationed at the coldest locations in the grove, checking on how quickly temperatures were falling and talking to the men waiting in the barn ready to fire when they had to. Tonight rather than going directly to the Ag center in Ocala I was waiting with my good friend Bud Boyer at his home in Weirsdale. We were talking back and forth to John Jackson in Lake County and other growers throughout the region. The talk was all the same “what do ya think?”, “Do you think it’s going to drop as much as they say?”, “I still have wind over here. When are you going to light up?” Questions that unfortunately had become all too familiar with the growers up north. The wind did shift to the North and slowed down a bit but still probably eight to ten with gust also.
Among those of us waiting at Bud’s house was a reporter from the New York Times named Leonard Cransdorf. The newspaper had sent him down to capitalize on the misery and suffering of the north Florida citrus grower, who was enduring yet another potential devastating freeze. This young man had the accent and the style of a New Yorker and had never been in a grove before, but was willing to do his part if needed.
One of the others waiting to fire was Bud’s brother in law who had been sleeping on the couch in the den when young Leonard arrived on the scene. Buddy is a Florida cracker from the word go and has never been around to many folks like Leonard. So he wakes up hearing the accent and at once notices he is not from these parts.
We introduce Buddy to Leonard who by the way is dressed in a pair of red converse all-stars, Bright red coat and a toboggan hat with a ball on top. Buddy acknowledges him by saying what the heck s a Leonard Cransdorf? After we check the thermometers, its now around 28 degrees. The time is only ten thirty and the wind has died, no clouds lets go light them up!
A return stack grove heater has an opening which to light the fuel inside and the hole in the cap to regulate the temperature or flame coming out. The return on the stack allows it to burn more efficiently and cleaner. They can be lit using matches and a piece of paper or straw but most growers used a flame thrower. Filled with a mixture of pressurized diesel and gas, the driver holds it outside the window as he goes along and shoots the flame into the heater thereby igniting it. If you have ever fired a grove you will never forget the sound of hundreds of grove heaters making that woofing sound as they burn.
Old Leonard is pretty excited by all of this activity and needs to get some real close up shots of the procedure. He has been told by Bud to stay in the truck and don’t get in the way until we are through then he can take all the pictures he wishes. But this is just not going to happen. Unknown to any of us Leonard has gotten out of the truck and is at the next heater waiting on his perfect shot of the flamethrower in action. When lighting heaters it can be a race against the clock so sometimes you spray flame a little too far. As Bud’s shoots out the flame we hear a blood curdling scream…Leonard’s red converse All-Stars are on fire!! He is running and jumping with flame on the tops of his shoes. Not missing a beat, Buddy comments that he looks like a circus performer. Now as he is running around he is also setting the old grass in the row middles on fire with his shoes while we are trying to put him out. We finally put out his shoes luckily he was not hurt other than his pride and ego. He was also out one pair of shoes.
We went on a fired all night unfortunately growers suffered another devastating freeze that night with much damage to crop as well as trees. Growers replanted not suspecting that in four years they would suffer most devastating freeze of the century, 1989.
Leonard got his story and his pictures a burned pair of tennis shoes. He said he would always remember his night in a grove firing orange trees and the hard work growers go through to try and save their crops.
I guess even in the bad times there is always some humor to be found.