Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Profiles in Florida: The Sound of Freedom

For the last year, I've spent significant time driving in Florida, partly for work, partly for vacations and visiting people. Within just a month or two, I lost count of the number of stunningly weird signs and billboards I saw.

I'm sure that many of them aren't particularly novel in a broad, American sense, but the sheer selection Florida offers must be unique. Cosmopolitan areas see English-language ads for expensive glass art exhibits on roads lined with billboards for Spanish-speaking personal injury attorneys. Interstate 75 alternates between scripture posted by a group called "NARROW ROAD," and dated, Aqua Netted hairstyles on the nude dancers for Café Risque's "WE BARE ALL" burma-shave of pornographic American sadness.

The more southern, liberal parts see signs for abuse hotlines, counseling and the popularity of Sikhism. Libertarian hinterland billboards scream about the perfidy of Congress and its socialistic overspending — complaints conspicuously absent during the eight years of an untax-and-war white President, with a white Vice-President who claimed, "Deficits don't matter." And the north abounds with fundamentalist billboards that clearly try to be as gory and horrific as possible, within legal bounds.

But some are just really odd. Take this:

Listen, apart from the horror that their use represents, warplanes are pretty cool. They look neat, and when you're a kid, you hold models of them and move around the house and go "woooooooshhhhh" and "pew pew pew" and shoot dad in the face because even at that age you recognize the necessity to eclipse him evolutionarily and Oedipally and also because his aggression cannot stand.

That aside, I'm pretty certain that no part of an F-18 screaming down from the sky to fire an AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon into the building/tank/life/face of some hopelessly beshitted Iraqi can be categorized as "the sound of freedom," unless your only standard for it is being liberated from being alive anymore. If the profile you see of this plane is identical to the one on the billboard, you are about to get really fucking free from corporeality at most.

What makes this billboard even more confusing — apart from the conflation of a kill profile with some rosy constitutional vibe — is that it's next to the largest Air Force base in America. Unless you could somehow build a town square hemmed in by buildings from Lockheed, Boeing, Northrup Grumman and McDonnell-Douglas, or else build a superhuman fat tattoo tapestry out of Limbaugh-sized Project for a New American Century fellows, you could not find a place in America where this sign would be less necessary.

But wait, two things make this even weirder:
1. This is not the only sign. In fact, there are two on the same street, within sight of each other.
2. It's not a big area, and the tourist routes through it don't use this street, meaning that at best it panders to the locals, many of whom derive their livelihood from the base itself.
At least, that's the story I got when I asked the father of a friend of mine, after learning that he was a former Air Force colonel. While the area is a beautiful tourist destination, after that it is economically dependent on military employees and their families.

"There was really nothing here after the war," he told me, referring to the interval between World War Two and the Korean Conflict. Towns had sprung up in the 1920s land booms/swindles, trying to draw northerners down for winter homes or else outright relocation at bargain prices. "Most of the stuff around the base grew up because of officers moving their families out of base housing." From there, he explained, local businesses grew to cater to these middle class families brought up by military jobs, the GI Bill and the baby boom. Later, Air Force personnel retired in the area and set up their own businesses. One of the most popular now seems to be Asian restaurants, from servicemen who met wives overseas and got hooked on authentic cuisine that local restaurants just couldn't provide.

So that's the nut: an airbrushed war-porn pimp job in an area fundamentally dependent on one of the largest military installations in America. Once I reached the second billboard, I looked around me and tried to get a sense of what the fuck I could possibly be in the middle of. Here, after all, were two big pitches for DEATH FROM THE SKIES. I'd just passed a middle school. To my left was a high school. Look, kids—a career!

The car in front of me had one of the State of Florida's "CHOOSE LIFE" license plates, a fatuous little yellow rectangle that Florida conservatives claim is an apolitical endorsement of the value of life, rather than a governmentally endorsed anti-abortion sentiment. Life is good. We all like life, and liking life is just an attitude that people might have because, hey, life. There's no "CHOOSE DEATH" license plate, though, but it's hardly necessary with the billboards.

Also, Florida is both a death penalty and a castle doctrine state.