Gator Bites

Gator Bites
© Wes Gow

Every high school or college campus shares this singular feature in common: the in crowd. I’m not referring to the girls with the trendiest fashion brands or the fellas with the most muscle development. I’m talking about the generally small subset of movers and shakers, usually comprised of males, and always either behind (or in the know of) all the mischief that matters. A sort of mafia, somehow operating just beyond the best efforts of staff and faculty. My small private college campus outside of Tampa, Florida was no different. Everyone knew who these cats were: quiet, confident, cautious, and yet always involved in any and all outlier activity.

And I wanted in. But before I tell you my tale of initiation, allow me to introduce the crew.

Griff was tall, thin, had a million-watt smile, and the kind of laugh that drew you into whatever he found funny. Of the inner circle, he possessed the strongest civilian disguise: well-liked, intelligent, easily approachable.

Tanner was something of a living relic, a true Georgia boy with a deep Southern drawl and a Shakespeare Ugly Stick in his closet for spontaneous fishing trips. (Sadly, he was once overconfident in this rod’s strength and I watched him snap the dang thing in half during a proud demonstration). Tanner was a lot like Griff in terms of their easily displayed humor, and when the two got together everyone around them was in for a good time.

Sea Bass was the muscle of the gang, with broad shoulders and chiseled arms. Hailing from Alaska, he carried an evident air of mystery, like this was his world and we were all pawns in some crazy long-con scheme (which wouldn’t surprise me to this day to learn that this was both true and still in play). Sea Bass was quiet, and not nearly as affable as Tanner and Griff. He often spoke in hushed tones, and I’m not certain I ever knew what the hell he said or meant. For example, the following could pass for a common exchange in the hallway.

Me: “Hey what’s up man?”

SB (expressionless and waving a peace sign with both hands): “Kooz Kooz.”

Me: walking away certain that he wanted to kill me.

Lastly, there was E-Dog. E-Dog was the only one who seemed to share an understanding of Sea Bass. The two were roommates and practically inseparable. E-Dog was the uncontested ringleader. Anything that got green lit seemed to go through his approval. Not because he lorded over anyone, but out of some sincere aura of respect we all had for him. Maybe it was because he was the only one with a girlfriend. More likely it was because it was common practice for E-Dog to roam the halls in a homemade squirrel-tail necktie, not around his neck, and without a single stitch of additional clothing to speak of. Believe it or not, things like that garner unwavering respect from college males. (If social media existed then, probably E-Dog could’ve won Florida out from under Gore and Bush in the 2001 presidential election).

There were several other players on the outer circles of this inner ring, but these were the ones I had to impress if I was to be welcomed into more significant initiatives. So I patiently logged my time and built my resume doing loads of small-scale pranks, utilizing things like vacuum cleaners, catfish bait, “borrowed” lab supplies, stolen signs of all kinds, water balloons, and one regrettable incident with a bottle of doe urine (big mistake).

Finally, somewhere around my sophomore year, I got the call. The A-team was on the move that night and I was invited. Days and days of ingenuity and laughter at other people’s expense was about to pay off.

Tanner delivered the message.

“Hey, you wanna come with us tonight?”

“What’s the plan?” I asked.

“We’re gonna get a gator,” Tanner whispered.

“I’m in.”

Think about that for a second. Well, actually first consider the fact that I didn’t think about it at all. I’d been given the equivalent of a super-secret envelope with a skull and crossbones seal: it didn’t matter what was on that invitation, I was RSVP’ing “yes.”

There was a small, marsh pond in front of the campus mess hall. It was oval shaped and you could maybe cast a heavy jig across the middle of it. All sorts of rumors circulated as to what lay at the bottom. But every now and then a small alligator would wind up in there and no one knew how. In fact, we’d often line up along the banks after dinner and feed the little booger.

Now, before I go further I must state two things clearly. First, every puddle in Florida has at least one alligator in it. You could spill a bottle of water and then watch two of them fight over it. Second, interacting with or “harassing” alligators in any manner is absolutely illegal. I know this because I had one of those signs hanging in my dorm room.

But the Council had determined that the pond had been vacant for too long, and it was time to restock. Of course, no crew of any influence is going to accomplish anything without strategic assistance. Conveniently, E-Dog and Sea Bass both worked campus security, so shortly after curfew (yeah, don’t get me started), we were out the door and cruising down the interstate toward a state park.

Mind you, I was simply thrilled to be included. As a resident of Florida, I knew that these dino-reptiles were highly protected, which meant that extracting one after hours at a freaking state park of all places was probably good cause to plead insanity before a jury. So I wasn’t worried.

Not yet.

I don’t remember how we actually got into the park, but we scuttled out onto a large dock with a curious list of supplies: one very small fishing rod, one flashlight, and one bag of marshmallows. It suddenly dawned on me that I’d never even thought to ask how exactly we were going to procure and transport this creature.

Tanner was running point on this operation, and he set about assembling the gear with all the familiarity of lacing a new pair of shoes.

Step 1: shine the light around the nearby grassy banks and look for a pair of reflective eyes beaming back.

Check. Several small pairs, actually. Perfect. But one very large pair with at least a few inches between the two eyes further out in the middle of the lake. Noted.

Step 2: rig the light tackle with a hook and a marshmallow.

Check.

Step 3: toss the unconventional bait near a small pair of eyes and wait.

Check.

Seconds after the white ball lighted upon the surface, the little moncher was on it, much the same way a youngster from our own species would do. Suddenly, the game was afoot, and Tanner’s rod was bent over like a Twizzlers stick. We jumped around the dock like 6-year olds, cheering our man on while the baby gator smashed the once-still waters with all of his effort. Surprisingly, the fight was fairly one-sided and we were gathered around our catch in no time. I don’t remember who got the hook out, but I sure as hell know it wasn’t me.

Two things happened. First, the little fella started chirping. That’s right. Baby alligators sing a kind of muted chirp when calling for momma. It’s really kinda cute, until you realize that the animal answering that call is anything but.

Which brings me to the second thing that happened. One member of our gang had the good sense to turn around and check the large pair of eyes we’d seen earlier.

They weren’t there.

Because they were making a serpentine beeline across the lake for our dock, and closing the gap fast.

Fortunately, our plot of planks was raised a few feet out of the water, but I assure you that the distance wasn’t comforting enough when we were looking straight down at six to eight-foot angry mother gator.

Up until this moment, I don’t need to tell you that we were anything but bright, but if you were holding out even a thread of hope that my hunting party had any brains at all, what happened next will swiftly affirm the contrary.

Baby Al was chirping away, and Big Momma was increasingly unamused. Whoever was holding our prize decided it all a bit of fun to dangle Al out over the water, and over Big Momma.

Big-time dumb.

Al gave one chirp and Big Momma shot vertically out of the water like a cruise missile. Before anyone could blink, she slammed her powerful jaws shut not more than eighteen inches from the forearm of the numbskull holding Baby Al. Fortunately for our comrade, the distance proved too great for her reach and she crashed back into the water.

While Big Momma failed to get her point across in her preferred manner, she nonetheless managed to accomplish a difficult feat and snap some sense into a crew of delinquents. Clearly we had overstayed our welcome and would rather return home with a good story than a missing member and/or a criminal sentence.

Baby Al was released into his natural environment and presumably grew to enjoy a long and prosperous life. His captors, on the other hand, had many more years of poor decisions ahead of them before they would one day find themselves in a different stage of life, where they could deeply understand and appreciate the actions of Big Momma.

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