I love alligators. Crocodiles too. I don’t know the difference, although I understand that we mainly have alligators here in the states. Either one will do. I find them fascinating and intriguing. They just lie there with smirks on their faces, pretending they don’t hear us when we know they must.
They were my favorite things to see on trips to the Houston Zoo decades ago. They were behind a chain-link fence, which seemed a little risky to me. I liked living on the edge as I inched my way closer; I had the unfair advantage, and they couldn’t get to me. The sign that read “Please Don’t Tease the Alligators” was an enticing invitation.
“Do something, you lazy piece of luggage!” I’d shout every time I visited the zoo. They never budged. Tough audience. Every once in a while they’d indulge me and meander down the path to the water after their ritual sunbathing. Dad used to say, “I’m gonna trade you in for a pet alligator,” but somehow I always made the cut. And my brother, Doc, had a stuffed alligator in his room. Not a fluffy, never-been-real, googly-eyed gator won at an amusement park. I mean an authentic, stuffed-by-a-taxidermist alligator. Oddly, I never asked where it came from; I thought it was scary and cool. Perhaps Dad did plan to trade me in, but then the little bugger got too feisty and Dad had to “take him out.”
I’ve always been intrigued by their manner, the quiet, silent types, but also by their skin. It looks good on boots, purses, etc., and I remember seeing it a lot in the 70’s. But I never liked the idea of killing them just to accessorize, and I don’t own any alligator skin other than the skin on my heels. What is that about? Never had cracked skin on my person until I had a child. While in utero, did my sweet baby boy suck all the moisture out of the skinniest part of his mother? And since I wear some form of sandals 11.5 months out of the year, it looks like an alligator’s nose is hanging off the back of my flip-flops. I’ll just switch to Crocs and it will seem like I planned the whole thing.
Since Cowboy has always loved to go driving, I took him on an excursion one day when he was on a holiday break from school. We weren’t going anywhere in particular as we headed out on 1-10 East towards Lake Charles, Louisiana. And then I saw it. A large, wooden sign stating, "GATOR COUNTRY, TURN HERE" in bright red lettering, with a red arrow pointing left. Something about "Live Alligators" was also on the sign, which beckoned us to go see the coolest reptiles on the planet.
Once inside the first building, we bought hot dogs to feed to the alligators. I was so excited, and Cowboy seemed amused by our purchasing frankfurters to provide lunch to gators.
“Want to feed the alligators, Cowboy?” He nodded profusely but didn’t smile. I wondered if he thought we’d hand feed them.
There was an old wooden bridge connecting that main building to a restaurant. We took a look around the establishment that served gator on a plate, but we had no interest in eating one, just in feeding one without becoming his lunch.
Back out on the bridge, we pulled up the thick, plastic lines hanging over the sides, broke off small pieces of hot dogs, and skewered them with the lines. All manner of gators waited to greet us. Huge ones and baby ones, all hungry and salivating all over themselves. Instead of plopping my line into the water, I held it up just a few inches above the surface.
WHOOSH! A teenaged alligator jumped up, completely out of the water, and chomped it off.
Cowboy, like many kids on the autism spectrum, was obsessive about water activities. He told me in sign language that he wanted to go swimming with the little scale-covered darlings. Apparently, I’d failed to teach the “Which Animals Are Dangerous and Ones We Never Play With” chapter in the parenting handbook.
“Oh no, babe. We cannot swim with alligators. They will bite your head off,” I said as I tilted my head to one side and put my hand on my neck like a clamp. He immediately adopted that as a sign for “bite your head off.”
Meanwhile, back at Gator Country, we happened to be there at a time of day when patrons could pet a baby alligator; he was about 10 inches long, stem to stern. But just having learned about decapitation by reptile, Cowboy was not interested in the least.
For many months afterwards, he would point to different animals and use his sign to ask me if that particular creature could bite his head off.
“No, Cowboy, a spider can’t bite your head off. It can bite you and is very dangerous, but it can’t bite your head off.”
“No, honey, a butterfly can’t bite your head off.”
So we had to make up a different sign for things that just bite, but can’t take your head off, as well as go over the animals that don’t bite people at all. The mere biting sign was our clamping one hand, in a nails-digging-in formation, into the opposite forearm.
A few years later, Flash, Cowboy, and I drove down to Anahuac for the mother of all festivals, GatorFest.
As we got out of the car, there was a crowd of people gathered around, and I could see a huge tail from a distance. It was already exhilarating. Of course, it didn’t occur to me at that moment that those people would never have been that close to a real, live alligator with nothing between them but a strip of grass. Surely they knew about the biting-the-head-off thing. But maybe those Anahuacians knew something we didn’t; maybe there was some kind of in-bred bravery they possessed.
As we got closer, I saw one of the biggest, and deadest, alligators I’ve ever seen. What a cruel disappointment, especially for the deceased. I felt sorry for the fella, although I wouldn’t have wanted to meet him in a dark, swampy alley.
We stared at the carcass from a distance as I wondered how he died. Was he freshly dead? Completely dead? Or would he be rising from the ground at any moment like Glenn Close when she comes up out of the tub in Fatal Attraction, shoving our hearts into our throats? Was he murdered and, if so, was Crocodile Dundee lurking in the bushes somewhere? I held my son tightly. Well, perhaps he simply died of old age and they built the festival around him, I tried to convince myself. That was nicer.
“Cowboy, that alligator is dead. He was killed, and he cannot move or bite anymore. That’s why those people can stand that close to him. If he were alive, they would not be that close because it could bite their heads off.”
Still, I felt uneasy with our being even yards away from a huge, once-dangerous creature that still looked ominous. Realizing it would be hard for Cowboy to distinguish between a dead gator and a merely lazy one (they look exactly the same) by reading social cues from other people, we amended our previous lesson.
“Cowboy, don’t get close to any alligator, dead or alive, ever. In fact, just don’t get close to any animal that could bite your head off, dead or alive.”
The lecture was finished. We had appropriately instilled fear into our son regarding a plethora of animals with teeth. But I say, better a living neurotic than a dead daredevil.