Hagebak: I still have ‘Gatorphobia’

Published 1:54 am Saturday, February 11, 2017


Somewhere around here there’s a video of me feeding a giant alligator. He is fourteen feet long and makes a kind of roaring sound while he’s waiting for me to lob him a piece of meat from a big old cooler. That particular gator was one of about 20 that came leisurely to the calls of a guide named Mike at Gatorland, in Orlando, Fla. I was the first to arrive at the special hand-feeding spot and so I had lots of time to tamp down my fears and tell myself that the alligators would be animatronic, or they’d be so old that they’d have to gum me to death if they caught me. But when Mike, who is a large man and looked like he could handle it if I climbed him like a tree and sat on his head in terror, started making gator-calling noises and the beasts began to appear, their giant heads first and then their broad, ridged backs, I knew that they were the real deal. They came up out of the water and relaxed on a sandy beach, some with eyes barely open, some with mouths barely open. Yep, they had teeth. Nice, shiny, white, pointy teeth.

And I remembered, “Oh yeah, I have Gatorphobia.”

Daddy was raised in central Florida, in a little town known for having about a million lakes, and that translates to about three million alligators. I grew up hearing tales of how he and his friends would pretend to be pirates, and when the baby gators hatched each year, the boys would capture hatchlings and allow them to dangle from their ears like earrings, for a seriously realistic swashbuckling look. I was fascinated, and I wanted a baby alligator for myself! I already had pierced ears, so I was pretty sure that I could just talk the little critter into using the pre-drilled hole and thus avoid any bloodshed. In those days, a kid could buy a genuine baby alligator at just about any roadside citrus stand in Florida, but no matter how hard I begged, I could never talk Daddy into letting me have one.

The fascination started getting a little ragged around the edges when I was six or seven, and Daddy took Brother and me swimming in one of his hometown lakes. We jumped off the dock and stood on our heads in the shallow parts and dove like seals in the deep parts and were having just the best time until, surfacing from an underwater summersault, I spied an odd shape about 15 feet away.

“Daaaaaady. What is that?”

“Oh, that’s just an old gator, he won’t hu…”

I was on the dock before he finished. Later on, he told me that the reptile, which looked about 30 feet long, with fangs dripping with the gore of all the little kids it had eaten before me, and was probably rabid, was a four-footer and wasn’t even interested in us, but the damage was done. I decided that I didn’t want an alligator earring after all.

I never put even one toe in a Florida lake after that, much to Daddy’s frustration. But he made sure that I got a yearly dose of alligator terror anyway, when we took long weekends at the Stephen Foster State Park in Charlton County, which is a fancy name for the Okefenokee Swamp, which is Native American for “Place Where Gators Come For The Kid Smorgasbord.” The place is teeming with them! I was afraid to step outside for fear of gaping jaws and tails that would whip me off my feet and send me sailing through the air in a game of gator badminton, with the winner getting the first chomp of kid meat. Of course the alligators were polite and stayed in the water, but that didn’t stop Daddy from trying his best to get rid of me, I mean get me used to them.

They rent little boats down there at that crazy park; tiny flat-bottomed things made out of tinfoil. Daddy would get one and dig me out from whatever bed I was under, and away we’d go. He drove the boat, and Mama sat in front. Brother sat on one of the bench seats and I sat in the bottom, singing, “Swing loooow, sweet chari-o-ot, coming for to carry me hoooome!” I just knew that Swampzilla was going to rise up from the famously black water of the swamp and swallow me whole, forever dooming me to hang out in his giant tummy with the rest of his victims, playing gin rummy and plotting ghostly revenge on our danger-seeking daddies.

There’s nothing therapeutic about 70,000 sets of cold reptile eyes staring at you. And when one set slides off a bank and makes straight for the boat in which a kid’s being held hostage, then goes under and that kid feels the scraaaaape of its back as it passes beneath her, only a thin bit of metal between it and her backside, well, let’s just say my phobia didn’t get any better.

So, all of that history was going through my head as I looked into the eyes and maws of the giant alligators that day at Gatorland. All of my childhood fears climbed out of the water and up onto the little beach. They grunted and rumbled. They were scary as Hades. They were beautiful and graceful, and I was humbled by their presence. And with Mike’s help, I faced my gatorphobia, and came out the other side.

I’m still not swimming with them, though.