“Yeah, my first wife, I met her down in Texas. She’d just moved down there with a good friend a’hers, that Tate woman who was murdered.”
Jesse and I are sitting side-by-side in cheap outdoor chairs from Lowe’s looking across the small lake at Corey Billie’s place. Corey’s is set up in a kind of rectangle: you pull in the driveway, and the airboat dock is on the right, the gift shop/office is dead ahead, and the parking spaces are directly on the left, next to a small creeky-type pond and sawgrass. There’s a large slab of concrete, about the size of a three-car garage, that has an outdoor seating area and the alligator pen. The small lake is directly behind the gift shop, and there is a wire fence that separates the customer area and gift shop from this lake because Kim came to work one day and there was a large alligator in the gift shop. The next day, the fence was put up.
Most people, though, don’t realize it’s a partial fence. It ends where the alligator pen ends, so gators still move back and forth between ponds. In fact, my favorite male gator, Scars, has been moving between ponds in the night, and when we get to Corey Billie’s, you can see the tracks where his big, fat belly slides through the mud to get him out of the small creeky-pond and into the water behind the gift shop. You can even see his squatty, huge footprints on either side of his belly trail. It’s cute.
Scars is about an 11-footer who was Knotty’s other suitor, or so it seems. Chacho is nowhere to be found now, but Scars is faithful, and I’ve seen him sunning with her every day this week on the banks behind this gift shop.
I told you about Knotty and Her Suitors, remember? Well, Knotty, we strongly suspect, is building a nest on the far side of the pond. She disappears in the late morning and doesn’t return until about 3:30. We all think she’s going to have babies by the end of May, and that will be so exciting! Little Knotties and Chachos/Scars munching on crickets will make me happy. It will be one of the thrills of my life to see those baby gators grow up and make it. Well, some of them will make it though most of them won’t.
There is one wild baby gator that has shown up in the creeky-pond, and that’s the one Jesse and I were watching when he was telling me about running marijuana in the square grouper fishery. But there’s another one: Bootsy.
Bootsy is about 2 1/2 or 3, by my guess.
Alligators grow about 1 ft per year until they are five or six years old, and Bootsy is about 2 1/2 or 3 feet long. He finds a quiet place on the bank of the creeky-pond, usually on the side next to the parked cars, and he waits. Yesterday, I had my first scare as far as alligators go, and it was that damned Bootsy. It turns out that he doesn’t have any fear. None.
I’m standing on the bank admiring him, and he sees me. Gators have great eyesight and their hearing is sharp, too. He probably heard me before he saw me, but he turned himself around so that he was looking directly at me. At this point, he’s still in the water.
“What’s up?” I say. And then that little alligator lifts his head out of the water and takes two or three steps toward me.
“What are you doing?” I say. I’m confounded. He’s “supposed” to stay still in the water, like all the other gators, and just lie there, but he doesn’t. He moves toward me again.
And there’s this point with reptiles–a trigger point. It’s pretty easy to spot when a reptile is thinking about jumping; it’s just a flash of a moment, but their whole body goes still yet the head tilts just a fraction, and you can literally see the tension of their spring-loaded bodies go into the “cocked” position. Like I said, though, it happens in a flash, and you must be paying attention or you’ll miss it. My eyes are glued on this little fellow, and my heart starts beating faster. Bootsy, about six feet away now, cocks. In this moment, you have to make a decision: put your energy down and back up or stand your ground and see what happens or move toward the reptile and see if it backs down. I chose #1.
The reason why is because I sensed absolutely that this little gator was going to come after me. He didn’t have one ounce of fear about me. Not one.
Dang, I thought. Watching this little gator is going to be something else. If he’s like that now, what will he be like at 6 feet? 7? 12?
I found out later that they named him Bootsy because he did that same thing to Corey Billie and bit at his boots. Ergo, Bootsy. I was wearing Keens, and I’m glad I moved because I don’t think my toes would have fared as well in those as Corey Billie’s did in his boots.
It’s after this incident that I get to see the python in the freezer. One of the airboat captains, Dan/Danny, has gone on a self-appointed mission to kill the Burmese pythons that are reportedly overtaking the Everglades. He hunts them down and he kills them by chopping off their heads with a machete. Apparently, he told this tidbit to my tour group who was out with him (I didn’t know one thing about it), and when they came back, they said “can we see the snake, Danny? Can we see the snake?” I’m like, snake? what snake?
“Well, you can,” he said (and I thought he was just pulling their legs), “but it’s a stinky bugger.”
And then we follow Captain Danny into the gift shop to the deep freeze by the window, and he pulls out a Hefty tall kitchen bag that holds a large lump. He folds back the top as if we’re about to assess a bag of gold jewelry, and we see it.
Iced with freezer burn, wrapped up in its post-spasmodic coils, its severed head frozen to the side of its body most unnaturally, was the Burmese python. It was no monster, maybe a 5 footer (small by Burmese standards), and I could distinctly make out the pattern of its beautiful skin through the layer of freezer burn.
“What do you do with it? Eat it?” One of my women is asking this of Capt Danny. She is joking, of course. Which is why his answer astonished us.
Danny, it’s worth adding, is the most soft-spoken and shy-acting of all the airboat captains. He frequently can’t get his words out as fast as his thoughts, and so he is constantly ending up tongue-tied in front of customers and about four-steps behind in a casual conversation. It is very endearing in a land of silver-tongued good ole’boys who can spin a yarn of bullshit so fast you’re wearing a sweater before you know what’s happening to you.
“Nah,” he says. “It too tough. Too much like,” then he rubs his fingers together, the same gesture most people use when they’re implying “money.” Then he shrugs. “The meat’s all membrane. You know. Just one membrane after the other.” He makes a yuck-face.
We don’t know. Our meat comes from the grocery store, and we are all still processing the fact that he’s actually tried to eat the Burmese python. This fact endears me to Danny because he’s the kind of good ole boy that obviously believes that you shouldn’t waste a kill or kill for fun or meanness. I’ve known a few good ole boys like that, who kill because they can, and they are the ones I do not like.
He makes the “money” gesture again. “It’s like most meat is the meat then there’s a thin membrane separating a piece of meat from another section of meat, but this ain’t like that. It’s like peeling through membrane after membrane and you can’t eat that.” He folds the top of the trash bag down over the snake and puts it, for some reason, back in the freezer. “What I can tell you is them boys ain’t made for eatin.” Then he laughs, and we laugh, because what else do you do at the end of a conversation about eating Burmese pythons?
Being almost attacked by Bootsy and then seeing Danny with the frozen python combined with this really passive-aggressive over-corrector woman from Minnesota rendered me unable to seize that moment to tell Danny about my Plan.
But, I know I’ll see him again on Monday, and then I can tell him all about it.
You see, I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for two months. Back then, I had an idea as I was driving the van–a brilliant idea–and I shared it with my tour group, who all agreed that it was a brilliant idea. My Plan was to find some willing good ole’boy to hunt the pythons, and then I would tan the hides and make snakeskin boots, wallets, belts, motorcycle jackets, and bracelets. Then we could sell the snakewear in the gift shops out in the Everglades and make some good, honest money. Snakes are controlled, they don’t go to waste, fashion is created, and Danny and I make a little extra scratch to get through the summer months. Like I said, brilliant. I can’t wait to talk to Danny about it on Monday.
How hard can it be to tan snake skin, right?
And then I go to work this morning and am doing some good old country “visiting” with Jesse and he pulls out that Tate-woman remark. It has been a bit of a banner week out in the glades, but this off-handed comment, said so casually, as if he were referring to a fourth or fifth cousin, was almost too much. He said it so nonchalantly that I asked myself if perhaps there was another, less-famous Tate-woman that I didn’t know about. But, there’s couldn’t be. It had to be THE Tate-woman, didn’t it?
Jesse talks like Sling Blade, and he works at his upper lip with his bottom cuspids because his central bottom teeth are gone. He smiles and laughs a lot, and when he laughs, it is with a smoky full-lung laugh and his belly giggles like a bowlful of jelly, just like Santa Claus. However, he’s not saying much to laugh about in this conversation.
“Yeah,” he says. “Sharon Tate. She’s the one.”
I still need to double check. “The one from the Manson murders, you mean?”
“Yeah. But my wife’s friends with her before all that. This was back in Texas fore that woman made that big movie, I can’t remember the name of it. They were roommates in Texas. Yeah, my wife used to talk about her all the time.”
“Sharon Tate?” As you can tell, I’m having a hard time grasping what is happening in the moment.
“Yeah. It’s awful, all that stuff that happened.”
And then Jesse starts filling me in on Charles Manson, and then he talks about how he can’t understand how people let themselves get talked into killing other people or themselves, and so then we talk about Jim Jones and he finishes up by telling me how Islam started. His daughter is serving a tour in Afghanistan for the National Guard. “She drives them trucks,” he says, “which I hate on account of the roadside bombs.” Jesse told me he’d read the Qur’an, and in his very matter-of-fact estimation, Mohammad was sick and insane. Somehow, the conversation makes it around to the mention of Jesse’s boyhood pet, an Everglades mink, a creature now so rare that some people fear it may be extinct. “He’s crawl up in my shirt and never once did he try to bite me. But I guess he grew up enough to want to mate and one mornin I went to his cage and he’d done chewed straight through it about like that” and he makes an air circle with his finger. “We never saw him again.”
And so it is. That’s all for this installment of the Everglades Wildlife Report, beloveds. More news next week.
nighty night. sleep in peace.