Yesterday, I had a logical but rather bizarre experience on my tour, and I want to talk about it. Here’s what happened: a 9-foot female alligator bit John on the tongue of his snake boot and dragged him shin deep into the gator pit in front of me and about 20 other people.
John is the alligator wrangler I never did manage to fall in love with, even though I tried, and that ended up being alright.
I do love him, though, the same way I love you guys, and I count him among my friends and people who are special to me. So, it was a bit of a new experience watching that girl nab him on the boot and pull, knocking him off his feet and into the water, him working to loosen his foot from the snake boot, escalating the “shit…shit…SHIT….SHIT!” as he inched further and further in. Being on land with a handful of gators is one thing. Being in the water is something else. She didn’t mean it against him, which I’ll explain in a second, but intention doesn’t mean much when you’ve gone down in a pond of 93 alligators.
It was the end of his show, and some of you who follow this blog came out with me to the Everglades, so you know what I’m talking about: John has a 5 gallon cammo bucket full of raw chicken quarters, and he’s gotten rather locally famous for being able to get the beasts to eat from his hands. It’s spectacular, but his showmanship and professional calm have never made me feel like he’s in any wanton danger. Plus, I know him, and trust me, I’ve spent more time listening to this man talk about himself and animal handling than I thought was possible in two months’ time. I’ve seen him work, and I’ve talked to his friends. He’s the best, they say, all of them. The reason why is because John is a gator person; these are his animals and he has that undeniable connection–the way some people are dog people, some people are cat people, some people love panda bears–and there are ways that he moves through the world, reactions he chooses to take toward certain situations that make me wonder if the man isn’t part alligator himself. I know working with animals is dangerous the way I know working construction is dangerous, and John is very good at his job, at keeping himself focused, and he is many things, but he is not reckless. At least not with alligators.
Technically, the show was over, but some of the tourists had questions, one of which was about whether or not gators can be trained.
To demonstrate that some of the gators react to their names and to his voice, he stood in front of the 9-foot female and called her name. He stomped his foot. All of this is routine; I’ve seen it dozens of times. The difference this time was that she didn’t get a chicken quarter after her name and the boot stomp, and so she reached out and bit, getting, instead of chicken, a mouthful of RedHead snake boot. My guess is that she was hoping the raw chicken had fallen somewhere on the ground (I suspect this was her thinking because I’ve witnessed it–gators searching for food with their mouths long after the “feeding” is over; maybe like how we keep opening the refrigerator door in the hope that something we want to eat will have magically appeared), and bit. The bite wasn’t hard, it looked exactly like the searching, gator-style nibble that I just described. The problem is that once the jaws shut, they tend to stay that way. And when I say the bite wasn’t hard, I mean by gator standards. If she’d wanted him, she would have really bitten down and taken all the leg below the knee. That’s what I mean when I tell you it wasn’t against him…John never had time to explain his demonstration, fighting as he was to focus on getting himself out of one hell of a predicament, but gators *can* be trained. You’d better believe they’re smart enough to learn and then some–they’ve had 230 million years to fine-tune their cerebral cortex and survive every major cataclysm of nature–and she’d learned. Name. Boot stomp. Chicken.
Instinctually, most gators, if they are on land, will retreat to the water once something is in their mouths, especially a smaller gator like her. Gators are some of the most powerful animals on the planet, over 50% muscle, so, as John says, once one is backing up with your boot in its mouth, it’s like being tied to a Mack truck that’s in reverse and trying to stop it yourself. Quadruple shit is right.
So that’s the situation. Here’s what was going on with me:
I didn’t panic, and that’s typical. I will melt down about having to set up online bill pay, but I do well in high crisis. If you get stabbed, I’m a great person to have around, but please don’t ask me to take the bus or eat in a cafeteria with you. Zombie apocalypse? No problem. Cataloging my receipts for taxes? Hives.
My intuition was that John would work himself out of this incredibly time-sensitive knot–he had about 4 seconds to either free his foot from the boot or get her to open her mouth–and then I had no freaking idea what I was going to do. Or even what to do, but it would have to be something. Any theater person knows that you act like everything is normal, especially when it’s not, and I didn’t want to alarm the tourists prematurely and cause a panic because that was the worst possible choice, especially around animals. The second worst possible choice was rushing in there trying to be a hero or a reactionary because I could potentially make it more dangerous for John and me. Tell me what to do, I asked.
I felt for my phone to dial 911; I’d left it in the van for the first time since I met John. Okay, plan B. If this gets worse, instruct a customer to run to the gift shop and call 911. I would either jump into the gator pit with the other control stick and start whopping faces or I was going to watch John get torn to pieces. I had about 2 seconds before I was going to have to decide, and I prayed that in those two seconds this snafu would right itself. One second.
“GET YOUR FOOT OUT OF THERE!” I yelled, meaning the boot, with the same tone of voice I’d used to correct dancers and actors in rehearsal because I needed him on land, and I needed the tourists to not know how close we were to witnessing the most horrific event of my life and probably theirs. John and I had talked before about when, at another park, he’d been dragged into the water when a gator got a hold on his heel; he tied his boot laces back then and because of that, got taken under. Ever since, he kept the laces loose so he could slip his foot out of his boots; I wondered if he’d forgotten he could slip his foot out. It didn’t matter, me yelling, because John couldn’t hear anything in those moments, nothing at all. That’s what he told me later.
Then, pop! His snake-proof material snapped loose from her teeth; she’d released him, and he scrambled up the knoll, boot askew but otherwise unscathed. She backed into the pond and buried herself in the water, as if it was all a misunderstanding, which it was, I suppose, yet a knife’s edge reminder to my beloved John–and me–to keep humility in check, because damn you can’t get cocky with predators.
While it was happening, the event felt like it lasted for five or so minutes. It took a long time, those six seconds, watching John slide into the water, judging damage, calculating distances and the real likelihood that I wouldn’t be able to help him at all, even if I did jump in with the control stick. It took a long time, like watching the grains of sand slip individually through the hourglass, seconds stretched out past their definition and turned into minutes, hours, and having all that leisurely time for the brain to assess the situation, reassess, confabulate, revise, project, create plans and alternatives, and it was as if I could count the blades of grass between him and me; I could see his shoelaces tugging, his foot struggling in the boot, her round hammer of a tooth just as white as a wedding dove against the worn camouflage of the boot tongue. The pitch in his voice made the air around me rise, my muscles tense, and I had enough time to ask myself if it would be faster to scale the chain link or to push through the small tunnel of tourists and then watch myself perform both tasks in my mind and choose the latter, assuming, of course, that the tourists wouldn’t balk at having to step into a gator pen and waste precious time. For a very long time, I stared at my left hand, its fingers gripped, claw-like, around one shiny, diamond-shaped, metal-grey link.
“You don’t ever see old guys doing this, do you?” my customer Jeff from Minnesota asked when it was over, when John had righted himself in his boot and taken the opportunity to explain to the tourists that he had gotten too close, that he never laced his boots in case something like that happened; he told them about the time the alligator drowned him, and he had to be revived by EMT (“see,” he was saying to them, “that was okay, you know, what just happened because it’s been worse”), and he’d smoothed out the tension and directed us toward the baby alligator, which we were now going to hold.
I shook my head at Jeff from Minnesota. “Nope,” I said, and smiled. Just another day in the Everglades.
It was then I felt a burn in my left hand, and I realized that I was still gripping that metal diamond. For a second longer, I was unable to let go because it was holding me up, and I couldn’t stop myself from squeezing it. I stood there smiling at Jeff, unable to look at John, squeezing the fence involuntarily. As if I meant to take the life out of it.
night night beloveds.