Alligators in Florida are nothing new, and my Grandmother reminded all of us grandchildren of this on a regular basis. Nothing made her more happy than to put a good scare into us, and she could do it with a flair not seen before or since. “If you are not afraid, then you are not alive,” she would say.
We affectionately referred to her as Gonga, though in a million years I could not tell you why. It never occurred to me to ask her that question, as she always had our imaginations running on overdrive whenever we were around. It was during one of those many visits to her in Florida that I had the scare of my lifetime.
Gonga had a wonderful home, full of all kinds of creatures that we never saw back home in North Carolina. Every time we visited Gonga, it was like a safari to us as they had five million types of lizards, including great big iguanas, and of course those elusive alligators. We had never actually seen one of course, but we knew they were there. Gonga said so, and that made it law in our minds.
In back of Gonga’s house was a huge in-ground swimming pool, and though we splashed around in it by day, it was alligator country at night. None of the grandchildren had ever seen these alligators, but they were very real in our minds. Gonga had a special talent for spinning tales that resonated clearly with kids. We all knew that we were facing mortal danger to approach the pool at night, and that usually kept us away. My morbid sense of adventure at a very young age led me to challenge my Gonga on this, and I will never forget the lesson.
Being a nine year old boy, I had a healthy curiosity of all things dangerous, and the “alligator swamp” Gonga had told us of on so many occasions had become a bit of a holy grail to me. I simply had to see the alligators in that pool. For at least six summers, I would come to see Gonga, plan to sneak out there and see them, and chicken out. Nothing was going to stop me on this warm August night in 1977.
Sneaking out would be easy, as my bedroom was in the back of the house. I needed only to slip out of my bed, cross the hall, and go out the back door to the gated pool. When I arrived at the gate to the pool, I stopped to listen. There was ivy growing up the six foot gate, and you could not see anything inside from my five foot perspective. Standing outside the gate, I listened for any sound that might tell me that Gonga was telling the truth about the alligators. There was nothing but silence.
As I turned the knob to the gate, I realized that it was locked. I had never noticed this detail before, and it certainly presented me with a problem. How would I get my tiny five foot frame over this six foot fence? Processing the problem quickly in my mind, I realized that I could get in the same way the alligators supposedly did. In the back of the yard at the far end of the pool was a three foot hole in the base of the fence. Getting down on all fours, and peering through the hole in the fence, I saw the pool and nothing else. Crawling quickly through the opening I shivered as the possibility of an alligator on the other side was dancing in my brain. I was in.
With the night sky glittering with stars, I could see fairly well. I could see the pool shimmering in the night, and the blue color was crystal clear. My eyes scanned the water for any sign of movement. Nothing. I remember thinking to myself that Gonga had lied to us when all of a sudden I saw it. In the deep end of the pool, all the way at the bottom, was a giant dark shadow. Was it a group of leaves? Was it dirt settled in a clump at the bottom of the pool? Searching my memory of earlier in the day, I was certain that the pool was totally clean then. It was an alligator. I was certain of it. I wanted to see him up close and personal and be sure though.
Looking over my left shoulder, I noticed the leaf catcher hanging on the fence. I took it down off the fence and tapped the top of the water. The alligator did not move. I slapped the water hard. Still no movement from the monster on the bottom of the pool. Finally in frustration, and thinking it might be leaves after all, I took the leaf catcher and turned it around. I lowered the pole down into the water from the edge of the deep end of the pool and neared the top of the mass of black sitting on the bottom of the pool.
As the pole got closer, the black suddenly split in two, and began to rise. I quickly removed the pole from the water and moved toward the shallow end of the pool. Almost as though I was out on the Nile River, I watched as two alligators popped their heads to the surface. Staring at me with very intent eyes peeking over the top of the water, the powerful alligators swished their tails and slowly began to move towards my end of the pool.
It took me a moment to process that they were kind of cornering me at the shallow end of the pool. I had no way of climbing the fence, and the hole in the fence was at the other end of the pool. I certainly could make a run for it down the sides of the pool, but I was afraid they would lunge out of the water at me if I did. These alligators were stalking me! One of the alligators got all the way to the end of the shallows and climbed out of the water onto the concrete deck. It was the first time I had seen one out of the water and close like that. It was huge to my nine year old brain, though in truth it was probably fairly young. It seemed content to simply block me from going in that direction and the other one just sat along the side of the pool in the water, blocking my path in that direction to a degree.
At this point, I really did not know what to do. I had heard that alligators would respond to splashes in the water, but I had nothing to throw in the other side of the pool.Finally, I decided to try my shoe, and see what would happen. I took off my shoe and tossed it towards the other side of the pool, as well as towards the deep end. The shoe hit the water and sure enough, the one hanging out in the water went to check it out right away. I took the opportunity to run as fast as I could while the alligator’s back was to me, and sped to the other end of the pool. I immediately climbed under the fence and hurried back to the house. Every step I ran, I felt the alligator snapping at my heels in my mind.
Once inside, I could not resist going and telling my Gonga about it. I knew that I would probably get in trouble, but this was the first time that I could tell her something that would rival her own stories. Also, I wanted to be able to tell the story when the other grandchildren were gathered around. Hesitantly, I peeked my head into the living room and asked for Gonga to come to my room for a moment.
Once inside the room, I told her about the whole thing. Every single detail was just as it happened, and she was totally into the story. When I finished, she informed me that the alligators in the pool was one of her oldest stories and that it was only partially true. Many years back, they had an alligator that would come into the pool and swim, but it had not come back but twice, and both of those times was years ago. She told me that she would not tell the truth to anyone else, and that it would be our secret, much like my own tall tale. Immediately I informed her that my story was true, and that I could prove it. They were in the pool right then and she could go see for herself.
With a laugh and a smile, she went out to the pool and turned on the flood lights. Standing by her side I scanned the pool. Nothing. Laughing and saying that she believed me, she assured me our secret was safe. I swore up and down to no avail that the story was true, but I could tell she thought I had made it up. Feeling a kinship with her, but very disappointed that I could not prove my story, she tucked me into bed and said goodnight. She also informed me that I would one day write stories for a living.
When I woke up the next morning, I rubbed my eyes as I walked into the kitchen. Gonga was humming a song, and welcomed me with her normal cheery smile. She told me that she had a surprise for me in the dining room on the table. Thinking she had some new type of sugar cereal, I went into the dining room and there on the table was my shoe. Looking closer at the shoe, I felt a lump in my throat as I realized that the shoe was actually torn almost in half. Clearly on the side of the tennis shoe, was bite marks from the alligator. Putting her hand on my shoulder, Gonga smiled at me and told me, “If you are not afraid, you are not alive. What a story we have to tell now.”