Tuesday, March 07, 2006


In Which We Encounter Native Wildlife...


One week earlier...

It started off well enough. Well, for the kind of vacation I expect to have.

We flew into Fort Myers, near the newly built home of my snowbird in-laws. Some time back they bought a lot in one of these gated communities with the built-in golf course and clubhouse and broad paths so that you can drive your customized golf cart around the property like a Looney Tunes character.

I hope I'm not offending anyone who actually lives in one of these places, but I have to say this sort of compound living is not for me, certainly not the compound my in-laws chose to live in. Oh it was all very well appointed and I'm sure they'll be very comfortable there, but that's because they will be surrounded--literally in their gated enclosure--with people from their same white-bread background, with their same attitudes and, alas, prejudices. I don't mean to suggest it was a mean-spirited little community, but like a lot of places occupied by older white Americans, it was suffused with an imperial and overpowering sense of correctness, something I happen to be sensitive to. Especially when I am traveling with two little kids who are, being little kids, excited to escape the snow and freezing temperatures and ignited by the realization that they have been transported instantly into summer.

As we rolled down the pristine boulevard of the development, Thomas noticed that the streets were lined with lush palm trees and tropical plants such as he only sees on Animal Planet.

"Are there any lizards or snakes in here?" he asked, trying to peer at each tree in turn as we rolled by at a sedate 26 miles per hour.

My father-in-law opined that there were in fact sprinty little lizards everywhere and no small amount of nonpoisonous snakes, especially on this edge of the development, which bordered on Phase 2, a large unbuilt area blocked off by construction fences and dotted by remaining bits of the swampland this area once was. As the golf course was being completed, the goal was to incorporate parts of this swampland into the design, indeed even creating hazards (of the golfing variety, I mean). Thomas wanted to get out immediately.

"Can we walk the rest of the way to your place?" I asked. My father-in-law gave me some simple directions--follow the cart path to the last finished street before the construction zone and turn left. They were the last house on the right. "Just stay on the cart-path, unless you see a cart coming at you. Then get over on the grass or into the bushes as fast as you can. It's supposed to be a pedestrian walk too, but some of these people don't care," he warned us. With that, we jumped out.

We saw our first lizard almost instantly, a darting gray flick about the size of a salamander but 10 times as fast. I confess there must have been hundreds in the trees and bushes that bordered the cart path, but all I saw were flits of movement.

Thomas fared somewhat better. With the reflexes of a 7-year-old, he spotted numerous lizards and one snake. He also saw several lizards frozen in place literally in front of me, totally camouflaged. It was like being in the woods with my Dad, who can't see close enough in front of him to read newspaper, but he can spot a deer in a clearing a mile away. Which is fine, as tracking skills go, but my Dad is forever trying to get you to see what he sees. "Donchoo see it? Straight ahead along the edge of my nose. About a mile beyond that fourth ridge, to the right of the second treeline, just across the Vermont border. You can't see that?"

Apparently this sort of thing skips a generation, because now my son was doing it to me.

"He's right in front of you, Dad. Right in front of you."

"I don't see him."

A freighted sigh. "He's right there. Can I have the camera? I'll get a picture."

And with the silence of tracker Cochise, my son took the $300 digital camera and waded noiselessly into the bushes to within very close range of the tree he'd been gesticulating to. He started snapping away. Finally, he sighed. "Well, he's gone. I don't know. I might have got him."

Oh, he got him all right.

"There's no peeing in the bushes!"

Thomas jumped and so did I. Right behind me was a golf cart, decked out in ridiculous blue shiny fiberglas. It looked like a really awkwardly constructed bumper car from an amusement park.

Seated at the controls and staring imperiously at us was one of the largest women I've ever seen outside of captivity. She was wearing the uniform of the imperious retiree: white Polo shirt with golf pants and spiked shoes, her eyes concealed by both a voluminous pair of sunglasses and a twerpy little visor that advertised the name of the development. She also had the attitude of someone who'd either had children and forgotten what it was like was to be a parent; had no love of children; or in fact loved children quite a bit, but only as a meal, since she seemed to have consumed quite a lot of them. To complete her appearance, she was also sporting the leathery look of someone who has spent way too much time in the sun and is now trying to make up for it. I swear the skin around her mouth crackled as she berated us.

"You should know better. There are rest rooms up at the clubhouse!"

Thomas grasped what she was saying before I could form a response. "I am NOT peeing!" he said, his little-man voice as deep with indignation as he could make it. "I am on safari for lizards and reptiles and just took some pictures."

The woman snorted bull-like at Thomas, then looked at me. "Children aren't allowed off the cart-path."

"Really?" I said. "I was told we were to clear the path to give carts right of way." I couldn't help it. I looked her up and down. "And you appear to require as much right of way as possible."

The woman seemed about to say something, then snorted, activated the nitrous oxide tank in her cart and roared off down the path at about 70 miles per hour.

Instead of following the cart path and risking another encounter, we skirted the construction zone that led behind the street where my in-laws lived. Here we could see where large earth-moving vehicles had been slowly carving the area into future golf course. Nearby, we also spied to picturesque reedy ponds, remnants of the old swamp here, now converted into water hazards. Here along the banks we could see countless lizard foot prints and tail-marks. Thomas followed them, snapping pictures and looking around. The ponds were teeming with fish. Occasionally, we could see them hop and splash and--it being the only wildlife I had thus far been able to discern--I took delight in pointing them out to Thomas, who was no more interested than if I'd been pointing at a fish tank in someone's window.

We rounded a sandy bank along the pond, looking for lizards. Captain Oblivious here was still trying to see all the lizards Thomas was spotting left and right. After a bit, I shifted my focus back to what I could see, the fish. And they were some big fish. Not bass. But they had some size on them. One in particular, I could barely make out, swimming gracefully under the water, was massive, the size of a muskie. I kept waiting for it to leap, to break the surface of the water. But instead, it seemed to be coming towards the shore, directly for Thomas in a very unfishlike way.

At the same moment, Thomas found some really big lizard tracks, including swishy marks made by an obviously heavy tail. "Dad, I think--" he started to say.

And then the water about four feet away started to churn, forming a bubbling liquid arrow coming straight for him.

"RUN!" I shouted. And he did. The picture above was snapped by accident. It looks like we're both retreating. In fact, I was running to grab Thomas, who I picked up under one arm and tore back through the bushes to the paved street, my son screaming the whole way.

"Put me down. DOWN!" he cried. I did and my son actually turned to head back.

"Are you crazy?" I asked.

"I just want to see it," he said.

And believe me, our new friend was quite anxious to see us. He paddled there by the edge of the water hazard (hazard indeed!) while we snapped some long distance pictures.


In truth, the alligator wasn't that big--four feet long from snout to tail. But Thomas is only four-feet tall and perhaps this guy saw my juicy little boy and decided to get a wee bit ambitious. We didn't care to find out.

By the time we got to my in-laws house, we both had the start of raging sunburns on our necks and ears. Thomas would be crying about them later, but at that moment he was ebullient, telling my increasingly pale in-laws about his being attacked by an alligator just a few hundred yards from their new house (we found out later from the groundskeeper that there are several on the property, but they do not summon Animal Control to remove them until they are over five feet in length. Good to know, huh?)

And so we sat in my in-laws new digs while Thomas reviewed his snapshots on the TV and I drank about a gallon of water.

"Are you all right?" Her Lovely Self asked. "Your face is all red."

"Just a little too much sun," I said, then took another sip of water and started coughing on it. My throat felt a little sun-burned too, Guess that's what you get for hauling your 50-pound son through the brush in an attempt to escape a ravening midget alligator.

But Her Lovely Self had a point. I'm not good in the heat and I felt just a wee over-exerted, so I had a little snooze in the dim shade of the back porch and listened while Thomas called MY parents to detail his latest adventure (great...just great).

"This is the best vacation ever!" Thomas enthused later in bed, as I sprayed Solarcaine on him. "And we haven't even been here a whole day!"

"Glad you're enjoying it," I said, spraying some stuff on myself too. While I did this, Thomas opened his little travel notebook and turned to the list: WILDLIFE I SEEN ON VACATION. Beneath it in his carefully awkward handwriting, he wrote:

TINY LIZAARDS --about 42

SNAKE -- garder snake, nonvenomus

ALLIGATOR! -- killer reptile, ESCAPED


With that, he rolled over and went to sleep. Instead of staying up and playing Scrabble or watching the Olympics with my in-laws, I excused myself and went to bed. It was about 8:30. From beyond the door, I could hear my in-laws wondering if I was all right, while Her Lovely Self assured them I was just overheated. She was right, but for the wrong reasons...

Wow, it's wildlife! Better go check out Thomas's blog too now. Glad to have you back, MM, though Im sorry about your illness. I'll bet you're considered even more of a superdad now, though - you battled the alligator! Take care.

We have alligators here in Augusta, and supposedly they troll around in the Augusta Canal, but I've never seen one. I was standing about two feet away from a water moccasin once without realizing it, though.

(My reaction when I saw him was to say "Whoa!" and immediately turn my camera on. He lazily slid off the banks and into the canal while I tried to get his picture. I told my friend about this later and she freaked out. My husband, on the other hand, just shrugged and said, "He wasn't interested in anything but sunning himself.")

I'm glad you grabbed Thomas and ran!
With all due camaraderie, if it wasn't for the pictures, this is a story that, if Magazine Man and I were at a bar, drinking, and he told me this tale, I would call Bullshit! Fantastic story, and superb save. I'm not sure I would have had the fortitude to protect my babies from an alligator. Well played, good sir, well played.
Good God, now we're in for a week or two of cliffhanging. And me without my crampons.

Glad you're back and (I hope) feeling better.
Well, MM...no matter what, you can tell everyone you had an EVENTFUL vacation in Florida. I went there last February myself. It was fun, but I hated seeing how much development was happening. Oh well.
I stayed in one of those developments with my best friend when we were 16 (with her grandparents). Believe me, the sight of two 16-year-olds laying out by the pool probably caused a few premature (but probably inevitable) heart attacks!

What an exciting story!! I can't wait to hear more adventures...but I'm not too excited about hearing how you got so deathly ill. :(
I hope you weren't sick for the entire vacation, since it started as soon as you got there. My son always wanted to take one of those lizards home in his suitcase when we visited Captain Dave.
Hearing about Thomas running around chasing lizards reminds me of my childhood. I was born in Ft Myers and lived there until I was 8. I have some fond memories of the place. I never had any close calls with the alligators though. We saw them here and there though. So did you catch Malaria?
I'm glad Thomas is okay - his pictures are very good.

*sigh* Rampant development makes me hurt inside. At least you got to see some of the swamp before they destroyed it.
God, I hate freaking alligators. There's maybe no animal that scares me more. (I make it a rule not to mess with any animal equipped with a Death Roll)

All of that is very ironic when you consider that I graduated from the University of Florida and am in fact a Florida Gator.
I'm trying to figure out what was wrong and I'm coming up empty...I'm figuring it has to be something pretty random...am rather intrigued.
Sigh...it seems like you and the art lad need to visit my mountains where I routinely see black bears, rattlesnakes and other assorted vermin. He'd love it up here...but I'm thinking that you and her lovely self would rather stay back and sip on some fine moonshine...
What a way to start a vacation!

My heart just *stops* when I think about it (the alligator & Thomas).
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