In 1948 my family loaded up our old Chevrolet and headed south to Florida. My mother had grown weary of West Virginia’s gray and dreary winters. So, without hesitation, we followed my aunt and uncle to Tampa, where my father landed a job with the Tampa Times newspaper.
Restless again a few years later, we moved a few miles north to Port Richey on the Gulf Coast. Progress had just begun its march up U.S. Highway 19 from neighboring Pinellas County. Brightly colored billboards shouted- “New Jim Walter Homes From $8,900!” and “Own A Choice Florida Home Site, Only $149 Down!”
Semi-rural Port Richey featured just enough modern amenities; a movie theatre, a five & dime and an ice-cream shop- an altogether awesome place to be a kid. And for boys with time on their hands, the piney woods east of town promised excellent adventures.
Early one summer morning, the Semago brothers, Bim and Mike, came tapping on my window. They were going fishing at a newly discovered lake. Did I want to come along? They did not have to ask twice. I dressed quickly, grabbed a banana and took out after them.
We rode our bikes for a couple of miles, then hid them behind a stack of bulldozed trees. From there we hiked another quarter mile on “POSTED: KEEP OUT” land. The sinkhole lake lay wedged between an abandoned orange grove and shirt-shredding saw palmetto thickets. I had no desire to fish but the opportunity to explore suited me fine. So, while the brothers cast their lines on one side, I set out for parts unknown.
Following the lake’s edge, I came to an area overgrown with bushes, vines and scrub oaks. The mass of vegetation merged with all kinds of weird looking water plants. The bushes were so thick in places they hid the water from view- wild Florida at its most pristine. I stopped for a moment, taking in the tropical beauty. Then turning to leave, I caught a rippling movement in the reeds at water’s edge.
“Must be a turtle or fish.”
I edged closer for a better look. Suddenly, something huge splashed toward the undergrowth. But not before I caught a glimpse of a great gnarly monster. It was Alligator mississippiensis, a real live Florida gator and the biggest one I’d ever seen. Truthfully, it was the only one I’d ever seen.
I raced back to share the exciting news with Bim and Mike. We quickly hatched a plan to flush the giant reptile from its hidey-hole. Maybe even capture it. As one might expect when young boys get together, our naiveté far exceeded common sense.
Mike and I headed back to the other side, making a wide detour so as not to spook the beast. Sneaking in from behind, we tip-toed as close to the water as we dared. Then on signal, we started yelling and throwing stuff into the bushes.
In a flash, the prehistoric saurian burst from its lair and made a swimming dash across the lake. And there waited intrepid Bim and his trusty Shakespeare rod and reel. Mike and I continued whooping and throwing stuff as we circled back around the lake.
We got there just as Bim cast his line in the general direction of the spooked gator. One, two times he cast and came up empty. But on the third toss, Bim hooked the gator in a soft body part. There followed much thrashing, tugging and yelling. I’m not exactly sure how but we managed to haul the infuriated creature onto dry land.
Crazy Mike quickly pounced on the gator and wrapped his t-shirt around its lethal snout. Only then were we able to relax and take stock of our captured quarry. Right away we realized that my guesstimate of the critter’s length completely lacked merit. Not ten feet long or eight feet or even six, the gator looked closer to three feet. We had captured an irate baby alligator.
And now that we had captured little Bone Crusher, what in the world were we supposed to do with it? We all agreed that it wouldn’t be right to simply let it go. Mike, still holding the beast down and under the influence of some kind of juvenile machismo, shouted, “Let’s take it home!”
Bim and I agreed because to do otherwise would have exposed us as big weenies. We then secured the angry gator with another shirt and stuffed it into Bim’s bicycle basket. With Mike riding side-saddle to control the thrashing tail, Bim set out on a tense and wobbly ride back to my house. I had raced ahead to prepare a holding area for our reptilian guest, a water filled galvanized tub. The brothers wrestled the gator to the ground and dumped it into the tub. Once unconstrained and back in its watery domain, the gator relaxed and sank to the bottom with its serrated tail hanging over the side. The creature continued to fix us with an unblinking glare of primeval nastiness.
My mother, hearing the commotion, came outside to investigate. One look at the submerged reptile and Mom lost it.
“Get rid of that thing this minute! Get rid of it! Get rid of it!”
We tried our best to convince her of the coolness of having an alligator for a pet. And in so doing we momentarily took our eyes off our “docile” prize. It was an altogether unwise mistake. Seizing the opportunity, Mr. Nasty, lunged from his watery impoundment and chomped down on Bim’s soggy pants leg. And, just like in those Tarzan movies, the crazed thing began turning and turning in the gator death roll.
Mom screamed bloody murder, while Bim, bug-eyed in terror, raced wildly around the yard with an alligator latched onto his pants. The spectacle’s sheer lunacy played out like a Saturday morning cartoon. Mike and I stood transfixed, our mouths hanging open.
It finally fell to us two brave hearts to save the day. After much chasing and hysterical laughter, we were able to corral the creature and secure it in the bicycle basket. Why, I’ll never know, but instead of returning to the lake, we not so bright hunters carried the gator three miles into New Port Richey. There, under the cover of darkness, we released it into Orange Lake.
That bone-headed decision soon upset the Lake’s precarious balance. Muscovy and Mallard ducks, frogs, fish and at least one small dog inexplicably went missing. Of course, me and the Semago brothers never breathed a word. We had made a spit-in-the-hand oath to never ever tell anyone what happened. I don’t know what happened to the Semago brothers or that gator but for sixty-five years I lived up to my part of the oath…..until now.