Let's get one thing straight. Reptiles freak me out.
The sight of an alligator or crocodile ready to snap its jaws gives me the shivers. Quite frankly, I wouldn't be able to tell the difference if either of them encountered me in a swamp.
It's not the same with a dog or cat. I'm more for God's more docile types, though if I saw a pit bull ready to plunge, I'd pray for salvation.
And so it was during a recent trip to Florida. Life's always a bonus when you have relatives living in the Sunshine State across from the ocean. Far cheaper, too.
Not that I got to swim in the warm Atlantic. The sharks and other ocean beasts were competing for notoriety, and the best place to avoid them is from the shore. Not the same with gators.
My brother-in-law has a nice place on Ocean Drive which he enjoys sharing with special kinfolk. So each year, we make our trek south to enjoy his hospitality. This time, he gutted out a warning as we arrived.
"There's a reptile loose in this complex," he warned. "We caught a passing glimpse of him as we entered, and left the door open. He should be gone. But then again ..."
I buckled at the knees. My wife was ready to collapse. Should we move our bags to a nearby hotel or gut it out? At the prices they get for a hotel room, perhaps we should just stay calm and take our chances.
"They won't hurt you unless they're agitated," my brother-in-law deduced. "Same with a bear or any other vicious animal."
What's this guy telling me? That a Great White will smile at you within an arm's length? I've seen the movies like "Lake Placid," which remind us to know alligators are meant to be taken seriously. If you're into Disney, just look what happened to Captain Hook.
A fellow I know majored in herpetology. He wanted to devote his life to the care and well-being of amphibians and reptiles. For the longest time, he ran a reptile farm in Florida and made a decent living with school tours and public visits. The guy even sheltered a gator in his dorm and it became a mascot.
On one of my morning walks in Florida, I toured a lake when a sign caught my attention: "Caution. Beware of alligators."
Geez Louise. With all those ducks floating around, an alligator could have himself a perpetual feast. If only mallards, herons and egrets could read.
According to native Floridians, it would not be uncommon for someone to throw some alligator eggs into a body of water and have them hatch their way into the indigenous population.
One night, I was relaxing with a book and heard what sounded like an eruption coming from the kitchen. I ducked for cover, only to realize it was the ice-maker gurgling a deposit.
Many noises had me suspicious, fearing an attack. I checked out the most errant places, just to be on the safe side. All clear under the bed. No sign of the gator in the bathroom. On my hands and knees, I waved a flashlight under sofa. Nothing more than a futile exercise.
My one and only encounter with an alligator came in the late 1960s when I started working at the Haverhill Gazette. Always one to be on the lookout for a good story, I stumbled across this shoe company in town.
Its name? "Operation Alligator." Yup, they made alligator shoes at a time when they were in vogue. At the foot of the stairs, just as you entered the building, was its mascot. A life-sized stuffed alligator with its jaw open. How such a monstrosity could sell shoes was beyond me.
I had an idea. Why not take it for a ride? I asked permission, borrowed the office secretary, and off we went to a prominent lake in my city. It was as good an April Fool's joke as I could concoct. With the fake gator held in my hands, I waded to a shallow rock and deposited the creature there
"Ham it up," I told the secretary. "Make like he's attacking you."
There was the reptile balancing on a rock with the woman's arms spread and the look of horror on her face. My camera fired away.
The next day's headline read, "Gators invade Lake Saltonstall" with the photo exciting fear throughout the community. (The formal name of Plug Pond is Lake Saltonstall.)
The following day, I printed a follow-up, saying it was a hoax and for people not to get alarmed.
As my stay in Florida wound down to a jittery end, I opened the door to leave one morning and out scooted the imposed reptile — a salamander — all four inches of him!
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Photographer and writer Tom Vartabedian is retired from the Gazette. He contributes this regular column.