My life began at a Gulf Oil Service Station at Immokalee, Florida, back in the days when the attendants came out with a whisk broom and swept the beach sand out of your car while they pumped your gas for you.
An aging alligator couple took pity on me and raised me as one of their own. They taught me to swim and they taught me to lurk in the water with only my eyes showing so that I could grab hapless ducks in my teeth and bring them home for Duck a la Orange.
When I got to high school, playground bullies made fun of my swamp dialect and taunted me with phrases like “see you later alligator” and “after while crocodile.” That’s what they said after they stole my lunch money.
Papa Gator said, “Son, you’re never going to bring home the bacon with your teeth like your brothers and sisters. You’re going to have to use your wits.” That advice has served me well.
I convinced the playground bullies of several truths: (1) When I grew up, I was going to be a famous writer and would put all of them in my books for better or worse, (2) Looking good in a novel was a good way to pick up chicks, something they needed to think about since their teeth weren’t large enough to grab anyone at the prom, (3) Papa Gator knew where they lived.
No doubt, truth number one (1) got their attention; that, along with my weekly column in the school newspaper called “Alligator Alley Gossip.” Everybody read it, but nobody wanted to be in it: Is that hickey on a certain red-haired girl’s neck a true love bite or did somebody forget their lunch again? Once again, a lover’s lane romeo with the initials W. S. forgot the distinction between “Jail Bait” and “Gator Bait.” Note to S. T.: old lady Anderson doesn’t keep the test answers in her drawers any more.
The world has moved on from the Immokalee I once knew. The Gulf Oil Station was torn down years ago. Seaboard closed down the rail line. Most of the gators, including many who still remember my name, have retreated deeper into the swamps. And now, the people coming to town aren’t there for the fishing, but for the Zig Zag Girlz Blackjack at the Seminole Casino.
The basic truth comes down to this. If you can’t earn a living with your teeth, you need to go out and find an occupation that fits your station in life, one that honors how you were brought up. Even those who don’t know my first adult meal was a pine warbler on toast or that I still make slaw with swamp cabbage, walk carefully around any writer who just might put them in his books.
Papa Gator would be proud.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the comedy/thriller novel “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire,” a novel where poor Jimmy Pew met up with Papa Gator and became a believer.