Some of us are astute observers of our surroundings. However, occasionally ignorance takes hold and blinds us from obvious danger. If it wasn’t for God’s infinite mercy, many would experience tragedy beyond that which they could bare. I thank God everyday for having pity on me and protecting my then five-year-old son from one of those possible calamities.
My story begins – several decades ago on a warm summer’s day in Miami, Florida. I had my children for the weekend and was planning on taking them fishing. The Miccosukee Indian Village, bordering the Florida Everglades National Park, made for a nice getaway. My best friend at the time was joining us.
We packed up his all-terrain vehicle and headed out. He had all the equipment we would require. Fishing rods, tackle boxes, fold-out chairs, a portable cook-top and everything in between. Now, as a precursor, you might want to note that the entrance to the Indian village hosted a statue of a man fending off an alligator.
We stopped off at a bait and tackle shop early that morning and picked up a few supplies. Among other things, I purchased twenty small tropical gold fish – to use as bait and we left. My kids were quietly sitting in the back, so to enhance their experience, we generated sing-along songs during the trip. Within a few hours, we drove onto the Indian village and picked out a nice secluded spot and set up camp. Ten minutes after our initial arrival, we had four folding chairs, a little bait station and a small table to gut and clean our catch set up. Our poles were checked, baited, cast and set alongside the water’s edge. Then we waited.
An hour goes by and not even a nibble. My kids were running around playing when suddenly, a pole jerked and the fishing line spool exploded with activity. Everyone gathered around to witness the event. The drag on the line was enormous. This fish had to be huge. And our fishing line was only tested for fifteen pounds. This is going to be a fight, I thought. And it most certainly was.
Literally an hour later, we finally saw our catch. It was a small two foot alligator. And as we estimated, it probably weighed fifteen to twenty pounds. We wanted to set it free but first we had to reel it in. Another thirty minutes goes by and we had it. My friend covered its head with a rag and I held it down. To my astonishment, the reptile was actually quite powerful. Stronger than anyone would suspect given its size.
We tied down its back legs and then the front ones. We got its jaws open – I don’t remember how, but we wedged it open with a thick branch my five-year-old son found nearby. Then we taped its snout closed and I went to work with my trusty needle nose pliers to get the hook out. That wasn’t easy. But ten minutes later, the job was done. We untied the reptile, leaving its jaw for last. We moved it to the water’s edge then set it free. It jumped in the water and was gone in less than a second. It was unbelievable. I should have seen that is an omen, something – but my ignorance knew no bounds.
By the way, had that event transpired today, we would have pulled out our phones and taken at least fifty pictures. In addition, we would have probably had a start to finish production quality video – of the episode. But twenty years ago, that technology and mindset was in its infancy. I’m sorry to say, the only pictures available today are archived in our thoughts.
Afterwards, we baited, cast and reset the pole next to the others. An hour goes by and to my astonishment, I look down and out of nowhere there’s a five foot alligator staring up at us. It had silently crawled out of the water and was several feet away. I kicked at it multiple times trying to shoo it away without success. It literally stood there like a statue motionless for over an hour.
My then five-year-old son was standing about a foot from it repeatedly trying to hit it on the head with a stick. I wasn’t scared or alarmed at the danger this reptile posed because of a medical condition I possess called Ataraxia. In short, this mental affliction is characterized as an ongoing freedom from distress and worry. Nevertheless, God protected my boy, which I so loved more than life itself – from certain tragedy. Because even though I seldom worry about anything, that would have been an exception. And trust me, absence of fear is not all it’s cracked up to be.
After maybe twenty minutes, I finally got up and moved my son away. My daughter never came within twenty feet of that reptile. Of all of us there, my eleven year old was the smart one. We had lunch and continued our fishing excursion shortly after the alligator left. An hour later we received a visit from a US Fish and Wildlife agent warning us of alligators in the area.
I told him that we had already had several encounters with the pesky reptiles. Then the agents shocking reveal. He told us that the year before a seven-foot alligator grabbed and took a five-year-old boy not far from our position. I was mortified. He went on to warn us not to get within thirty feet of one. “An adult alligator can cover that distance in just a few seconds,” he said, “So you need to be careful.”
In truth our saving grace was that my five-year-old son at the time weighed maybe seventy-five pounds and the five foot alligator was a pre-adult – looking for an easy meal. Perhaps from a fisherman – cleaning its catch.
Shortly after the reptile warning, I decided to pack up and leave. We had tested fate enough for one day. We reeled in our lines and again, God was watching over us. The wildlife agent noticed the bait and his expression completely changed. Apparently, it’s a federal crime to use tropical fish as bait. He asked how many fish we had purchased and we told him. Then he said, if any of those fish have been released – into the protected environment, it was punishable by one year in prison and a five thousand dollar fine – per fish.
Needless to say, my heart sank. But not as far as when he started counting the goldfish. When we stopped off at the bait and tackle shop, we specifically told the owner we were going fishing and needed bait. Now it’s true, I picked out the fish I brought. But even today, I still find it odd that he never mentioned we couldn’t use the goldfish as bait.
Regardless, we had used five fish. I reeled in the lines and there was still a fish on each of the four hooks. Unfortunately, I was certain there was a goldfish in the stomach of that small alligator we caught and released. But when I looked down, there, near our bait station – was the last goldfish.