In Volume 1 of The Molehill I had a story called “The Flintknapper.” The events of that story were inspired by the following true story about a cousin of mine who was once mistaken for an alligator poacher.
One Mother’s Day my cousin Todd went out to see our grandmother, who at the time lived halfway to Hawkinsville. The visit was uneventful enough, but on the drive home Todd saw something he had never seen in his life: a roadkill alligator. He stopped the car and got out to get a good look at the poor alligator. It was a big one–eight or nine feet long with a great scuted tail and the same dreamy smile in death that it had worn in life. Todd marveled at the thing for a while, then got back in his car. His friend Brad was expecting him.
When Todd got to Brad’s apartment, the television was on, tuned to a National Geographic nature documentary called “Realm of the Alligator.” Brad, fascinated by the program, didn’t even take his eyes off the screen as he greeted Todd and motioned for him to join him on the couch. A scientist was swimming in a lagoon full of alligators and snapping their pictures. “Look at him,” Brad said, gesturing toward the screen. “They could eat him right now. Can you imagine?”
“That reminds me,” Todd said. “I saw a dead gator on the side of the road today.”
Brad snapped around and stared wide-eyed at Todd. “A real alligator?” he breathed. “Dead?”
“It was there today?”
“It was there half an hour ago. On 247, almost to my Granny’s house.”
Brad was already getting up from the couch. “We’ve got to go get it!” he said. “We’ve got to go get it this minute!” Brad was a young man of great enthusiasms, almost to a fault. He was determined to wring every bit of life out of each day. That particular hour he was more interested in alligators than anything else in the world; he wasn’t going to let an unclaimed alligator molder by the side of the road.
It took some doing to get the alligator in the back of Brad’s truck; an adult alligator weighs several hundred pounds. But they managed. Todd’s dad’s house wasn’t far from where they picked up the alligator, so they went there to skin it out. Todd got the alligator hide, since he was the one who found it. Brad got the head; he hadn’t decided exactly what he was going to do with it, but at the very least he planned to scare girls with it. They cut up the tail meat and put it in Todd’s dad’s refrigerator to marinate, planning to reconvene in a couple of days for a gator fry.
Todd didn’t know much about tanning an alligator hide, but he figured drying it out was surely one of the first steps. So he flopped it over the privacy fence behind his apartment.
When Todd left for work the next morning–he was assistant manager at a shoe store–the flies were already buzzing around the gator hide in the growing warmth.Hmm….he thought to himself as he got into his car. I probably need another plan for curing that hide.
Shortly after lunch a man in khaki came into the shoe store. “I’m looking for a Todd M______,” he said.
“That’s me,” Todd said. “I’m Todd M_____.”
“Mr. M_______,” the man said, “I’m Officer Osborne from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Could you step outside with me?”
Somebody from the apartment complex, perhaps offended by the smell and the fly-buzz around Todd’s gator hide, had ratted him out.
“Mr. M_____,” said the game warden, “did you know it is a violation of Georgia law to possess an alligator carcass?”
“I didn’t know that,” Todd said.
“Well it is,” said Officer Osborne. “It’s a serious violation. I confiscated an alligator hide from from a fence in the Sandpiper Apartment complex. I have been given to believe that it was your alligator hide. Was it your alligator hide, Mr. M_____?”
“Well, yes, it is. But…”
“I’m going to need to confiscate the remainder of the carcass,” Officer Osborne said. “And I’m also going to confiscate the vehicle you were in when you harvested the alligator, as well as the gun you shot it with.”
“The gun I shot it with?” Todd fairly shouted. “I didn’t shoot any alligator! I found it. Dead. It was roadkill.
A sneer curled the game warden’s lip. “Roadkill,” he said. “You’re not the first to tell me that one.”
“It’s the truth,” Todd said. “I don’t know what else to tell you.”
“Can anybody corroborate your story?”
“Sure. Brad W______ was with me. He helped me get it in the truck. Or I helped him.”
“This Brad W_______,” the warden said, “you tell me where I can find him. If he tells the same story you tell, you might be off the hook.”
It was a long and worrisome hour that Todd waited for Officer Osborne to talk to Brad. He hoped Brad would just tell the truth and tell it straight. But Brad, in his youthful exuberance, had had occasion to speak with officers of the law before this; in previous interviews he had been known to fall short of the standard of “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” He could be a little cagey.
In the end, Brad’s story and Todd’s story and Todd’s father’s story all checked out, and all was well. But Officer Osborne insisted on confiscating as much of the carcass as he could. He already had the hide from his initial visit to Todd’s apartment. He drove to Brad’s place and pulled the alligator head out of the freezer, never to frighten a girl or anybody else. He even drove out to Todd’s dad’s house and got the tail meat out of the bowl in which it was marinating.
The gator fry was cancelled.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.