When I was eight years old, my older brother drowned while swimming at our local YMCA.  The lifeguard on duty didn’t know CPR, and he was clinically dead for minutes before paramedics were able to get his heart beating again.  He was airlifted to Boston Children’s Hospital and spent the following weeks in a coma, then the following years working to regain his confidence and to overcome the mental fallout of a brush with the other side.  Although he’d never brag about it, he went on to kickbox, play college football, and become a prominent player in open wheel racing, both from the driver’s seat and from his office.  He even came to love the water once again – buying a boat that the two of us (along with a close friend) managed to crash off the coast of New Jersey a few years back.

It took me a bit longer to warm back up to the idea of getting into the water… and by that, I mean that it still hasn’t happened yet.  If ever you spot me in a body of water that’s too deep to stand up in, I’ll likely be wearing my trademark jet-ski life vest and have a blood alcohol level that should kill a mortal man.

Of course, my fear of the water didn’t coincide particularly well with my chosen line of work.  Marine is literally a homograph, with definitions ranging from my former profession to an adjective describing all things aquatic.  I was asked at boot camp, and repeatedly since, “why on earth would you choose the Marine Corps if you’re so afraid of water?”  The answer was simple: because I hate my fear, and I want to dominate it.

During my time in the Corps, I managed to become a strong enough swimmer to beat our most basic swimming requirements, but my fear of the water so bothered me that I chose to pursue higher levels of swim-qualification.  I wanted to beat my fear into submission, but no matter how much time I spent in the pool, the fear was still there, still gnawing at me, and I knew that any aquatic combat situation would certainly result in my death.  If not by an enemy’s hand, then as a result of my own inability to control myself once I lost control of that fear.

By the time I left the Marine Corps, I was a better rounded man; confident in my ability to defend myself and others, calm in an emergency, but no closer to strangling my fear of the water out of the darker recesses of my mind.  As a result, and no longer worried about getting hurt (I now walk with a limp most days anyway), I got a hold of a small company called Colorado Gators.

Colorado Gators is a reptile park and animal sanctuary located in Mosca, about four hours south of Denver.  Some of the animals kept there are rescues from the Hollywood lifestyle, others were born in their expansive areas of swamp land, and some were saved from people who thought an alligator would be a nice novelty pet, only to realize that they can become awfully tough to handle once they’re the size of your car.  Most of these alligators live within the park’s territory in a fairly normal alligator way, but some prove too large and aggressive, or too small and passive, to live in the general population, and as such, must be separated into smaller pens.

An alligator’s politics aren’t that unlike a person’s.  They split into mating pairs and can stay together for years, but some break up and go through particularly nasty divorce proceedings, like say, biting off their ex-husband’s leg.  When fights like these occur, it’s up to the staff at Colorado Gators to separate the animals, treat their medical needs, and place them in safer pens.  Other small squabbles often result in cuts, scratches, lost eyes or bits of tail – and although these gators don’t necessarily need to be separated from the group for just getting into their own version of a bar-fight, they still need to be located, pulled from the water, and treated to prevent infection.

That’s where I came in.  After exchanging a few e-mails with Jay Young (the owner of Colorado Gators who was actually featured in an episode of Vice about UFOs, of all things) I hopped on a plane with my wife in Boston on a Friday night, flew to Denver, rented a car, and drove the two hundred-plus miles to his reptile park.  Once there, he introduced me to Drew Nelson – a volunteer who not only “wrestled” the alligators as needed, but was good enough at it that he also taught poor fools like me to do the same.  He wore a cowboy hat that had been shredded a bit and appeared to have tooth marks on it, but I chose not to ask.  I also didn’t mention my crippling fear of the water, after all, I didn’t fly there to be a baby about it.