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.
Then, after giving me a few practice reps with small and baby alligators (one of which landed a decent bite on my forearm) he explained what I’d actually be doing for the rest of the day: wading through waist-deep, opaque water, looking for injured alligators, and then wrestling them to shore for medical care.
Que that crippling fear I was talking about.
Soon, it was time for me to climb into a large pond full of dark water that Drew assured me contained no less that twenty or so alligators. From my vantage point on the shore, I couldn’t see a single one, and part of me wondered if this was a test. I glanced back at my wife (and her good friend who had met us from her duty station in Colorado) shrugged my shoulders, and slid into the chest deep water. Drew had explained to me that it was important that I not raise my feet off the ground as I walked, as that could make an alligator think my foot was a fish and decide to make off with it. As I took my second step, I felt something big brush against my leg as it swam past and I immediately knew that this was no test.
You find an alligator with those same feet that you’re supposed to be careful not to lose, and soon, I came across one. My bare big toe bumped into something that felt like a huge leather purse. Drew had made it clear that I needed to avoid making any sudden movements, so I calmly gathered the last bits of fleeting courage I had left, and asked for the rope in a voice that, I’m delighted to say, sounded much more confident than I actually was.
Drew threw me the rope, and ever so slowly, I lowered my body into the water to try to determine which direction this dinosaur’s head was pointed in. I slowly pressed my palm, ever so lightly, onto its back, and realized to my absolute terror, that the head was in the other direction… behind me by a number of feet. Again, as slowly as possible and without lifting my feet, I re-oriented my body, and brought the rope down once more.
Alligators have extremely thick skin, and Drew tells me they aren’t very concerned with other things in the swamp running across them under the water. When you’re the baddest guy in town, you don’t sweat the small stuff. So I slid the rope beneath the alligators neck, stepped away slowly with the rope loose in my hand, and created a few feet of separation between my meat-sack body and the alligator’s mouth full of saw blades. Once I thought I was far enough away, I gripped the rope firmly with both hands, took a deep breath, and yanked.
Then all hell broke loose.
Alligators, it turns out, don’t take kindly to being put on a leash, and this alligator in particular, who had recently been in a bit of a tussle with a few friends, was pretty displeased with the manner in which I was attempted to triage its injuries. As I used every bit of my two hundred and thirty pounds to drag him toward the shore, I saw only a continuous explosion of water and teeth coming my way – which completely distracted me from the fact that there were still lots of other alligators in this same body of water. Drew yelled my name before slapping a huge stick on the water just to my right, where another alligator had surfaced and likely wasn’t trying to make friends. The alligator snapped on the stick and swam off, and I continued to drag my bounty to the beach.
Once on dry land, I still didn’t have much of an advantage over eight feet of scaly muscle and teeth, so Drew got the angry gator’s attention by circling around in front of him and waving his chewed up hat. I took advantage of the distraction and jumped on the alligator’s back, planting my feet beneath me in a squatting position. I then stuck my fingers into its mouth, as far back toward the jaw as I could, and pulled backward with my arms and torso, bending the alligator away from where its impressive musculature had the leverage to be dangerous. And for a split second, the alligator seemed to accept that I was its new master.
I looked up at Drew with a wide smile on my face, Drew looked back with a bit of concern, and the alligator (seemingly waiting for this moment of comedic timing) bucked me off of its back in one fell swoop and threw me on the beach to its left. Before I could scramble back to my feet, it swung its big toothy head toward me, intent on taking my face as a trophy, only to be stopped a few inches from paydirt by Drew – who had gotten ahold of the rope that was still tied tight around the alligator’s neck. I rolled away, and as it went after Drew for costing him a meal, I jumped back onto the alligator and, eventually, was able to subdue it enough to allow the group of us to apply antibiotic ointment to its various cuts and gouges.
Drew and I, as well as a group of some of the bravest local college kids you could ever come across, yanked out a number of other alligators that afternoon, including one that took three of us to overpower and chased Drew and I over a fence. It was exciting, terrifying, and everything I had hoped to find when my wife and I took that last-minute flight. We all went out for beers after, and I’m honored to say I still keep in touch with those guys to this day.
Twelve hours after I got out of the water, I was back at home, thinking about getting a tattoo of the bite I’d received on my right arm from one of the little gators, and congratulating myself on what I considered a victory over my decades long fear of water-based death, when it occurred to me: that fear was never going away. I still won’t jump into an alligator-free pool, let alone go swimming as a recreational activity. So just what the hell had I really accomplished?
It took a while to bounce back from the sad realization that nothing it seemed, not even facing off against an aquatic dinosaur, would purge me of my fear of H20, but eventually, I decided that it isn’t about fear. Fear isn’t an action, it’s not a decision, and it doesn’t define anyone. Fear is the check engine light I ignore on the race track: sure, it could mean something really bad’s about to happen, but it can also mean you didn’t close the gas cap all the way. It’s there so we can make informed decisions about our actions; it’s there so we can choose to act in spite of it if need be, so we can be ready if the worst does occur.
Fear is nothing more than awareness, and it’s how we use that awareness that determines our effectiveness in a dangerous situation.
Now, thanks to my time at Colorado Gators, I know that, although my fear-check-engine light may pop on every time my feet hit the water, when the going gets tough, I can count on myself to stay level-headed, do what I have to do, and get myself out of there alive.
And that’s a hell of a lot more valuable than simply being free of the fear.
I’d like to thank Drew Nelson, Zack Belknap, Paul Severance, Storm Coniglio and everyone else I met on my trip to Colorado for helping me face my fears, and for having some celebratory beers with me once we’d all made it safely back out of the water. Nobody gets anywhere alone, and I hope you each hang onto all your fingers and toes.
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