I think I inherited from my father a love for the unusual. I guess that’s why, when I was about 12, I decided I needed a pet alligator.
Back then, it was a rare treat to get to go to Fort Smith, and a trip always included a visit to our favorite Fort Smith store, K-Mart. K-Mart was a fascinating place, and after spending time looking at the toys, I always gravitated over to the pet department. The exotic fish and the little hamsters all were nice, but what got my attention was the baby alligators. Yes, K-Mart sold baby alligators as pets. Technically, they were caimans, a close relative of the alligator, but nevertheless, they were awesome. I knew I had to have one.
Incredibly, I somehow convinced Mama and Daddy of the soundness of this idea. So, one Saturday morning, we found ourselves in K-Mart buying an alligator. We had gone up to visit my brother and his wife, and they had driven us over to make the purchase. I very excitedly picked out which alligator I wanted (yes, they had several to choose from), and I also purchased a small rectangular glass fishbowl (not quite an aquarium) to keep it in. They placed my alligator in a little box that had a picture of a hamster on the outside, and we headed back to my brother’s house. Along the way, I could hear my alligator scratching on the box, wanting out. I grew concerned after a bit, because the scratching eventually stopped. I didn’t dare open the box to check on the contents; I wasn’t sure how to put an alligator back in a box. But, by the time we arrived at my brother’s house, I was gravely concerned about my alligator.
In my brother’s kitchen, I prepared for the transfer to the fishbowl. Still no signs of life from the hamster box. Gingerly, I opened one end of the box and tilted it toward the fishbowl. The whole family watched in silent anticipation. Nothing was happening; perhaps the lifeless alligator corpse had become lodged in the hamster box. But suddenly, and without warning, my little alligator sprang from the hamster box into the fishbowl, his fierce mouth agape, emitting a fierce hiss that signaled, “I mean business.”
My sister-in-law, a mild, quiet woman, let out a blood-curdling shriek. My alligator, evaluating the situation, began jumping against the sides of the fish bowl. Fortunately, he was only about 8 inches from head to tail, so he wasn’t quite big enough to make a break for it. So, once a sense of calm was restored, we put a piece of cardboard on top of the fishbowl and headed home.
At home, I quickly realized a couple of important facts. One, my alligator needed a bigger habitat than his little fishbowl. And two, I really knew nothing about taking care of an alligator. I solved problem one by dragging out an old vinyl swimming pool that we had used a few years earlier, the kind with sides made of sheet metal about 3 feet high, and covered with a vinyl lining. I placed an old tire rim under the plastic lining to serve as an island, and filled the pool up with water. As for the care and feeding of an alligator, I attempted to solve this by going up to Buddy Gray’s store and buying two dozen minnows. I dumped them into the water, figuring my little alligator could then have a snack anytime he wanted it.
Unfortunately, my little alligator didn’t appear to know how to catch fish. However, if I caught a minnow by hand and laid it down on his island beside him, he would oblige me by biting the minnow in half when it started flopping. However, he seemed content to just kill the minnow and showed no interest in actually eating it. He would take a bite of raw hamburger meat, which I eventually became brave enough to allow him to snap out of my hand, much to the awe and amazement of anyone who happened to be watching.
But, as summer passed and fall arrived, tragedy struck. One morning, as I was on my way to school, I stopped by to check on my alligator and found his lifeless body curled up in a fold in the vinyl. I don’t know if the temperature had dropped too low during the night, or perhaps he just couldn’t find enough to eat. Whatever the reason, my little alligator was dead.
When I got home from school, I prepared his body for burial. I placed him in a cigar box and buried him in a hole I had dug in the garden. Sadness, mixed with a bit of relief. You know, it’s a little more difficult to bond with an alligator than, say, a kitten or a dog. In fact, in absence of that bond, I did get a little curious over the winter about what an alligator skeleton looked like. So, I am quite ashamed to report, the next spring I dug up my little alligator. There, inside the cigar box, was a perfectly preserved alligator skeleton. I kept it as intact as I could, although over the years it ended up being a collection of bones in a little jar rather than a fully formed scientific specimen. And somewhere, I’m not quite sure where, maybe in a box in a storage cabinet in my garage, there is still a little jar full of alligator bones.