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Charlie and the Alligator

One afternoon in the spring of 1970 a friend and I had an experience on the Hillsboro Canal in south eastern Florida which I have never forgotten. In my family’s Boston Whaler I used to take friends swimming and water skiing on the straight section below the final lock, or water control structure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At that time it was a remote looking stretch of undeveloped land and brackish water with only two breaks in the vegetation along the Deerfield Beach shoreline: a former WWII barracks occupied by African-American families, and a modern house a half mile farther westward with heavily built pens containing large African cats that got riled up when we went by and threw themselves against the wire fencing. The shore area there was rip-rapped to prevent boat landing. Rumor was it was property owned by a wealthy drug dealer.

This was a favorite waterway for kids with access to boats because it was a wild landscape, something out of a Tarzan movie. A description given by early settlers of the original fresh water stream that was the Hillsboro River “the banks of the river were covered with dense vines and saw palmettos. It was shaded by wild fig trees, cabbage palms and stands of pine trees” could well have described our perceptions of the canal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(3)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(2)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The lock station looked abandoned with no one ever seen manning the facility. From a heavy rusted cable high above the water a cable car swung freely. We made it travel from bank to bank with ropes. It served as a diving platform at mid span.

“This particular spillway was one of the first water control devices built in South Florida. Originally called the Deerfield Locks, it was a true lock structure used to get cargo and vegetable barges from Lake Okeechobee to supply the eastern communities or rail shipment to the north. This was in the early 1900s.” (1)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was regular boating and fishing activity on weekends but quiet most other times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On this particular weekday afternoon I took a friend out there, a fellow high school junior from St. Andrews School. We both enjoyed undeveloped places. A swim and a hike around the wild land was what we had in mind. I parked the boat up on the sandy south bank a hundred yards from the lock and we began swimming across to the opposite shore. Not a long hike because we were barefoot and without shirts.

It was late in the afternoon, the low sun casting shadows from the lock’s spillway, darkening the warm and silty water, our swimming pace easy and comfortable. Of a sudden I sensed commotion, of water being slapped, and looked over at Charley. He was in a state of panic.  His lanky limbs were making wild arcs, his eyes wide open and rolling in terror. I called to him asking what the matter was but he kept flailing away with all his might for the shore.

My quick appraisal told me that he was moving, not drowning, and that gave me the go ahead to do likewise. Of the two of us I was the far more experienced swimmer, but he reached the shore at the same time I did. He dragged himself onto the beach and collapsed. I looked him over and could see no signs of injury, spasming, or cramping, just an exhausted and trembling person who moments before had been relaxed and enjoying himself.

“Charley, man, what’s the mater?’

He said nothing because he was gasping for air, face down on the sand, too weak to lift his head.  Eventually a shaking arm pointed to the canal. Looking out at the water I saw nothing unusual, just still water the color of dark tea. I looked at him, looked back at the water, and back at him again. It was beyond me to understand what he meant until I looked once more at the canal. Twenty feet away, the water surface was quietly broken by a jagged line of something rising from beneath and moving slowly parallel to the shore. The full head of a large alligator, then the plates on its back, and then the tail appeared. It swam by for several yards until submerging as noiselessly as it had surfaced.

What occurred during our swim to the opposite shore was that Charley had felt the animals’ back scraping against his stomach and chest.

I was stunned. Would the animal take an interest in us and come ashore? I knew they were capable of moving quickly on land. As soon as he could get his legs under him, Charley and I walked into the brush.

The heat of the afternoon was gone, the sun was setting, and something unexpected materialized: mosquitoes. Big ones that delivered a bite like a hypodermic needle. Voracious and aggressive. Not just one buzzing here and there but a swarm. We couldn’t swat them away fast enough. We tried moving off but the brush needed to be pushed away with hands and arms, which meant being bitten even more. They overwhelmed us. The only chance of getting away was… the water. A hundred feet across the canal beckoned the boat. And lurking in the water was… the alligator.

I can’t recall discussing what we would do. We mutually decided that to chance being eaten in a few minutes was better than to be bitten to death now.

So began an unforgettable plunge into dark water that has haunted my dreams ever since. Should I swim fast or slowly and calmly? If it came for me would it approach from the surface or lunge at me from beneath and chomp on my torso? I used the breaststroke and didn’t allow my legs to dangle. My appendages felt particularly vulnerable.

Five years later when I heard John William’s haunting theme music for the movie ‘Jaws”, the “duunnn dunnn” sound of a heartbeat pounding in terror, that swim on the Hillsboro Canal came back to me in full force. The emotion is still there, moving around in the murky depths.

Post Script.

In the almost half century since this incident, development has washed over that area. There is nothing remote about it now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are still the beautiful bends where the straight section coming from Lake Okeechobee joins the original Hillsboro River.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(3)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I contacted Charley a while back to see if he recalled this moment. “Yes, and I remember a lot of other things, too. Those were crazy times!”

 

1- http://pbchistory.blogspot.com/2017/11/a-history-of-hillsboro-river-and-canal.html

2- http://www.deerfieldbeachhistoricalsociety.com/52-3/

3- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hillsborough_River_(Florida)

 

6 comments to Charlie and the Alligator

  • Penelope E Dackis

    What a suspenseful story…with a (thankfully) happy ending. The frontal lobe of teenagers was not equipped to decide that “to chance being eaten in a few minutes was better than to be bitten to death now.”

  • ted smathers

    Tico–Wow! Great story. The photos show a more idyllic time, gators excepted.
    Here in the mountains of Colorado, we have no alligator problem. This is is good news for us and for the gators. Three weeks or so of below freezing temperatures. And lots of snow.
    Ted Smathers
    Vail, CO

  • Steve

    Yikes.

    Years back I was hiking in bear country and was taking a lunch break that involved an open jar of peanut butter. I’m not the strongest hiker and we were stopped on a steep section to refuel. Next thing I know a giant ball of black fur was bounding up the trail toward us and thankfully it was just a newfie. Scared me good but not like I would have been in your situation.

  • tico

    The scare of seeing it swimming along in front of us was intense. The fear of a second encounter swimming back was the clincher.

  • tico

    You do have Mountain Lions, though. I remind myself every time I hike around Boulder.

  • tico

    And some people’s frontal lobes never develop…

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