Never Met a Stranger: Staring down the 'gator



By T.W. Burger

Time, we tend to forget, is not a thing of calendars and watches. It is a thing in and of itself, shapeless, a basket of forces in which are carried the events of our lives. Its relation to the motion of gears and pendulums or the pulsing of diodes is remote and purely accidental.

I went fishing once and caught Time.

It was on an oxbow lake, a narrow, fishhook of water off the main channel of the Mississippi, a river full of Time. I had seen in its gravel beds the fossilized molars of mastodons and beautifully worked chert axe heads. I had seen Time's tracks and leavings, why not the thing itself?

My friend Carl and I were fishing for buffalo, a type of large carp, among the pilings of a ruined pier next to some scrapyards. We sat in inner-tubes, wearing straw hats and long-sleeved shirts as protection against the August sun.

The water there was still, and surprisingly clear. On the bank were discarded Diesel engines and scrap. In the water all around us were tugs and barges in various stages of assembly and disrepair. In the water, too, in the shadow of the barges and tugs, were the lean and predatory shapes of garfish, just under the surface.

We kept our legs crossed and our feet out of the water; flashing white toes in dark water is a good way to change shoe-size.

Buffalo are bottom feeders. We cast weighted jigs out near the pilings and let them sink. If there was no strike in a few minutes, we would reel in a few feet and wait. It was slow, easy fishing, well-suited for a hot day among wreckage.

We, in the way of young men just out of boyhood, were speculating on the successors to mankind, wondering which species would gain primacy after our final war. Carl, a wiry, bearded madman wheeling in his tube, argued for the snakes, for their ruthlessness.

I, on the bank untangling a reel, was just arguing the virtues of the indomitable cockroach when Carl cried out: "I got one!"

As I ran into the shallows to watch, my friend's rod bent almost double, jerking and waving like a diviner's forked stick.

"Oh, God," Carl whispered, excited, "Oh GodohGodohGod."

Carl was only 20 or 30 feet from shore. Fascinated, I waded out in the soft mud until the water reached halfway up my belly, trying to see past the sun's glare on the water. I remembered my polarized clip-on sunglasses, which were in my shirt pocket.

I fumbled with them, finally getting the shades over my glasses. The glare disappeared and the lake was again transparent.

Carl's monofilament line ran at an angle into the water and became invisible. Following its direction I stared down, down.

A shape was rising, rising; slowly, tauntingly from the green shallows, flowing in and out of perception. It was a long shape, too wide to be any fish, pulling and turning at the end of the line, some incredible, inverted kite.

I thought, crazily, "It's a man, a drowned man."

Then: -"No, it's moving. What...?"

The shape, the shadow, the dream turned to parallel the bank, drifting closer to the surface. And I saw. I saw the dark, amorphous blot of shade lighten and grow long and tapering. The green, featureless form became black and gray, ridged and knobbed.

"Oh God, Carl," I breathed, "it's a 'gator."

And so, it was; five feet or more of appetite, dressed like a suitcase. From snout to tail the skin was slate-colored, ridged and broken like weathered rock. In the exact center of that gnarled hide, like some silly party favor, was snagged Carl's gaudy fishing lure, its line pointing accusingly at Carl's rod.

All was picture-still for a few seconds. Time, as we are fond of saying, stood still. It was a time, a second, a century, I spent staring rigidly into that implacable yellow eye.

In my head I heard a former teacher saying that alligators and a few other reptiles had changed almost not at all since the Jurassic and Triassic Ages, when their ilk ruled the swampy world. I heard it as plainly as if that teacher had been five feet away, instead of the 'gator.

I became aware of Carl, very still in his inner tube. I also realized that I was hoping the beast would head for him first. Carl said later that he had been entertaining similar thoughts about the gator’s travel toward me.

The yellow eye of the dinosaur did not move. I distinctly recall hearing the sound made as small waves broke and sloshed over the reptile's rough hide. I was trying to memorize everything, as though my final impressions might be important, somehow, in any afterlife I might encounter.

Some decision was reached in the small, cold brain. The yellow eye blinked once and we were dismissed. The 'gator turned smoothly and swam between the piers, the fishing line whirring and singing behind him until it snagged and broke with a soft "zip."

The spell broke as well: we burst out of the water and up the bank, not bothering with running but swimming over engines, oil drums, and wood.

We turned at the top of the bank and saw no sign of anything unusual-only the broken barges, the submarine shadows of gar, and two innertubes, floating quietly on the green water.

But the river had changed, or at least my perceptions of it had. The local Chamber of Commerce had flooded the area with brochures showing happy people swimming, skiing and boating on that same body of water, touting it as a playground.

Well, maybe; but not for me, thank you. I had been warned; the civilization of mankind was but a veneer, a thin smear of arrogance over the teeming hungers of the world. My sense of Time, too, was changed. Caught and held by that eye, I saw in it the passage of Man flicker and waver over the timeless land, and I saw, coldly, a kind of patience.

T.W. Burger was raised in Athens. He graduated from Athens High School in 1967. He worked as a driver of everything from fork trucks to garbage trucks and concrete mixers, has been an apprentice mortician and ambulance attendant.

He has been a newspaper reporter since 1985, working for various publications. Semi-retired, he is still working as a freelance writer and lives on the banks of Marsh Creek just outside of Gettysburg.

He is the author of "The Year of the Moon Goose" is currently writing “Never Met a Stranger.”

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