“Let’s go see the alligator!” my grandfather called to me, and I came running. He was already choosing a hat from the hundred crammed on a rack by the sliding glass door. He slid the door open and in a second he’d be gone and I’d better hurry up and put some shoes on and get there fast. When I caught up with him, breathless from churning my stubby legs, he was halfway down the long slope of the yard, headed for the water. The yard was a peninsula, surrounded by the brackish, green-brown water of Clearview Lake. The lake is a man-made inland body of water, far larger than a pond but navigable across its full length in about 20 minutes at the speed of a trolling motor. Ringed by live oaks, pine and brush, the lake was and is today a haven for a multitude of creatures that fly, slither, crawl and swim. King of them all was The Alligator, a big old male who lived down at the end of the lake out of sight of the house, near the dam.
We were headed for a small flat-bottomed wooden boat pulled up onto the mossy bank of the lake. In its glory days the boat was painted dark green, but the paint had chipped and flaked from the hull, exposing wood weathering and in spots as mossy as the bank. A little wider than a canoe, it had two benches, one with a live well, and a squared-off stern to accommodate a small trolling motor. I scrambled across the bow onto the second bench and held still while my grandfather slid the boat into the flat green water and stepped over the side. As we began to float sideways, parallel to the bank, I moved forward, grabbed the long oar from the bottom of the boat and pushed us off. He moved to the stern, cranked the little motor and pointed the bow up the lake towards the dam. He’d brought his rod with the spinning reel and some heels of bread, so I figured he’d let me drive for a bit while he tried for a bass and we’d feed the mallards. But first we’d see The Alligator.
Around a bend in the lake, past a small cove and next to the dam is where we’d look. As we rounded the bend, he cut the motor. I handed him the oar and peered at the bank as he paddled. “We’ve got to be quiet now, let’s see if we can see the old alligator,” he instructed. I gripped the gunwale of the boat and leaned slightly towards the bank, my heart beating a little faster with excitement. Four times out of five, we’d see nothing, but that fifth time . . . “there he is!! you see him?” I whispered as loudly as I could. My grandfather always let me spot him first. The gator looked like a huge gray log lying up on the bank, sunning himself as we glided past. I’d ask to get closer, and we’d turn and paddle by again. The massive presence on the bank fascinated me, and I’d lean close as I dared without tipping the boat. “Not too close now, we don’t want to bother him – you know, he’s more scared of you than you are of him.” I wasn’t scared of him at all. I knew my grandfather respected The Alligator. If the old beast seemed to regard us, it’d be a “we’d better turn around now.” The motor would crank back up, and we’d be gone.
It would be dusk by the time we had finished harassing the wildlife and slid the boat back up on the bank. I’d run to the house, slide the back door open and shout for my grandmother. “We saw The Alligator! We saw The Alligator!” She always acted surprised. “You did?!” When my grandfather followed me through the back door, he’d get a look and her voice would rise sharply in interrogation: “did you let that child get close to that alligator?” “Aww, heavens no, Margaret,” he’d say, and give me a conspiratorial look.
Years later, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources decided The Alligator had outgrown his home at Clearview Lake. Rumor was that the Tucker’s dog went missing and half a dog was found. The DNR enlisted my grandfather to help find the gator and haul him out to the swamp. The mission was accomplished with a tranquilizer gun, yards of rope and duct tape. In the photograph taken before he was loaded onto a truck and carted away, The Alligator is stretched out full length on the bank in the back yard, longer than the wooden boat. His mouth is duct taped closed, and ropes tied behind his front legs extending from his grey body immobilize his massive tail. My grandfather stands balanced on The Alligator’s back.
The Bone Man
Some thirty years after The Alligator, I met the Bone Man. The Bone Man is a classically trained artist, a painter, photographer, and writer. His clapboard house stands under the crooked branches of live oaks on a plantation on the Ashepoo river. He is artist-in-residence there, taking care of the place and tending to the horses. His art in traditional forms includes meticulously drawn portraits, haunting photographic portraits and landscapes, and paintings of striking realism suspended in surrealist dreamscapes. The Bone Man lives inside his art. The house is an installation, every surface covered in artwork, photographs, collected pieces. A New Orleans funeral parasol hangs from the ceiling; walls are all paintings, bones and feathers. Each object is immaculate and carefully placed, each angle and sight line its own new and startling composition. Everything he sees is a picture.
The snakeskin of the five-foot rattler on the wall is easy to spot, but less so are the delicate bones. The Bone Man’s less traditional medium is the skeleton. Part engineer, part sculptor, he is expert in cleaning, preserving, and articulating animal bones. It is a dirty, smelly, time-consuming and tedious process. And why? These aren’t dinosaur bones or hunter’s trophies. Still, on a table near his door he has the bones of a rattlesnake killed on the property The triangular white head floats above an arc of winglike ribs diminishing down a seemingly infinite chain of vertebrae that spirals into a coil and emerges, a tail crowned with dry rattles. The perfect architecture of a magnificent animal remains in a few ounces of bleached bone.
Three alligator skulls rest on a table by the window. The Bone Man picks up the largest and places it in my hands. The head itself is easily two feet long and a foot wide, intact with long jaws, heavy eye sockets and ridged poll. The bone looks porous, like it should be light, but it’s heavier than a bowling ball and awkward. For a second I struggle with it, afraid I’ll drop it. “Turn it over,” he says, “this way,” and tilts the base of the skull upwards. In the center of the back of the skull is a small cavity. “Put your thumb in there.” He brushes a finger over the cavity. “Go on, try it.” I shudder to do it. My thumb just fits, barely past the first knuckle. “That’s his brain cavity,” the Bone Man says. “This guy was twelve feet long and weighed more than a thousand pounds and his brain was smaller than your thumb.”
The Bone Man has articulated many alligators, including one for a local nature center. He also accompanies the hunters who take them. The skull in my hands, its companions, and the buckets of bony scutes on the back porch came from alligators killed on the plantation. Landowners are permitted to control alligator populations on their property and each year are issued a certain number of “tags,” or permits to kill. The Bone Man has been on many alligator hunts, but the one that produced the skull I’m holding he remembers. “That guy was was bigger than the boat. They shot it and it refused to die. They had ropes around it and it was trying to roll. I stay out of the way, but they called me over to help them get it up out of the water – they had four guys and it wasn’t going anywhere. I know more about alligator anatomy than anybody, and I was telling them where to shoot it to kill it quickly, right at a place where the skull joins the spine. They shot it with a rifle right there and it still didn’t die. After a couple of hours we finally got it tied. It was still alive when we loaded it up on the truck. It was still alive when we cleaned it. We didn’t kill that alligator – we tortured it to death. I wasn’t going to let him die for nothing.” He articulated the beautiful bones.
(Tomorrow: Margaret concludes “The Alligator.” Don’t miss it!)