It was the last day with my Aunt Tess in Florida.
My aunt and uncle left the house early that morning.
I was glad they did. I had a full day planned.
My first mission was to eliminate the chicken hawk problem. I don’t know why they didn’t put a top on that chicken coop. They would only have had to deal with the raccoons, foxes, panthers, gators and, after dark, an owl.
Then there was the prospect of bagging a gator. After that I would check to see if that fellow was out working his hundreds of acres of soybeans with that big John Deere tractor and catch another ride on it.
I had a bribe. Baloney sandwiches and a thermos of cold coke. Tractors didn’t have enclosed cabins and air conditioning in those days. There was a pine stump about 2 feet high sitting 50 feet or so from the chicken coop. Perfect for me to sit behind and brace my JC Higgins 16-shot 22 rifle, which had served me well as my marsh rabbit gun.
I positioned myself behind that stump and waited. I was already imagining the accolades that would be heaped on me by Aunt Tess when I presented her with the dead hawk. Almost as I sat down, the hawk landed on the top of a fence post. The chickens went crazy. I’ll never know why they did not figure out that they could go into the chicken house to hide. I guess chickens just don’t do a lot of figuring about anything. I took very careful aim at that fella. He just sat there looking down, picking himself out a fat chicken I guess. When I had a perfect sight picture, I started my trigger squeeze. That gun’s trigger action had a long reach and it took forever to feel the pressure where a milli-inch later the gun would fire. I had him dead center and started my trigger pull. The hawk raised his wings as if to fly. I relaxed my hand. No way was I going to be able to nail him in flight. He settled down.
Again I carefully drew a bead and began the slow process of squeezing off a shot.
Wings up! Darn it! Hold the shot and wait. Again he didn’t fly. He just settled back down.
This happened about three or four times. Finally I went for broke. I got my sight picture and started the squeeze. He raised his wings and this time he flew. I followed him down and fired twice. I buried the chicken I shot. Not sure if the hawk didn’t get another one.
No need to mention the incident to Aunt Tess. I was hoping that she didn’t count chickens too often.
It was still early morning. I was now thinking about how nice it would be if I brought in a gator. Gator tail to eat, skin for a nice belt or two. Might offset the little incident with the dead chicken. I started down the back of the property towards the swamp. It was all downhill for about a hundred yards to a railroad track built on top of an embankment.
That track ran south to Tampa.
I can’t remember just how it worked, but there was a train called the Silver Meteor. Beautiful silver cars. It ran from Neeu Yawk City to Miami, straight down the old Atlantic Coastline railroad track.
Somewhere between Savannah and Florida there was a switching done and part of the train went to Tampa, right down those tracks I was standing on.
I crossed the track and headed downhill into the swamp and to my gator.
Now any 13-year-old street kid from Southside Savannah knew perfectly well that you had to get a gator to open his mouth so you could shoot him. Obviously there was no way you could get a kill shot through that big boney head.
The fact of the matter is, there is a hole thru the skull right behind the eyes on top of the gator’s head.
That is your target. Another absolute fact in the world of 13-year-olds was that a gator will run you down and eat you, especially if it is a female guarding her nest.
Gators are generally more passive than aggressive, which is probably one reason they have been around for centuries. Their only real enemy over thousands of years, and one that almost exterminated them was, yes, man.
They can outrun the average human at around 30 mph but that is for a short burst. They might be encouraged to chase you for about five seconds and then quit and go back to sunning themselves.
The first patch of water and swamp grass I came too had a gator, sunning itself, lying on top of a pile of dead stuff. Alligators have no way to control their body temperature.
They are reptiles. They love the sun. They spend their summers hunting at night and snoozing in the sun all day.
Now this was not a prize-sized gator. It was about 2 feet long, meaning he was about 1-year-old.
Year-old gators are usually still at home with Mama Gator.
I worked my way down to him till I was less than 10 feet away. I crouched down and started looking for things to throw at him to get him to open his mouth and hiss at me.
He just lay there. I got closer till I was in about 6 inches of water. I was splashing water on him and throwing things, all to no avail. I suddenly realized that the gator and I were not alone! I saw movement to my right rear. There she was! Mama had come to the rescue.
I can tell you my heart stopped. When I think back, I think the distance from the tip of her nose to her eyes, which was all I could see, was around 8 or 10 inches – making her 8 to 10 feet long.
That is pretty much max for a female gator. The males can go 12 to 15 feet.
Largest one ever caught measured 14 feet nine inches.
I had a red windbreaker.
It can be cold in the swamp. I had taken it off and had it lying on the ground by me.
I knew for a fact that I had seconds before that gator came out of the water after me. I grabbed that jacket and took off up the hill, elbows pumping, gun in one hand, jacket in the other.
I never looked back. I just knew that gator was right behind me and that she could run faster than me. I was praying to Baby Jesus all the way up that hill.
I heard the train coming. I had to get across the tracks or the gator would have me pinned. I didn’t make it. The engine came roaring by me as I ran the last few feet to the tracks.
I looked back. No gator!
In retrospect, I doubt that gator ever left the water. If gators can grin, I bet she was doing just that watching me and my flailing red jacket fly up that hill.
Well, no sooner did the engine pass me than the engineer hit the brakes – hard. That started a chain reaction. Each car banged into the one in front of it as the braking spread down the line.
Those couplers between the railroad cars are basically the same type of coupler created by a black inventor named Andrew Jackson Beard in 1892 and sold to the railroad for $50,000, today's equivalent of $1.5 million.
There is about 6 inches of play between the couplers. The noise was incredible and frightening with massive slamming noises as each car caught up with the one in front. Boom, boom, boom. Maybe 20 or 30 times as the train slowed.
My heart sank. No gator for the table. Dead chicken( s) and no hawk, and now I expected a railroad man to turn me over to Aunt Tess or take me to jail. Either way would have been just as bad.
While I was sitting there contemplating the end to my short miserable life as a hunter/explorer, the train slowly began to move again. That same banging sound, one after another as each car grabbed the one behind it and pulled it forward. It was music to my ears.
No one got off the train to grab me and it was rapidly gaining speed. I felt a great weight lifted off my shoulders. I guess Baby Jesus heard my prayers, saved me from the gator and threw in forgiveness from the train crew.
It came to me what made the engineer hit the brakes. It was that red wind breaker waving in the air.
Red flags will get someone’s attention every time.
So that was the day I saved 10,000 gators, descendants of the baby gator I didn’t shoot, and most exciting of all, stopped the mighty Silver Meteor in the middle of a Florida swamp.
Roy Hubbard is a retired Green Beret and environmentalist who lives in South Bryan. You can email him your thoughts at Roy39hubbard@ gmail.com.