Through the years, I’ve brought up this little tidbit in numerous interviews, usually in response to something like “Tell us something we don’t know about you?” or “Has anything really crazy ever happened to you?” Some people think I’m kidding about this. I assure you, it’s no joke. Well, it’s a joke in that retrospect it’s funny. So, yeah, it’s kinda a joke. But it’s a joke bathed in truth. A… jokth, if you will. And it also depends a little bit on how you define the term “almost.”
I don’t remember how old I was, but by triangulating other facts I remember about the incident, I can place my age somewhere between 8 and 11. At this time, my grandparents lived in a little town at the top of Lake Okeechobee, Florida. My grandfather liked to fish. My grandmother… She liked it when my grandfather went to fish. Consequently, much reeling of the fishes occurred whenever the family ventured down for a visit. (Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime. Teach a man to fish while drinking beer and sitting in a small boat in alligator-infested waters, and I’m probably related to him.)
I don’t remember whose idea it was to go fishing at night. I don’t remember why that was even considered a good idea. I’m sure a fisherman longer in the tooth than me knows what might motivate a pair of mid-westerners to drag their two unruly, non-sportsman-y children out to a mosquito rave party in the dark, then hand them long sticks bejeweled by sharp pieces of twisted metal, and tell them on a night darker than a recent Batman franchise plot to walk across a rotting, four-foot wide wooden pier that lacked railing and carried them across the monster pit of Jurassic Luddites. Through the years, these facts have escaped me. What I do remember, however, is that at some point, I needed to run back to the car, parked at the portside end of the pier, for something. I didn’t take a flashlight. This will be relevant very shortly.
As I said, it was dark. Liquid coffee on the far side of the moon had nothing on the visibility of that night. So, here I come, wandering through the night and trying to find my family by the sounds of their voices among the chirps of the killer crickets and laughter of the fire ants, when I suddenly find myself going down a bank. Now at the time, my little brain said only, “Huh, that’s funny, I don’t remember having to go down a bank to get to the bridge. Oh, well! Ladidididah!” Sometime between the fourth step down and a microsecond later, my family was filled with the spirit and decided to hold a gospel revival at the end of the pier. Confused, and really liking gospel, I stopped. They weren’t calling Jesus, it turned out (which was a letdown, because “Jesus of Lake Okeechobee” has a certain ring to it). They were calling for me. Without explanation, I was told I would immediately turn around and walk back the direction I came. One of my parents with a flashlight walked back down to the end of the pier to guide me righteously. When again we were assembled as a family with our fishing gear and cooler full of beverages and bait, aka survival gear, my dad turned the flashlight to where I had been just moments before, to show me an alligator’s open mouth, all its pretty, pretty teeth, and a midsection that, at that age, I probably could have laid down to sleep in.
So, there you go. True? Yes. Did I ever catch any fish that night? I don’t recall. In the end, the mosquitoes had a feast, so not everyone went away hungry.