Ervin, a new graduate of Texas A&M, thought that if he was to give himself a proper start in life, he needed a pair of alligator cowboy boots.
This was more than 30 years ago, when Texas A&M was not the sophisticated university that now presents itself. Today you can hardly find the words “agricultural and mechanical” on the Aggie website, but back then it was a cow college, and Aggies were the butts of many rude jokes.
Even that long ago, a good pair of handmade alligator boots sold for $700, which was beyond the means of a country boy like Ervin.
So Ervin got in his old Ford pickup and drove straight through to Florida. He found a swamp, and after an hour or so, he located an alligator.
Ervin jumped into the swamp and wrestled the alligator onto solid ground. It was a terrible struggle, but Ervin was young and strong.
He turned the beast over and exclaimed, “Dang, I got me a barefooted alligator!”
Ervin should have come shopping for alligator boots in Arizona.
Arizona alligators wear cowboy boots, and carry canteens. There are not many of these exotic creatures. They have adapted to living on dry land, and their feet are too tender for rocky desert soil.
The Arizona Gilagator (HEE-la-gator) is named for the Gila (HEE-la) River, which runs across the state’s midsection. (I include these pronunciations because The Journal is now circulated in Canada, Belchistan and Finland, where people may not know how to pronounce Gila.)
The Gilagator is not native. It was introduced this way: Over the years, people in the Phoenix area mail-ordered baby alligators advertised in the back pages of pulp magazines and comic books.
The babies were cute, but soon they grew big enough to bite. They outgrew the bathroom sink, and then the bathtub. People discarded them into irrigation ditches and canals, thinking they were being humane.
Indeed, the alligators were happy for a time. But once a year, people who run the irrigation districts let the canals and ditches run dry so they can clean them.
When the canals dried up, the ‘gators went into the desert. Some gravitated toward the Gila River, for which they were named. But they soon found that the Gila, like the Hassayampa, is dry for much of its length.
As the ‘gators adapted to dry land, they had a new mobility. They traveled the state, but never in large numbers. To solve the problem of tender feet, the ‘gators began stealing boots from cowboys, usually those who were impaired by alcohol.
They’d hang out behind Whiskey Row in Prescott, or the cowboy bar at Goat Gap. As a cowboy walked along in the dark, trying to find his pickup, they’d trip him and steal his boots. It took two drunk cowboys to provide a Gilagator with a full set of boots. The ‘gator might end up wearing ostrich boots on its front feet, and fancy-stitched boots of wine-colored calfskin on the rear.
In the early days, cowboys would sober up, saddle up and go hunting Gilagators. They’d rope the critters and take back their boots. It was good sport, but the cowboys soon figured out it was more expedient to buy new boots.
Lately, animal rights activists from PETA–People For The Ethical Treatment of Alligators– have been supplying the critters with boots. The boots are made of artificial leathers, of course.
Arizona doesn’t advertise the Gilagators, for fear of scaring winter visitors. Some consumer advocates think visitors should be warned. Several snowbirds are missing, which has contributed to deterioring relations with Canada. But no one can prove that Gilagators ate the missing persons.
The Gilagator is so rare that it’s now a protected species. Dr. Emilio Rait, chief fornicologist for the Arizona Department Of Bizarre Livestock, says the adapted ‘gators do not seem to mate in the desert.
However, they live for a very long time. And now and then, some fool turns another young alligator loose in the canals.
What brought the Gilagator to mind was an e-mail from my cousin Walt in Roseville, California. He’d read a piece in a 1959 Sunset magazine about how to keep a Gilagator from biting off your leg as you traverse the Quartzsite Swamp.
Walt, we’ve heard of only one sighting in recent years. A friend reported seeing a Gilagator crossing U.S. 60 near Vicksburg, carrying a dirt bike in its mouth. That Gilagator carried bottled water, just like the rest of us.
Promoters in Arizona’s small towns seize any chance to have a celebration. Years ago, Gila Bend put on Gilagator Daze–a celebration that lasted only half a day.
To lure the ‘gators into Gila Bend, boosters bought used cowboy boots from thrift stores, and parked the boots around the outer edges of town.
All was well until one big Gilagator got into the swimming pool at a motel, scattering the tourists. The ‘gator soon left the pool because the chlorine in the pool water hurt his eyes, and the screams of the tourists drove him nuts.
One child disappeared, to the horror of all in attendance. But the kid was found hiding in the top of a palm tree. Needless to say, Gilagator Daze did not become an annual event.
My brother Big Jake says Gilagators ruined his life. Jake had saved up his money and bought a wonderful pair of boots, handmade from the plaid skins of Venezuelan anacondas.
When his spouse Ginger learned that Jake had paid $1,300 for the boots, Jake came down with a bad case of Mad Wife Disease. Banished from his own home, Big Jake went on a walkabout. One night, as he came out of a bar in Maricopa, two big Gilagators jumped him.
As his name implies, Jake is a large man, and he put up a good fight. He thought he had won. But when he staggered back into the bar, he was wearing a pair of cheap yellow boots of unborn mylar, decorated with big red butterflies on the tops–women’s boots, probably made in Malaysia.
If Ginger was angry when Jake bought the anaconda boots, she was implacable when he lost them to a sober Gilagator. She left him.
Somewhere out there, a big Gilagator is still wearing Jake’s $1,300 boots. They’ll last for years and years.