The Bayou

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Some of the first words I heard in Louisiana were “All right, let’s play catch the gator.”

Williams-Mystic’s third and final field seminar took us to the Gulf Coast of Louisiana to experience the third major body of water that borders our fair continent. The Arctic Ocean is, sadly, not a part of our curriculum (not that I wouldn’t have pushed for an Arctic Field Seminar).

As with both of our most recent field seminars, we traveled by plane and by van convoy, often standing by; or, our esteemed director Jim Carlton likes to say (when time is short) “Standing by aggressively.” Jim is also wont to use the phrase “quick like a bunny,” to describe such things as our 20 minute dash through the airport, or the footwork needed to prevent descent into the bayou mud.

Zam’s Swamp Tours, where we encountered the aforementioned gator, was, in fact our third stop on our first day in Louisiana. So I heard plenty of words (an hour’s worth of lectures on the banks of Mississippi, in fact), but it took until ZZ, our host at Zam’s swamp tours, announced the afternoon’s entertainment for the cultural impact of southeastern Louisiana to become a reality.

Zam’s sits halfway on stilts out over the bayou’s main channel, only a few feet from the lift bridges that characterize the side roads off of Louisiana’s Route One. Inside, a concrete-floored restaurant and dance hall competed for space with the gift shop and the reptile room. Zam’s is nationally, if not internationally famous. Beyonce Knowles recently visited, and, according to our hosts, by the time this piece is published, Ford will have used Zam’s gators for a commercial. Across the way from the main building, the white brick ranch house is surrounded by chicken-wire enclosures and decrepit sheds. Alongside one of them was an awning, under which sat piles of alligator skulls in various stages of decay.

“Don’t go back there,” said ZZ, “Uncle Bob tied up his dog back there, he’ll tear you limb from limb.”
Uncle Bob’s dog, we never saw. A few minutes later, however, we were holding foot-long baby alligators.
“The ‘Stay more than 15-feet away from the alligators’ part of the itinerary was a joke, then?” asked one of my classmates.
“I guess so,” I said.
“Does anyone have a rubber band? Or a hair tie? The gators ain’t that strong opening their mouths, so that should keep him quiet.”

The little gators didn’t have their mouths tied (“If they bite you, don’t pull back,” we were advised “It’s the ripping, not the piercing that’ll get you.”), but someone passed him a hair tie, and ZZ jumped into a concrete pond with a four-and-a-half-foot gator. He tapped the gator on top of its nose. It hissed, and snapped its jaws shut. Before it could open them again, ZZ had slid the hair tie back towards the gator’s eyes, and it was pinned.

Which made it only a little less terrifying when he tossed the reptile into the grass in front of us.

“All right, let’s play catch the gator,” he said. We widened the circle that we had made when he had pulled the gator out. It didn’t move until I crouched down. I circled behind it, and it circled to watch me. Then, something made the gator look away. I grabbed for it. Had the hair tie suffered a structural failure at that moment, part of me would probably be inside a Louisiana alligator—its head came around, and its closed lips brushed my hand, but I picked it up and held it.

“All right,” said ZZ, “Now we’re gonna play without the hair tie.” He slipped the hair tie off, and looked at our faces.

“I’m just kidding,” he said, laughing, “I’m putting him back.”