See You Later Alligator

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Lend Me Your Ear 耳

A blog devoted to words, expressions, and more than occasional ramblings.

– Mark DesRochers

May 17, 2020

“See you later alligator, after ‘while crocodile,

See you later alligator, after ‘while crocodile,

Can’t you see you’re in my way now,

Don’t you know you cramp my style.”

Bill Haley & His Comets

In late January, Kathy and I escaped the Wisconsin winter and headed to South Florida for a few days on a beach in the Keys.  We flew into Fort Lauderdale and eventually found our way to Marathon Key.  But only after first detouring for a visit to Everglades National Park. 

The Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, just past the Park entrance, is a short drive southeast from Florida City where we exited U.S. Highway 1.  After exiting, we passed several billboards which advertised the Everglades Alligator FarmHome of the Famous 14 Ft. Long ‘Grandpa Alligator.’ 

I was pretty sure that I would be stopping to see ‘Grandpa Alligator’ after our visit to the Park, and on our way back to the highway.  At least if I wanted to see any alligators.  I figured I would see some frogs, toads and turtles at the Park.  I knew there would be waterfowl like herons, egrets and storks.  Sure, there would be some raccoons, opossums and white-tailed deer.  Maybe even a gray fox if we got lucky. 

But alligators?  No way.

We parked in the lot near the Anhinga Trail and headed toward the boardwalk path.  Just past the restrooms and souvenir stand, we were greeted by this unsupervised gator sunning itself on the other side of an alarmingly short stone fence.  I was momentarily thrilled, but then skeptical.  “Oh sure, I bet that’s the Park mascot.  The rangers planted him there.  They just want to make sure we all get a glimpse of an alligator and a photo op.”  You know, take some selfies and make some memories.

Shortly after reaching the boardwalk, I realized my mistake.

            Were there alligators?  Were there ever.  Everywhere!

            In fact, I was up to my ass in alligators.

Up to your ass in alligators is a uniquely American expression.  It has found widespread use in the workplace, applicable to those times when the job appears particularly stressful and overwhelming.  But it can also apply to situations where you get so caught up in the minutiae of the task that you lose sight of your original goal.  Numerous variants exist and reference other body parts – ankles, armpits, ears, eyes and even neck have all been used.

Ronald Reagan used elbows.  In 1976 when making an ultimately unsuccessful bid for the presidential nomination, Reagan said, “Sometimes, when you are up to your elbows in alligators, it is hard to remember your original objective was to drain the swamp.”

            Reagan made his point.  But ass says it better.  Maybe it’s the alliteration.

Either way, I saw a whole bunch of alligators that day in the Everglades and learned much about them.  I learned that alligators create “alligator holes” during the wet season by using their powerful tails, jaws and feet to push away dirt and vegetation to keep a pool of water open.  These holes become one of the few remaining wet habitats during the dry season, and a variety of animal species rely on them for survival. 

            In this way, the alligators aid the other animals.  You guessed it.

            Gator Aid.

And I learned that the crocodile, the alligator’s close relative, also inhabits the Everglades – in smaller numbers and, because they prefer saltwater, closer to the coast.  The Florida Everglades is the only place on earth where both alligators and crocodiles peacefully coexist.  Some might think them mortal enemies, but in fact they are not.  Territorial yes.  But mortal enemies?  No. 

            They manage to share their habitat together.

Yes, I saw many alligators that day at the Park.  There was even a lone alligator sunning itself in a shallow hole near the road just before the exit.  I was certain that there would be more visits to come.  But this trip to the Everglades had ended.

            See you later alligator.

            See you later, alligator is a catchphrase used in parting. 

Bill Haley popularized the phrase in his 1955 song.  But by then teenagers were already using it.  William Morris mentioned the catchphrase in an article that he published in the Kansas City Times in February 1954.  He had solicited teenage input for his article and received hundreds of letters and postcards from “youngsters” all over the country in response. Most of them included see you later alligator among their favorite sayingsMorris suggested that the word alligator was “an all-encompassing term which relieved the departing party from having to recite several names.” 

But really it was just an easy way to say goodbye. 

Drain the Swamp is an expression that has been used by members of various political parties for over a century.  This expression has a history of its own, which I will save for another day.  In general, it is a phrase used by politicians as metaphor for rooting out political corruption.  In late 19th Century Florida, it had a different meaning.  When the politicians in Florida talked about draining the swamp, they meant really draining the swamp. 

            As in dredging the Everglades. 

The Everglades is a region of tropical wetlands that formed in a natural drainage basin, and its unique ecosystem is not found anywhere else on earth.  Plans to drain it dated to the late 1800’s and were stimulated by a national push for expansion and progress.  During this period wetland removal was not questioned.

Indeed, it was considered “the proper thing to do.”When Napoleon Bonaparte Broward was elected Governor, he made good on his promise to drain the swamp.  Dredging eventually decreased the Everglades to about one half of its original size and sparked a rush by those seeking to exploit the newly developed land.  Agricultural interests, real estate developers, and the burgeoning tourist industry quickly took over.  Habitat loss combined with unregulated hunting had a devastating impact on wildlife in the Everglades. Wading birds (hunted for their plumes) and alligators were pushed to the point of extinction.

See you later alligator.

Draining the swamp in Florida had its challenges.  But moving the wildlife was easy compared to removing the human inhabitants.  That really had been a challenge.

In the early 1800’s popular opinion about Florida was mixed.  Some thought it was a useless land of swamps and monstrous animals.  Others thought it a gift from God, predestined for national prosperity – once the “aborigines” were “forced from their fastnesses, as they eventually must be…”    Whether or not the “aborigines” really needed to be forced out of their refuge, the U.S. government eventually decided that they needed to go.  And go they did.

Most of them anyway.   

The Seminole were comprised of several different Native American tribes that migrated south to escape encroaching colonists.  The tribes moved into unoccupied territory in Florida and coalesced as the Seminole Nation.  A series of three “Seminole” Wars, military conflicts between the United States Army and the Seminole, took place over the course of four decades in the mid 1800’s. 

The Seminole were led by some colorfully named and courageous warriors.  Osceola, Micanopy, and Billy Bowlegs to name a few.  But none were more colorful than Halpatter Tustenugee – “Chief Alligator” in English.  Chief Alligator was described as “well formed” and “strong” despite being only five feet tall.  He was a born comic, evoking laughter even in the most solemn councils.  Alligator could speak English, and the U.S. soldiers who dealt with him described him as the “shrewdest, craftiest, and most intelligent of all the Indian leaders.”

The Treaty of Payne’s Landing in 1832 required a delegation of Indians to go examine the land out west in Indian Territory, where the U.S. government expected the Seminole to relocate.  Alligator was chosen by his peers to inspect the designated land, so off to Oklahoma he went. 

Alligator did not like what he saw and returned to Florida to fight for his home.

See you later alligator.

The Second Seminole War was particularly costly, with 4,000 Seminole either perishing or being removed to Indian Territory.  Eventually even alligator gave up.  Alligator surrendered and moved west of the Mississippi, taking 360 warriors, women and children with him.  He soon realized that the “livestock, tools and subsistence” he had been promised him there did not exist.  In 1842 he wrote the U.S. War Department, “I have no gun to kill squirrels and birds and cannot feed my children.  I have no axe to cut firewood and no plow or horse with which to till the soil for bread.”

See you later alligator.

The Miccosukee were one of the tribes that assimilated with the Seminole when they moved to Florida.  Like many of the other tribes, most of the Miccosukee were moved out west during the Wars.  However, about 100 of them never surrendered and hid out in the Everglades.  To survive in this new environment, the Miccosukee adapted to living in small groups in temporary “hammock style” camps.  These were spread out on a few of the small islands of dry land that are hidden in the vast river of grass.

The Miccosukee survived for a century in this way, maintaining their culture and independence, and resisting assimilation.  Finally, in 1962, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior recognized the Miccosukee Constitution, and the Tribe was granted sovereign nation status.  It continues to thrive today, and the over 600 present day members are direct descendants of the 100 who eluded capture.

Like the Miccosukee, the Everglades eventually saw its own measure of success.  We know that through the conservation efforts of Miami landscape designer Ernest F. Coe and Miami Herald editor Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the Everglades were officially dedicated as a National Park in 1947.  However, efforts to develop the Park were not fully foreclosed until 1969 when plans to build a colossal airport there (larger than O’Hare, Dulles, JFK and LAX combined) were defeated in favor of the establishment of the Big Cypress National Preserve.

When it came to Everglades National Park, the conservationists won.  So did the wildlife, especially the alligators.  There was no need to stop at the Alligator Farm and pay my respects to ‘Grandpa Alligator’ after our visit to the Park.  The Everglades had offered up more alligators than I could have possibly imagined. 

            So we passed right by those billboards on our way back to the highway.

            See you later alligator.

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