LAST WEEK, I WENT OUT on a swamp boat tour with our gaffer and cinematographer. Our location scout had suggested a tour company in the middle of the bayou and reserved six of us a boat but the girls all dropped out last minute because “they had to go shopping at Target.” So, as our gaffer “Browsy” was fond of saying, “it’s just me, G, and Young MC.” “Young MC” has become my nickname, and whether it’s derisive or affectionate I can’t tell. I just know I can’t shake it.
We’re all New Englanders. I’m Connecticut, G’s from New York, and Browsy’s from Massachusetts — his nickname refers to his eyebrows being different colors, one black, one gray. G and Browsy have the typical New York / Boston rivalry going, and it extends to everything from sports to phones. Browsy’s got an iPhone guy and G’s got a Droid. “A cinematographer without an iPhone? Look at this beautiful shot I just took. And another. And another. Yours are all blurry–”
“–You got full bars and you’re dropping calls, I’ve got crystal clear 4G in Deliverance country. What up, kid?”
They go at it like a couple of newlyweds on their honeymoon. All damn day.
We showed up at the swamp tour hut and got our own private fan boat, piloted by “Captain Matt,” a kid no more than 16 years old. He started by giving us very straightforward safety instructions: “Here’s where the life jackets are,” he pointed at a metal hatch in front. “I’m telling you that only because I’m required. If the boat flips over, there’s no way you’ll have time to reach them.”
“Okay,” we said.
“Yeah, you’ll be dead…” he paused, and continued. “This thing’s got no brakes, no reverse gear, so we’re going to be taking some pretty sharp turns. Stay seated or you will fall out.”
“Okay,” we said.
“Now, when we see the alligators, don’t put your hands anywhere near their mouth.”
“You ever been bit?” Browsy asked.
“Just wasn’t paying attention?”
“Nope, I was doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing. That was about three years ago.”
I imagined a 13-year-old taunting an alligator. “This is a refreshingly candid safety talk,” I said.
We put on noise-dampening headphones and Captain Matt gunned the fan. Matt spent less time giving us a tour than fucking with us. At one point, we took a shortcut and our boat got “stuck” on a piece of land surrounded by lily pads. “No brakes, no reverse,” Matt said, “Gotta get out and push.” Browsy stood up before Matt grinned and kicked the fan into high gear, knocking Browsy on his ass. In addition to that bit of street knowledge — never trust a Southerner — we learned two additional tidbits:
1. Some of the swamp paths were man-made, used as a means of transporting timber by boat before roads were widely available. But they also served another function: Henry Ford used the Spanish Moss that hung off the trees as stuffing for the seats of the original Model T automobile.
2. There’s a special breed of red-beaked bird, distantly related to the chicken, that lives in the swamp and subsists on a diet of marshmallows (store-bought marshmallows; all the tour boats carry them because alligators love them). We were a few days away from their hunting season. “Like grass-fed beef,” Browsy mused, “Marshmallow-fed chicken.”
“Wanna play with a gator?” Captain Matt asked. We saw one a little ways off, and chasing it for some time, we lost sight of it — about two and a half feet from head to tip of tail — as it burrowed into a grassy patch of marsh. “Let me get him for you…” Matt’s hand darted in and came out holding the gator by the neck. It squirmed and made a whining, retching noise.
“What’s it doing?”
“He’s calling for his momma.”
“Nah, she’s not coming,” Captain Matt said, “Wanna take some pictures with it?”
Captain Matt caught another and we took pictures holding them like guns and posing like Charlie’s Angels. Then Captain Matt took the larger one, laid it on its back, and stroked its stomach until it fell asleep. It squirmed at first, but Matt slapped it a little, then slapped it some more when we wanted to get pictures of it baring its teeth. He had us look into its mouth and notice the thin membrane that covers the throat, which allows it to swim without swallowing water. We took turns rubbing its back and saying how we can see why they get made into wallets and shoes. I can’t imagine a more humiliating day for an alligator to have.
After we were done, Matt put both gators into a cooler so he could bring them back to the swamp tour shack. We started up the fan boat again and suddenly noticed the gators were walking around by our feet. Captain Matt corralled them and explained, “There’s no problem when there’s just one in the cooler, but if you put two in at once they can usually climb on top of each other and get out. It’s never a good idea.”
“Oh,” we said.
Matt then put the two alligators back in the cooler together, as if he hadn’t said what he’d just said.
He asked if we wanted to see “big gators.” Absolutely. He stopped the boat by what looked like a small oil derrick, tied it against the pier, and pulled out two bags: one chicken parts, the other marshmallows. He took a single marshmallow and threw it against the water. It landed with a thump. He picked it out and did it again, and again. “Alligators hear real good in the water. Any kinda noise and they come over.”
Sure enough, a large gator started floating towards us and snapped up the marshmallow. It floated away when it finished eating, and Captain Matt started up with another marshmallow. It came back for seconds. Thirds. Fourths. Fifths.
“What are their memories like?” I asked.
“Listen to the kind of questions Young MC’s asking,” G said.
“No, I mean, can’t they remember that they just ate a marshmallow?” I pictured the movie Memento but if someone were to keep feeding Guy Pearce marshmallows.
Captain Matt then pulled out the bag of chicken parts. He held one in the air and the gator lifted itself up to reach, because apparently gators can extend half their body length out of the water at once. Matt kept pulling the chicken pieces away from the gator at the last second, to tease it. When he described the time he got bit as “doing something [he] wasn’t supposed to be doing,” this might have been what he meant. But then, Captain Matt used to bait to get the gator to allow him to tickle it under the chin and kiss it on the snout.
“These gators are pretty well-trained, huh?”
“Yeah, they’re real friendly.”
“What happened to the one that bit you?” G asked.
“He’s a pair of loafers.”
Browsy, G, and Young MC (me) went home that night, rested up, and got shooting at 6:00AM the following morning at New Orleans’ famous Tad Gormley Stadium. Tomorrow begins our second week, at Dillard University. Another early morning to another long week. More twelve hour days. Swamped again.