Rants & Raves

By Lynne Murray

The recent death of "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin started me thinking about the alligator in my life. I was five years old the day my father and I set out to get a pet chameleon, a gentle reptile rumored to change colors to protect itself. Pet shops in the 1950s didn't have so many rules, and that day they didn't have any chameleons.

My first memory of my new pet was sitting in the front seat of the car while my father drove us home. I put my hand into the cardboard box that held the cute little baby alligator, who was about eight inches long. I pulled out my hand back out of the box in a hurry and stared at the fresh drop of blood on my finger. The alligator didn't bother with that changing colors nonsense. When it came to self-defense, he went with razor-sharp teeth.

My mother didn't say much when we arrived with the new pet. She was used to my father's ways by then, and I wasn't the kind of little girl who runs away from non-fluffy critters. I was always trying to relocate ants to little urban renewal projects I built for them, and bringing home the snails that popped up on the sidewalks every time it rained. My mother made me return all wildlife to the wild. Going out to find a gentle lizard and coming home with a small, vicious reptile in a box was new but somehow not surprising. My father suggested naming the gator "One Meatball," which described its diet and also was the title of an Andrews Sisters' hit song from World War II.

The death of my turtle at the hands of an over-squeezy neighbor kid might have influenced the choice of a more aggressive pet. A grabby kid accident would never happen to One Meatball, who had three basic modes of behavior—hissing, snapping and lunging at people. That was all he did, but he did it well.

I thought of One Meatball as "he," probably because in the 1950s, females weren't thought of as the crazed-attacker type. The little gator was allowed out on the lawn with supervision. I could pick him up and even hold him on my lap if I wore protective gloves. As he got bigger I needed two and then three pairs of leather gloves.

At first, One Meatball lived in a laundry sink next to the washing machine. But the machine backed up into the sink and overflowed, and he found himself free to roam around in the half inch of water that briefly covered the kitchen floor. He was too small yet to get far, though I would have liked to imagine him showing up on the neighbor kid's doorstep to demand payback for the turtle.

Within a few months One Meatball grew from eight inches to about eighteen inches, too big for my lap and the gloves weren't working anymore. I now understand that American Alligators grow about a foot and a half a year. My father, who was then a graduate student in psychology, solved the problem by taking him to UCLA.

Somehow I don't think One Meatball went to the same part of UCLA as the students did. He may have ended up in a zoo, but his fate was probably a more humane version of the turtle's. This experience left me with the unspoken, but troubling suspicion that "going to UCLA" was a euphemism for "we're going to take you in the back room and kill you." That may have been why I never really considered the University of California at Los Angeles when it came to choosing a college.

I couldn't help but wonder what might have happened if One Meatball had been able to enroll and study at UCLA—possibly in Cinema Arts? His personality type was well-suited to the entertainment industry. He already had the single-minded concentration and a thick-skinned immunity to criticism. No one could say he lacked assertiveness. With a bit of polish, who knows? He certainly would not have felt out of place basking in the sunshine next to a swimming pool. He could have been a star.

Years later, I saw a television show about pet selection for children. A four-foot-long alligator strained at the end of a sturdy chain, snapping at a piece of wood held by the host of the show, who stayed well out of the reach of those huge jaws. "This is not a good family pet," he said. I got a little nostalgic watching the gator lunging and snapping, with a bit of hissing thrown in. He looked just like One Meatball, only much bigger. The TV pet expert was right, though. No gloves in the world would protect you if you tried to take that animal onto your lap.


© Lynne Murray