Flashback some 20 years to a rougher, dirtier time of Charlie Daniels and BB guns, welfare lunches and a snot nose, and you'll find a rather scrubby version of yours truly. Despite obvious signs of oncoming feyness (Blair Warner obsession, wide-hipped girlfriend), I, like so many other impoverished Florida rednecks, was holding tight to the American dream of long hair and animal domination: shooting tiny squirrels, and, well, wrestling baby alligators.
Somebody play "Misty" for me. I'm feeling reflective.
Anyway, for some of those -- meaning the ones who eventually married their wide-hipped girlfriends, or their sisters -- these dreams never die. Meet Tim Williams, the much ballyhooed "Dean of Gator Wrestlin'' from the fantastically trashy Gatorland attraction, just to the left of Orlando's fiberglass funscape. In contrast to the "crikey!" surprise celebrity of Animal Planet's Steve Irwin and his death-defying "Crocodile Hunter" enterprise, Williams is riding the less schlocky high road with national exhibitions of, well, wrestlin' baby alligators. Except: 1) They're usually not babies, and 2) It's all in the name of gator-ed for children.
Me, I love Tim. He's the kooky uncle I never had. The kind that carries a duffel full of snakes and snapping reptiles and loves to make your aunt (who may be your mother) dizzy. We're going to get along just fine.
"Just how does one become the 'Dean of Gator Wrestlin'?" I quiz.
"Well, when you can't do it anymore, you have to teach," he drawls, notably weary after 30 years of being 8 years old.
Williams was thrown into the fire when, as a mere rattlesnake milker on a St. Augustine gator farm, he was forced into a reptilian promotion. "I tell everybody my ex mother-in-law filled out the application," he says, but really the other wrestler broke his back in a car wreck ... How the hell did I get here?
"I asked the same question that every new gator wrestler would ask, y'know, 'How do I know if I'm doing it right?'" Williams says of his first time. "And the answer is always, 'Well, you'll know. The gator will tell you real quick.'"
One would think that even being near an alligator would tell you something real quick, too. It doesn't take a therapist, dear. (Although, Tim and his slimy company did recently appear on the inexplicable "The Pet Psychic" show on Animal Planet.)
"Our mission statement at Gatorland is very simple: It's 'Fun, Smiles, and Special Memories,'" he advertises. "Part of the fun is the energy that you get being around huge predators."
"The smiles come from the fact that we try to give these animals a little personification so people can relate to them."
"And the special memories come from the fact that you walk out of there, and go, Well, I didn't know that about alligators -- that they had ears, that they ate cows or that they could run or jump."
OK. They have ears.
"The difficult part of doing the shows is that if you get too clinical, then it comes off like a lecture in a classroom, which is boring," he clarifies. "If you get too funny, then it's a comedy show and it almost demeans the animal.
The star of our show, no matter what, is always the alligator, not the person."
Unlike "Crocodile Hunter," really, where we get a more camp take on on Irwin's stupid marriage than any sort of Mutual of Omaha purity. (Look at that! She's a beaut!)
"Steve's a great guy," Williams lies. "The only problem you'll hear from others in the business, and part of this is probably professional jealousy -- I mean the guy's making 60 million bucks a year -- the problem is the star of the show is him. You take all of those animals away and he's nothing."
Mmmm, I love professional jealousy. I wear it every day. Insider secrets, then. Are the animals sedated or trained, Tim? Level with me.
"They're not trained," he goes on. "But they're not wild, either. If they were, they'd squirm when you hold them and get Gatorade all over themselves."
Ew. Wrong question. Williams goes on to point out some of his and his gators' celebrity brushings -- Letterman, Povich, "Good Morning America," "Dateline NBC" -- revealing that, in fact, nearly every alligator you've seen on camera has come from his yappy batch at Gatorland. True? Who cares? Tim's alligator obsession is irresistible. If it were up to him, in fact, we wouldn't even be here. We're merely in the way of some grand Gator Civilization. Izods for everyone, then.
"An alligator can attack a person, and the trappers have to go out and remove the animal, and ultimately harvest that animal. But let a person drive a car in a wrong manner and mame or kill somebody and we don't take that person out into a field and kill them."
"The thing is," Williams collapses in a pile of rhetoric. "They were here long before us. And they'll be here long after we're gone." God love 'em.