Of Mice and Manatees

I’m no reptile expert, but even I recognized the alligator as a monster. He was 10 feet long, black as tar and as broad across the midsection as a kitchen table. And unlike the typical gator sighting – nothing but nostrils and eyes – we could see every last menacing inch of him floating in the gin clear water. It’s no wonder he’d drawn a crowd of onlookers and held us rapt.  In fact he was such a spectacle that most of us didn’t even notice the manatees approaching until the little girl started squealing .

“Mama, Mama the manatees are coming. Alas, they are doomed. However will we save them from the violent end which surely awaits them?!  And they have a baby! Oh fie on you cruel fate… take me, not the baby manatee!” cried the little girl.

At least I think that’s what she said. I don’t actually speak Spanish.  I could translate her tone easily enough though, and we were all thinking the same thing. Our little nature walk was about to get very exciting and very grim.

If all the world is a stage, some of its backdrops are more compelling than others. As sets go, Volusia County Florida’s Blue Spring State Park, with its tropical foliage, teeming wildlife, limpid river and lacy green curtains of Spanish moss is tough to beat. Likewise some of life’s actors are better suited to their given roles. The manatee, all soft curves and slow motion bumbling is a natural as the loveable underdog. You just can’t help but root for him. The alligator by contrast, all teeth and twitchy triangles, makes the perfect foil. So it happened that the stage we wandered onto during a trip to the in-laws’ was perfectly set for drama and tension.

“He’s floating right to him!” said a little boy in English, his voice cracking with anxiety.

Sure enough, the biggest manatee was headed slowly but directly for the gator.

“What’s he doing?” asked a woman of no one in particular as the manatee surfaced beside the motionless beast.

“I think he’s pushing him?” offered a stranger, the manatee now shoving his snout, ever so softly into the gator’s downstream ribs.

“Look, look, he’s trying to play it cool. He’s trying to ignore the manatee!” came a voice from the left as the gator, stoic as ever above the waterline, began fanning an annoyed forepaw at the manatee underwater. With this crack in the villain’s demeanor the human atmosphere began to shift from fear and excitement to surprise and amusement.

“He’s ramming him!” roared a dad, the mood shifting quickly now to hilarity, while the manatee mimed a slow motion, potato shaped battering ram for the audience and the alligator, losing his composure, kicked more and more wildly.

Then, as though egged-on by our attention, the manatee let the gentle current swing him around and, like a vaudevillian slapstick laying a big wet smacker on the straight man, pressed his whiskery snout right onto the gator’s toothy maw.

Game, set, match to the good guy.

* * * * *

We were still talking about the show on our way back to the car. How often, after all, do you get to see a comedic manatee vanquish a giant alligator? Once, if you’re lucky. It’s a singular event. There are no repeat performances. In a world that’s increasingly composed of expertly designed, focus group honed, commercially available experiences, the singular is all the more precious.

Then, in mid-recap, I noticed all the out of state license plates, and it hit me. We were only 45 miles from Disney World, the cathedral of manufactured and mass-produced experiences – where mice talk, mermaids outsmart evil witches and magic leaves the platform every 52 seconds, without fail. These cars belonged to families taking a break from the parks.

Our hero had scored a double victory. Not only did he outwit a cold-blooded killer, he’d bested the world’s best marketers too. Not one of these kids would be talking about Mickey when they got home. They had a better story to share with their friends.

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