Allen Register, retired Navy, values structure. He maintains precise records, dislikes clutter, can always find his tools. It bothers him whenever he notices algae clinging to the prehistoric teeth of his favorite crocodile, Goliath.
"It's not his fault," Register says. "If Goliath was in the wild, he'd be eating things that would keep his teeth nice."
In the Florida wilderness, American crocodiles typically crunch tooth-scraping shell and bone during meals. At Gatorama, Register's old-timey tourist attraction near Lake Okeechobee, Goliath devours tender vittles and ends up with green teeth. Every once in a while, in the name of improving Goliath's smile, Register has to play dentist.
Goliath is approximately 15 feet long and weighs more than half a ton. His frightening teeth, 2 inches long, chomp down with about 3,000 pounds of force. When Goliath is famished or perturbed, he bites down faster than Register's eyes can follow. He hears only a tremendous "pop" — as if the world's biggest bottle of champagne has yielded its cork.
Register, 51, hates the sound of popping crocodile jaws. It reminds him of the worst day of his life. But he tries to repress that memory when Goliath's unhygienic choppers require cleaning. He simply climbs into the dinosaur's sprawling pen and takes a long look. Lying in a shallow pool, Goliath first opens his yellow eyes, followed by those gargantuan jaws.
Register grips the cleaning hose with his nine good fingers and advances on the great beast.
The golden age of Florida roadside attractions lasted from 1945 to the arrival of Disney World in 1971. After the war, new residents and tourists who traveled the state's sometimes lonely highways found no shortage of cheap, corny and sometimes even frightening thrills.
At Lawtey, in North Florida, a Gulf gas station housed Reptile Land. Ocala boasted Six-Gun Territory and Wild West shoot-'em-ups. In Miami, tourists gawked at a horse and rider who defied death by leaping from a high platform into the bay at Aqualand. Near Lake Okeechobee, the eccentric Tom Gaskins harvested hundreds of cypress knees and called his wacky collection a museum. For hundreds of miles he beckoned tourists with roadside signs such as "Lady, if he won't stop hit him over the head with a shoe." After admiring a cypress stump that resembled say, Charles de Gaulle, a visitor could eat lunch down the road at Old South Bar-B-Q Ranch, where waitresses in cowgirl outfits fired cap pistols between tables.
Alas, Florida got modern. Interstates diverted tourists away from the old haunts while Mickey Mouse and destination "theme parks" turned out to be lethal to the unsophisticated mom-and-pop "Want to see a rattlesnake?" joints. Today, only a handful of authentic roadside attractions survive. Register's Gatorama is among the last.
It was established on U.S. 27 during the Eisenhower era by the misanthropic Cecil Clemons, a chain-smoking, vodka-swilling poacher who gave up skinning alligators for skinning tourists. The colorful coot who might say something inappropriate in front of your kids while handling a reptile was part of the thrill.
As Florida changed, he sold the place to longtime Floridians David and Marietta Thielen, who kept it going another decade before selling the business to their daughter, Patty, and her husband, Allen Register, in 1996.
The Registers continue to scratch out a living in a swamp in the middle of the Florida nowhere — halfway between Clewiston and Lake Placid on your Central Florida map. Plug in the address — officially it's 6180 U.S. 27 — and your GPS robot voice may admit "I'm lost.''
• • •
Before he lost much of a finger, before he could write "I know how to clean crocodile teeth" on his resume, Register found adventure in a nuclear submarine as a sonar specialist. As a fifth-generation Floridian, he eventually answered the reptilian call of the swamp. He and Patty haven't gotten rich — most of the tourists still head for Disney World — but they haven't gone hungry. And neither have their big lizards.
Gatorama is a small attraction at which Register does much of the day-to-day labor. At a big pond he struts onto a rickety dock with a bucket of chicken parts. Watched by a half dozen tourists ensconced safely behind a secure fence, Register waves a chicken wing with his good hand. A 13-foot croc — Big Daddy — rockets out of the water like a Polaris missile and snatches the snack.
"Thank you for leaving me with nine and a half fingers,'' Register calls out to Big Daddy, who sinks below the surface.
Gatorama is home to thousands of reptiles with hearty appetites. They include a human-eating saltwater crocodile from the South Pacific and crocodiles from Cuba known for their ability to jump, which explains the high fence around the pond. Alligators, of course, dwell in great numbers.
Register raises them for their meat and hides. In late August and early September, in a hothouse behind the office, leathery eggs by the thousands begin to crack. Lucky tourists sometimes are allowed to hold an egg, listen to the chirps and midwife the newborn into the world. Hatchlings bite — they'll hang onto your hand for dear life — but their teeth aren't powerful enough to draw blood.
Not so for the grownups.
• • •
It was a 9-foot croc.
Looking for a place to nest, she'd dug under a fence. Register needed to return her to her home. Register was in a hurry. After straddling the croc he made a grab at her jaws without having sufficient control. Panicked, the croc began snapping.
Register looked down. He was surprised to see that a chunk of his left middle finger had vanished.
The nearest hospital was 45 minutes away. As his blood collected in a bucket at his feet in the truck, his wife Patty hit the gas. Two surgeries followed.
"You know what I need now?'' Register asks. "I need to have a fingernail tattooed on my nub.''
• • •
Jaws agape, he creeps to the edge of the pond, a living dinosaur with a walnut-sized brain, hair-trigger instinct and an appetite for flesh. At a major zoo, perhaps Goliath would be sedated in advance of his teeth cleaning appointment. Then a nice graduate college student on an internship, under the supervision of the kindly staff veterinarian, would gently clean the monster's teeth with a special brush.
Gatorama is an old Florida roadside attraction. Goliath is awake. If Register owned a special brush, Goliath would bite it in half. He'd probably bite the dental hygienist in half for good measure.
Standing in the dinosaur's lair, Register turns on an ordinary garden hose and adjusts the nozzle to the "jet" setting. Edging close, he points the hose. He's only 3 feet away. Then 2 feet. His practice is to crouch a little to the right of the croc's lethal end, in case he needs to leap out of the way.
Goliath seems to know the drill. Open wide.
Using the hose as a giant Waterpik, Register fires away, taking his time to wash each tusk carefully
When he finishes a half-hour later, Goliath's teeth gleam white in the sun, and Register still has his fingers — nine and a half of them anyway.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8727. His latest book is "Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators."