The regulars lined the bar at the Tarpon Turtle marina on a hot summer morning in 1978. They looked up from mugs of beer toward the dark water outside, where a middle-aged man from New Port Richey had set out to swim 7 miles, a tune-up to his announced plan to challenge the English Channel.
My editor had sent me to write about this, and not just because swimming the channel would be quite a feat. Lake Tarpon had been the scene of an alarming number of alligator attacks.
It would be a while before my swimmer could relate his experience, so I hung out at the Tarpon Turtle, back then a rustic shack with great grouper sandwiches and Newcastle on tap. One of the old gents at the bar hollered out and wound up at the top of my story.
"Some nut is swimming Lake Tarpon!'' he announced. "Lengthwise!''
This seemed rather benign to me, and I was proud of the story and pictures we published the next day in the Pasco Times. Then my editor's phone rang.
The swimmer didn't see any humor in that quote. He yelled and cursed and threatened. And in a few minutes, he showed up — a big, menacing, profane man. Fortunately, an even bigger photographer met him at the door. As a young reporter, I learned a valuable lesson: Be careful who you call nuts.
I hadn't thought about this episode for years, and then my colleague Craig Pittman wrote a fascinating tale in Tuesday's paper about an 11-foot American crocodile captured last month in Lake Tarpon. Had this been one of its equally ugly cousins, an alligator, some trapper would have chopped up some steaks. But these crocodiles are an endangered species.
Biologists marked the male croc at birth in 1999 near the Turkey Point nuclear plant in Dade County and caught up to it in 2008 after it frightened residents at a golf community in Naples. They trapped and relocated it to a nearby national estuarine reserve and then got reacquainted after it showed up near some yards along Lake Tarpon.
Trappers roped the 700-pound reptile and drove it 350 miles to a swamp near its original home in Dade County.
These kind of stories always bring on phone calls from friends and relatives who worry we're living amongst vicious meat-eaters. But in nearly four decades in Florida, I still find them wondrous creatures. I love canoeing and watching them on the banks of the Withlacoochee or on the golf course. I know better than to feed or harass them.
I miss the small gators that once cruised the creek behind my house, even the one that wound up under the our swing set during the no-name storm of 1993. Nobody had to trap them. They moved on when the nutrients from lawn fertilizers caused algae blooms that cut off the sunlight and killed the fish. Same reason we don't have otters playing out back anymore, or folks showing up with fishing poles.
I share the blame. My lawn is nice and green, too. But I'd gladly give it up to welcome back the nature that once made every day a delight.
Now, would I call authorities if an 11-foot crocodile showed up? Of course.
I'm not a nut.