Long ago in St. Petersburg, where I grew up, I got wrapped up in a game of afterschool football in a field next to Lake Maggiore. My team fell behind, and in an attempt to even the score, our quarterback threw a long pass that sailed over my head. Our only football tumbled down a bank into the lake, and since I was closest to it, I descended the slope to get it.
Halfway down, I heard a deep growl and a loud splash. A thick black snout flashed before my eyes. By the time I stopped running, I was about 14 blocks from where I started on 28th Avenue in south St. Petersburg. Without even noticing, I had sprinted past our family church and an apartment complex where we once lived, and was closing in on my old elementary school nearly 2 miles away.
Heart still pounding in my 14-year-old chest, I started back to a family friend's lakeside home where my mom picked me up after work. The entire way back, I kicked myself. No self-respecting native should ever make the mistake I made.
Last week's tragic death of a 2-year-old snatched by an alligator at a Disney World resort in Orlando conjured up that and other memories. Floridians know how dangerous the animals can be because we hear about that a lot, and from time to time we actually witness their raw power.
Yet we've learned to coexist with them. Alligators are as much a part of the state as pelicans, dolphins, sharks and hurricanes. Like ancient gods, they are celebrated and feared. The flagship University of Florida's mascot is a giant gator wearing a turtleneck. Students celebrate sports achievements by raising one arm, lowering the other and quickly snapping them together in a gesture known as the chomp. But at freshwater ponds across the campus, everyone heeds posted warnings: Alligators. No swimming.
Disney's guests aren't all natives like me. The Magic Kingdom attracts people from Nebraska, where little Lane Graves' family lives, and from around the world. At one of its grand hotels in Orlando, workers transformed the shore of the Seven Seas Lagoon into something resembling a sandy beach. Posted signs said no swimming. But it seems those signs lacked a key detail — that alligators were nearby. The lagoon is linked to Bay Lake by drainage canals that any Floridian will tell you gators love.
When I and colleague Brady Dennis, a former Tampa Bay Times staffer, were reporting on the aftermath of Lane's death, one of the first calls I made was to the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission to ask about warning signs around bodies of water. I was told that they are suggested but not required. The state has so many alligators — an estimated 1.3 million — that requiring signs would mean they'd be everywhere, obscuring everything.
I also called Kenneth Krysko, a reptile expert for the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida. It was Krysko who mentioned the alligator warnings on the university campus. When I told him I'd grown up in St. Pete, he shared that he was raised in Seminole. We bonded over stories about lake shores we avoided and paths we walked with our heads on a swivel. In our day, no kid dared to crawl under a house because gators often hid there.
At least twice in high school I'd heard whispers that a baby was missing and seen police boats bobbing in Lake Maggiore. Other times there was talk of close encounters of the first kind between people and gators they didn't notice in bushes.
I'd actually seen them out there on a few occasions, floating half-submerged on the water's surface. For as long as I can remember, my mom issued warnings, and I remember her shouting my name in huge block letters at least once when I got too close to a canal or fresh water. "BOY, GET AWAY FROM THERE!"
That instruction has guided me whenever I've been in a place where alligators reign — in Louisiana, where I saw them clustered while covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; in Texas, where I drove in suspect marshy areas to cover a space shuttle disaster; in Mississippi, while I visited for a blues festival.
But what if my parents were from a place as flat and tame as Nebraska? Would I be clueless? And what if I were at a world famous theme park where fun was the only thing that seemed to matter? Would I relax feeling safe and secure?
I get why Florida officials don't require posted notices about alligators. They're like me; they know they're ever present. But visitors don't have an intimate knowledge of the animal, an awareness established early in life. They don't know how stealthy, crafty, powerful and lightning fast they can be.
Alligators are in the water. They've been there for years. Stay away.
Darryl Fears covers the environment, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay and issues affecting wildlife, for the Washington Post. © 2016 Washington Post