I was a Girl Scout Leader for almost ten years. I helped lead two different troops, one for each of my daughters and I loved every minute. Except maybe that one time they were all…well, almost every minute. We did everything from flag etiquette to walking in parades dressed as clowns. Each spring an eighteen-wheeler would pull up to our house and fill our garage with boxes of cookies. But my favorite part was the camping. We were a hearty, no-nonsense bunch. Elizabeth’s troop got the Polar Bear patch on our first campout. That’s the patch for camping in weather below freezing. We camped in mud. We camped in tents on a hill surrounded by storms while seventh grade girls ran around in the rain and lightning, with the thunder almost as loud as my screaming to stay inside their tents. I was positive that God was going to strike them all dead and I wouldn’t even care. I was one of those warm and fuzzy Girl Scout leaders.
My friend Peggy and I kept a running tally of all the things you need to be a Girl Scout leader. Our point was that no one with girls this young had enough money to actually buy these things herself, therefore we claimed it should be issued to us as equipment. The list included a chain saw, a weather radar, a fifteen passenger van with a trailer behind it, a Xerox machine and several heavy duty canvas 8-person tents. Later, Peggy added a hysterectomy to the list. That’s when it occurred to me that what we all needed was lobotomies and I wondered if we could get a group rate. Maybe they could do the surgery as part of your initial training.
The rewards were small and seldom. There may be a few girls out there who can tie a square knot or build a fire as a result of my leadership. But there’s just as many who have learned that you can drop buttered bread face down in the dirt and it doesn’t taste nearly as bad as you might think.
However, my claim to fame that I boast proudly is that my troop was the only one that I know of to see the alligator in Alligator Pond.
I had been camping at Bette Perot Camp for several years when it happened. They have a pond on the back side of the tent area, at the start of their nature trail. And there was a sign at the edge of the pond that stated quite plainly “Alligator Pond.” Whenever we passed it, the girls would get all nervous and question-y about the alligator. Was there really an alligator in the pond? Would it jump out and eat them? I could never tell them yes or no for certain. That was one of the things that I missed in the training. Maybe I was in the bathroom when they discussed alligators eating the girls.
Deep down I was pretty sure this was merely a picturesque name designed to give the camp a certain ambiance; kind of like “Bluebonnet Trail” or “Heavenly Hill.” I was fairly certain no camp in their right minds would allow an alligator in their pond, especially one that housed little girls. I was certain the minute an alligator showed up the blue haired matrons that ran the Girl Scout program at that time would delegate some 20-year old maintenance guy with minor education to catch it, truss it and cart it off to another pond, maybe at a Boy Scout camp, preferably in another state. An alligator was the last thing I worried about at the camp. Plus, when you’re the kind of broad who is willing to spend your weekend with a bunch of hyper little girls, not much is going to scare you, certainly not a measly alligator.
By the time Emily was in the third grade we took her troop to Camp Bette Perot. The girls were new to camping and they were enthusiastic and energetic. That is a nice way to say driving me out of my mind—another reason the lobotomy would have come in handy.
As we came to the pond I gave them my usual routine about being really quiet so the alligator wouldn’t know we were there. My intent was to try to coax some fish to the surface so the girls could see them. We had little bags of crackers for them to feed the fish.
They always manage to stay quiet for about five minutes this way. I was looking forward to that tiny five-minute span of quiet. We broke our crackers and threw them in the water. As I was sitting there enjoying the blissful silence one of the girls whispered, “Mrs. Els I think I see the alligator.” This hit me as a great way to squeeze maybe five extra minutes of quiet as I encouraged the others to remain still and maybe they could see him, too. Soon another girl announced she saw the alligator. They were all getting into the being quiet part and I was patting myself on the back for getting them to set a new record for being still over ten minutes.
Then I saw him. And there was no doubt in my mind that this was an alligator. That sucker had to have been eight feet long, nose to tail. First I saw the ridge of bumps along his body barely breaking the water’s surface. A few minutes later I saw the ridges on his tail. Then his tail gently moved in a slow arc to propel his body toward us. He gradually moved closer to us and his two yellow eyes peeked up above the water. He got within six feet of the dock we were sitting on. I was screaming and clawing inside but couldn’t let the girls know. Besides, I was really enjoying the peace and quiet. He was a pretty graceful alligator. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind what we were seeing. His tail drove him closer to us and our delicious crackers, or maybe my tasty little scouts.
It was Cathy, the most hyperactive of them all, who I knew would break the spell but she did it so calmly I was impressed. Slowly and softly she said, “Oh, Mrs. Els, he can see me and he sees that I’m fat and I think he wants to eat me.” With that, Cathy merely stood up and the alligator immediately dipped below the surface and disappeared from our lives forever.
The miracle of it all was that we didn’t have 10 little girls and three women run screaming back to the cabins. As I remember we just continued our walk, talking about the remarkable thing we had just seen. We didn’t spend any more time at the pond, though.
Now that I think of it that may have been the last time I was at that camp. I don’t remember reporting it to the camp but I never read about any little girls being eaten by an alligator at Girl Scout camp in East Texas. If that alligator knew anything about third grade girls, which he probably did since he was surrounded by them every weekend, he was probably more afraid of them than they were of him.
I lost track of most of the girls in that troop but I still think of Cathy and worry about a third grade kid who thinks she's fat.