The summer I was five years old, we moved into a house on the edge of Ragg Swamp in the first suburb built in Mobile, Alabama. Nestled into landfill, our perfectly square lot backed up to a convergence of creeks, piney woods, swamp and a red clay gully. Ragg Swamp was where hunted men (bad and good) fled when they were on the run. It was rare to be followed in, because no one ever came out of Ragg Swamp alive. At least that’s what my Daddy told me. He was my new Dad and that first week in the new house I couldn’t sleep. So this was my first bedtime story from Daddy. He told me not to leave our backyard because little girls weren’t safe in the swamp.
The next day I climbed the fence and went to the back edge of a neighbor’s yard where I had seen mockingbirds flying in and out of an old mulberry bush. I climbed up to look in the nest and came face to face with the wide open mouth of a large snake filled with baby bird. I’m not sure if I fainted or just fell, but suddenly I was on my back under the bush watching the adult birds squawk and fly at the nest. That night I told Daddy and he said, I was lucky the snake had something in his mouth and that he wouldn’t chase me while he was eating. That was strangely reassuring.
That weekend I got my nerve up and climbed over our fence, slid down towards the creek and started walking. I saw our new neighbor’s dog barking and barking near an old log that was washed up on the shore. Dixie would lunge forward, bark and drop back. Suddenly the log moved so fast that it seemed like a dream. Dixie was gone, it was really quiet. That night Daddy told me how alligators can run faster than a quarter horse. Dixie probably weighed 40 pounds – I don’t think I weighed a whole lot more. Daddy saw the look on my face and said, “Honey, the snake isn’t bad, the alligator isn’t bad – it’s called the food chain – we all have to eat.” That night I knew I wanted climb that chain faster than an alligator could run or a snake could crawl.