Well, this and that got in the way for us to make it happen; two things that were significant. The first being that my wife, Sue, went to work on a summer-long contract with the National Park Service to do a butterfly census in Lava Beds National Monument in Northern California. The other being a new job for Ross, who is a Lt. Col. in this man's USAF Reserve.
Sue finished her contract on Labor Day, and Ross, who started out his career with the Air Force as an F-16 Instructor Pilot, and whom, like many service men and women, has done tours in the Middle East, recently took command of the 482nd Operations Group at Homestead AFB in Florida.
Last week, the promised trip became reality and here I am in the land of alligators, anhingas and cattle egrets.
The first place we visited was the Avon Park Bombing Range near the north end of Lake Okeechobee. Ross had some business to do up there, testing the arresting cable that snatches the back-end of an F-16 and stops it from running off the runway when Murphy's Law strikes. The arresting system works much like the tail-hook used on Navy planes landing on aircraft carriers.
One of Ross's F-16's flew up from Homestead to take part in the test, and I must say it was impressive. The pilot, Lt. Col Jose "Hoser" Monteagudo, put the F-16 into take-off power, ran over the thick, 1-inch steel cable, dropped the tail hook and with a whirring of the huge steel drum holding the cable and belt, the F-16 came to a halt in about 200 yards. It worked and everyone was happy.
Not very far away, sleeping peacefully in the hot, humid and swampy countryside of the 106,000-acre range (and wildlife refuge) was a six-foot long alligator, dreaming about fat, juicy catfish. And that, Oh, Best Beloved, was my other reason for being in Florida, to see wildlife of the southern regions with Ross.
Several years ago, when my other eldest son, Dean, took command of he 18th Fighter Squadron in Alaska (he's also an F-16 driver), I went to the Far North to witness his Change of Command at Eilson AFB in Fairbanks. While there he promised me the opportunity to see and photograph moose.
As it is sometimes going after wildlife for photography, I got skunked. We spent almost a week, driving, hiking, looking and searching for moose, but nary a one did we sight. The week before they were wandering through his backyard on the base, but they heard I was coming. "Should have been here yesterday..."
I thought that's what it would be like in Florida when it came to alligators. Even though they're as common as moose in Alaska, I had a bad feeling alligators in Florida would be just as uncooperative.
But, thankfully, I was wrong. Our guide at Avon Park, retired US Army Special Forces warrior Hal Sullivan said, "You want to see alligators, I'll show you an alligator."
"Yeah," I said, chiding him with the moose story from Alaska, "This will be just like the missing moose in Alaska."
Special Forces people aren't long on words, they're long on work. Hal just gave me a grin and a grunt and we took off on a tour of the Avon Park facilities. As we came around a bend in the road, Hal pulled over on the shoulder and said quietly, "There's your alligator."
Sure enough, right there, not more than 20 feet from the Jeep we were riding in was a magnificent, 10-foot long American Alligator sleeping peacefully in the hot mud and sunshine. I shot the first picture from the back seat of the Jeep, and then asked Hal if it would run off if I got out. He thought it would, and it did, but not before I got the photo you see above.
If my son, Dean, were still in Alaska, which he's not - he's now the USAFE Joint Operations Chief of Combat Plans in Ramstien, Germany - I'd take Hal with me and I know we'd find a moose...
Southern Florida was once a big swamp. On the way from Avon Park to Homestead we passed thousands of acres of drained wetlands inhabited by thousands of cows. Unlike our neck of the woods, where we have to help Mother Nature grow things with irrigation systems, Florida has a natural irrigation system. The night before we left Avon Park, rain thundered down all night long, filling the ditches along the road and bringing out Eastern Toads to sing to us all night long.
Along with the thousands of cows were thousands of Cattle Egrets. As the cows grazed in the lush grasslands they spooked millions of insects that egrets in turn gobbled up. What a sight that is; one cow standing among 20 or so egrets all waiting patiently for the feast to begin.
Cattle egrets are not native to North America, incidentally; they just arrived unannounced one day in Brazil back in the '30s. One day they were not there, and the next they were. Literally. It is thought they blew over from Africa in a tropical storm, which is probably the way it happened, flying saucer aficionados notwithstanding.
In addition to alligators, the big hit for me, so far, was visiting Butterfly World in Pompano Beach. If you decide to go to Florida to escape the rain, cold and ice of Oregon, make it a point to visit Butterfly World. You can walk among some of the largest and most beautiful butterflies on this old Earth, and among these flying jewels is the Blue Morpho. Words cannot describe what it is like to stand in the Florida sunshine and suddenly have these huge butterflies come flashing by reflecting the glory of our sun and dazzling the eye. And while you're there, don't miss the long-tailed sylph and passion flowers.
All Nature is like that, be it butterflies, birds, bats, moose or alligators. All we have to do is learn how to preserve all this for the future. If we do that, we can consider ourselves a "success."