Tuesday, March 27, 2007


Several weeks ago, as Velociman and I were attempting to wangle our way into the Snake Pit at the Claxton Rattlesnake Roundup, we struck upon a mutual Shared Memory, that of having visited Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute and Serpentarium in the wilds of central Florida back in our Snot-Nose Days. Having that kind of history might help explain why the two of us felt compelled to make the closest possible approach to the Dangerous Critters that had been a-gathered for our amusement and delectation. It was a fascination born of simpler days.

These reminiscences must have been bubbling just below the surface of my normally placid mind during our weekend pilgrimage to Chez Eli. As we were casting about for something to do Sunday afternoon, a Collective Light Bulb of Ratiocination lit up above our gathered heads.

“Let’s go to Silver Springs!”

Silver Springs

Silver Springs, indeed. How could we not go? Located a relative stone’s throw from Ocala, which in turn is the Wide Spot in the Road nearest to Eli’s Florida home-away-from-home, Silver Springs is a venerable Sunshine State Tourist Trap Attraction. It sits on the site of an enormous fresh water spring, one that gushes millions of gallons of fresh, clear water a day, water that has traveled hundreds of miles through the limestone aquifers of Georgia and northern Florida. It is a riparian nature preserve, home of the famed Silver Springs glass-bottomed boats.

The Seminole Indian village that used to sit here is, alas, now defunct. At the very least, I observed no Casino Tracks during our visit. But there was plenty of other stuff to see. Alligators! Crocodiles! Snakes!

Gator Jimbo

Silver Springs houses a collection of monster reptiles that would make a certain Rest Stop Proprietor crap a blood clot in fear. One of these bad boys, an American crocodile fully thirteen feet in length, looked to be an inert block of granite, carven with reptilian Scale-Runes.

Huge-Ass Croc 1
This little feller is 13 feet long, the biggest American croc in captivity.

But then, he moved. He opened his mouth in a Honkin’ Big Smile. Check out that gaping maw. It’s the last thing your poodle - or you, for that matter - would see before Mr. Antediluvian Jones goes into his spasmodic Death-Roll, dragging you under to put up in his little mud-cupboard, there to...soften up a wee bit before becoming the Main Course. I took these pictures standing less than three feet away, protected only by a plexiglas shield over which I reached with the camera.

Huge-Ass Croc 2
Open wide!

Then he flipped around and scuttled away. Fast. Granitic as he may have appeared, that bastard could make tracks. You do not want one of those things chasing you through the swamp, unless your Mission in Life is to become Crocodile-Shite.

Huge-Ass Croc On the Move
On the move. [Click to embiggen.]

So, yes, we took the Obligatory Glass-Bottomed Boat Ride. And we wandered around for a while, looking at the miscellaneous Flora and Fauna, of which there was a plenitude. But seeing this sign brought everything full circle:

Ross Allen Island

Yes, Ross Allen, his ownself! Long since deceased, and his Reptile Institute along with him, Ross was that selfsame Legendary Snake Wrangler who figured so mightily in the memory banks of both me and Velociman. And he was not forgotten.

For it had been full forty-six years since my father and I had last trod the earth of Silver Springs. We - Eli, the Momma d’Elisson, my brother and I - had been road-tripping our way from North Miami Beach to New York in true Touristy Fashion, and Silver Springs was the first stop on the way. We rode the glass-bottomed boats; we visited the Seminole Indian village.

The next morning, bright and early, we headed over to Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute.

We had a long day of driving ahead of us, and so we wanted to see the snakes and then get the hell out of Dodge. Despite the early hour, Ross Allen opened the place up for us - just us! - and gave us what amounted to a private tour of the facilities. I never forgot it, being all of eight years old at the time.

And now you can see it, too: a one-minute peek at a true American Legend, Ross Allen. And both little Elissons...and their Momma. Glass-bottomed boats, alligators, hog-nosed snakes (with which my brother was not exactly thrilled), and the Old Rattlesnake ’n’ Balloon Trick.

Where else but Florida?

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