Beyond the Western
The Alligator in the Apple Orchard
Steve Levi


Beyond the Western

I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember it so well because I was there and I wasn’t a looky-lou. I was a full-blown participator, one of the cabal, as they say, a co-perpetrator, a co-conspirator. It happened back in late May of 1966; a long time before a lot of Americans were born. I was a teenager—17. There were four of us that were wild, wild, wild. It was Beach Boy, Surf City and Jan-and-Dean time and we had everything we wanted except women. Girls then.

It was my, our, senior year is high school and we were all about to go away. All to different colleges, so this was our last semester together. We had our parents’ cars but weren’t paying a dime for gas, insurance, rent, utilities or the booze we stole from their decanters and cabinets. As long as we didn’t steal too much – booze that is – no one complained.

My father was a wine man and he took his own gallon jugs to the winery, four at a time, so I could pretty much take as much as I wanted and not get caught. The only time one of the boys got caught, sort of, was when he snagged a whole pint of Crown Royal out of his parents’ liquor cabinet. He covered his trail though. We left a little in the bottom of the bottle and then he broke it at home on the kitchen floor. That way it looked like the liquor had never been missing.

His father was no fool and said something about the mice sure drinking a lot of that Crown Royal ‘cause there wasn’t a lot of it pooling on the floor.

His mother said something like, “Now, George, he’s going to Cal State” like that was excuse enough. Apparently it was because he was using his dad’s car the next night.

There were four of us, all trackmen. There was Joe who had the best looking sister in school. Joe was just plain crazy. He’d do anything on a dare. Chugged a full glass of Crown Royal one night on a dare. Then he spent the rest of the night puking his guts out and went into the dry heaves until he passed out. We put him on the couch in my bedroom to let him sleep it off. He called his parents the next morning with a wild story, which his father didn’t believe, and his mother let slide.

Joe graduated with a 4.0 that he earned by cheating test-after-test and even when he got caught the principal didn’t believe that a ‘nice boy’ like Joe would cheat. Joe made it all the way through college and into dental school. He loved his drugs and one day they bit him back hard. His widow still lives in Riverside, least she did the last time I heard from her.

Now Harry was the scholarly type. Actually did his homework and read the texts. Studious type and he was going to some school back East. His father had graduated from there and so has his grandfather. It was kind of a family thing. Good parents, good school. He didn’t cheat so he didn’t have a 4.0. Maybe a 3.5. But it was good enough for Colgate or Columbia or wherever he was going. He’s a lawyer somewhere in Arizona or Arkansas.

Harry’s father had the Mercedes so that was the car we always wanted to use. It was a fine car, could make it around the curves in the orange groves and apple orchard like you would not believe. How he loved to make those tires squeal! More than once we did not make it around a corner and plowed into the trees. Never hit one but we came mighty close more than once. Every time we leapt off the road like Superman taking off we had to spend an hour at the car wash blasting the evidence down the drain.

Then there was Wesley. Not ‘Wes;’ Wesley. Or “Trip” for Triple or ‘the Third.’ That was because he was the third Wesley in a row. Wesley III. Wesley was a military brat. His grandfather had been a Colonel in the Army. He father was a Colonel in the Army, about to retire. Family didn’t have the connections to get Wesley into an Academy so they settled for ROTC in high school and then military college. Wesley was going to be a General. That’s what Wesley said. I believed him. He had the drive to make it. Only problem was that the Vietnam War went big time the year he got out of that military school. I don’t think they ever found the body ‘cause the last time I saw Wesley II he still had the MIA telegram.

I was the last of the four, lost in America like the rest of my generation. I was going to college but didn’t have the slightest idea why. Sure, I knew I was going to get an education but for what I did not know. Did not care much, either. It was kind of like what I was supposed to do in life. You get out of high school and you go to college. Didn’t have the ghost of an idea of what to do after that. Bad part about it was that I never got a clue. Even if I had to do it all over again I would have made the same dumb mistake. Would have majored in history again. That was the only thing I liked and the only thing I excelled at.

So there we were, four bad good boys on the road of life with no particular place to go. We had time on our hands, cars at our disposal, as much booze as we could steal and not a bill to pay. It was the last of a very easy life.

I don’t remember the exact details but Harry—the guy that was going to Colgate or Columbia—had been in touch with other sons of other alumni of that college. Smart parents, smart boy. Making his connections early. Anyway, there was this group of students-to-be and Harry would talk to all of ‘em frequently. It started out as who was driving back East and who needed a ride, that kind of thing. No one flew to college in those days; you put everything you had in a van and drove. Anyway, Harry was talking to all of these guys—all guys—and one of them had this old alligator. I mean it was a real alligator. Stuffed, of course. I guess you’d call it taxidermy today. Back then we called it stuffed. It was a big one, about six feet long, and I don’t know where he got it.

No, I do remember. When the boy’s father had been a student when the museum had dumped a lot of its things. The alligator was a ratty looking specimen so it had been sitting in the warehouse—if that’s what the museum storage building is called—for years. So when it came time for out with the old and in with the new, the gator went out. Harry’s father snagged it out of a trashcan. There weren’t any dumpsters in those days. Weren’t any furnished apartments either so Harry’s father used it as a couch. For years.

Harry’s father loved that alligator and when he came back to California, he took the gator with him. This was a big thing in those days but it takes some explaining.

See, in the 1960s where the four of us were going to school, you moved out of your home and went into a dorm. Dorms had all the furniture already there. When you got tired of the freaks, sheikhs and geeks, you either went Greek, that is, into a fraternity, or into an apartment. If you went into a fraternity, the furniture was already there. But sooner or later everyone ended up in an apartment. That was the first time you actually had to get furniture. ‘Cept no one really bought anything like they went to store and purchased a bed or a couch. You got that kind of stuff from someone else, improvised or flat out stole it.

In my first apartment I had a table setting for four courtesy of the college cafeteria. That’s also where I got my Catsup, mustard, mayonnaise, salt, pepper, sugar and creamer too.

Furniture was another matter. One year I slept on an army cot with a surplus blanket. It was California so it never got that cold. I stole the army cot out of the back of a pool pump room and I took the Army blanket out of my family’s camping supplies when I went home one Thanksgiving.

I can’t remember where I got my dresser but it was a cheapie. It didn’t have any handles so I just hammered in some nails and bent them over so I could get into the drawers. There were four of us in that two-bedroom apartment and I wasn’t living any better or worse than any one else.

One of my roommates had a mattress that he laid on the floor. No box springs, just the mattress. That’s because his roommate was sleeping on the box springs. Neither of them had any sheets because one had a girlfriend who did and the other had a semester to go and was saving for Vet school.

My roommate had a layer of exercise pads he had ‘acquired’ from the college gym. He had duct taped two layers of the mats together and he had a bottom sheet. But just a bottom sheet and he used it to keep the two layers of gym mats from sliding apart.

For living room furniture we had three chairs. One was a Volkswagen seat that was set in a tire and you did not want to lean too far back in that baby. The other was one of those metal chairs you find in laboratories. That was the best chair in the house. The third was a ratty couch we had pulled off the curb where someone had thrown it away. It was so old that dust would poof out in little clouds whenever we sat down. For a table we used an old wire spool that we had shellacked the bejessus out of. One year I actually had a lamp but most of the time we just used the overhead lights.

Don’t look at me like that. The 1960s were a different age. Most of us didn’t have a dime to our name. We worked our way through college. My dad wasn’t poor but he had three other kids at home. It was my education, so I paid for most of it. I got a loan but even that didn’t carry me through the year. It took me through the winter and then I had to work in the spring, summer and fall.

I wasn’t that unusual. Almost everyone I knew was broke. The only guy I knew that was doing well was on a graduate scholarship and he was getting $250 a month and I thought that was more money then there was in the world.

I was getting by on $89.50 a month and that included rent, food, utilities and all of the cheap booze I could drink. I had two meals a day both of which were hamburgers, most of the time with no bun—but lots of mustard, ketchup and mayonnaise.

What I’m saying is that everyone was broke. I remember one guy who lived in the attic of the gym. He found an air vent that he could extract and crawled in every evening after it got dark. It wasn’t much of a living space but it was large enough for one of those gym pads for a bed and a wire between two ceiling braces so he could hang his clothes. Considering what we know about asbestos today I’d like to think he’s still alive.

He showered in the gym so his only living expenses were food. Kind of funny because he told his parents he was living in a communal apartment. That was because he gave the payphone in the gym as his contact number. We were a small school so when his parents called everyone who answered the phone knew he was living upstairs. They just said they’d take the message and he’d call them back. No one had phones in their rooms in those days, so his parents never knew the truth.

The reason I am telling you all of this is so you understand that when it came to property, none of us had anything in college worth saving. When you moved on you just gave away what you had. It wasn’t worth moving but it was a gold mine to the next group of students that got the stuff. You sold your texts because there was money there and then you put the rest of your stuff in two or three cardboard boxes and left. That was it.

This was why the alligator was such a prize. Harry’s father had kept the alligator! Took it all across the country and, in those days that meant he had to take it by car. You could not put that kind of a thing on a plane, even today, so it must have come by car. Probably tied it to the top of a car to get it back to California. That must have been a sight coming across the country; a carload of college boys headed west with an alligator tied on the roof of their car.

He kept the alligator until he got married and his wife finally got tired of it. That’s kind of the way of all things. A man can be happy in a cave as long as it has electricity for the refrigerator and cable television, but a woman wants to nest. She has to feel comfortable in her home and she will make everyone else uncomfortable until she is comfortable.

I imagine that ratty old alligator started out in the guy’s living room when he was single and then made it up into the overhead storage in the garage when he got married. There it sat gathering dust until she could finally give it the boot. That came in about May of 1966 when Harry’s friend asked anyone if they wanted the beast.

We were not the first ones to get the gator. It kind of bounced its way across Los Angeles. Someone in Alhambra got it first and that lasted about two days. Then it went to someone somewhere in the Valley before it got the boot and then it went to Corona. We got it from Corona and by that time had the good sense not to let any of our parents know we had the artifact. That’s what the nerd from Corona called it. An artifact. He was going to be anthropologist so, to him, it was an artifact. To us it was something we could have fun with. We didn’t know how at first but being the bold and devious boys we were we were sure we could figure something out.

Now I am sure that every town in America has at least one scum, sucking pig on its police force. In fact, I believe that every police department in the United States makes sure it has at least one. Some are even blessed with two or three but one is a requirement. That one person is assigned, gets himself assigned or God arranges for him to be assigned to what turns out to be the one shift where he will encounter, frequently, people like Joe, Harry, Wesley and me. We were the bad apples from the good part of town in the cool cars we weren’t paying for. So he waited for us knowing we were good for a few tickets.

The only name I knew for the bad apple in Riverside was Harrison. That’s because it was on his nametag. He signed his name on tickets so poorly we could never figure out what his first name was. In the newspaper his first name was always 'officer' so that didn’t help at all. He was in the newspaper a lot because he was always giving out tickets to young men and women that were getting dumped out of court. He kept writing the tickets and the courts kept shaking their collective heads and tossing the tickets out.

He kept writing them even though he couldn’t enforce them. As fast as he would write us tickets, the faster we would wiggle out of them. After all, there were four of us in the car and we’d swear that we were going the speed limit and what’s he going to say? Or we’d dump the ticket on Harry or Wesley because they were going to be out of state in two months. Once he tried to impound Harry’s father’s car. That was not bright. Harry’s father came down to the impound yard at something like 1 a.m. and read Harrison the riot act. Harry’s father was a lawyer, which made the shakedown even more delicious. Harry was out driving his father’s car the next night so the message must have gotten through to Harrison.

Avoiding Harrison was not as much of a problem as you might imagine. In those days the police departments were small and in Riverside there was not a lot of crime. I’m telling you this so you understand that it didn’t take very long before everyone in a hot car knew where Harrison was going to be on any given night. He was out in our area on Thursday afternoon and Friday evenings. He was downtown on Saturday afternoons and evenings and in the eastern part of the city, on Sunday and Monday. Tuesdays and Wednesdays were his days off.

Summer was about to start and that was going to change everyone’s schedule, Harrisons and presumably ours. All four of us knew we were going to get summer jobs so our evenings of tooling around Riverside too fast and too furious were going to be substantially curtailed. We were not looking forward to that but that’s the way things were and, frankly, all of us could use the money. Actually, we all needed the money because we knew the next year was going to be substantially financially different than this one.

But we wanted to go out with some kind of a bang. We weren’t sure what kind of a final sendoff we wanted for ourselves; we just knew we wanted something special. Something memorable.

We had all kinds of ideas, none of which were rational. We thought of things like setting off a few hundred dollars worth of skyrockets from the high school parking lot or toilet papering the coach’s home. But we didn’t have a few hundred dollars to buy fireworks and, frankly, the coach was a nice guy. We thought about letting the air out of the school bus tires but figured that it would take about ten seconds for the bus barn people to figure out who did it. Nothing clicked but we kept thinking.

Then we got the alligator.

It did not take an Einstein to figure out that the gator was going to be part of that adios celebration. We just didn’t know what we could do with it. The link to Harrison was obvious but, again, we just could not put the pieces together.

As it turned out, it wasn’t that hard. We all knew that Harrison was going to be in our neck of the woods on Thursday afternoons and Friday evenings. And we knew where he was usually to be found on, at least, Thursday afternoons. When he wasn’t patrolling the roadway and lover’s turnouts in the orange groves, he was in parked a dozen yards back of what was left of an apple grove. There he would sit like a coiled spring ready to burst into action with sirens ablaze when some punk—punks like us—would exceed the 25 miles per hour and try to squeal through the two miles of orange groves.

Odd it was that he chose the apple orchard because, as every local knew, there were not a lot of apple orchards within the city limits. Not a lot outside of city limits either. In fact, there was only one apple orchard anywhere in the county and why anyone would try to grow apples in orange country is beyond me. But someone did. What a surprise that the apple orchard failed! It had been sitting fallow as long as I had lived in Riverside and I had yet to meet anyone who remembered apples ever being harvested from that grove.

I remember eating apples I had pulled from the branches and threw at someone else because the variety being grown was too small and too bitter to eat. They were larger than a crab apple but not a lot tastier.

So there sat the apple orchard, wasting away in dignity. Over the decades it had sat in disuse, apples had fallen from the tree, and their internal seeds had found root. Saplings and suckers were a good dozen per square yard and the variety of grasses between were shin-high. There were a good three or four inches of leaves woven into the mélange and at the far end of the orchard stood what was left of a barbed wire fence composed of a few strands of wire stretched between fewer posts still standing. Beyond the decaying fence was an orange grove through which ran one of the many ubiquitous dirt roads that linked the irrigation controls to the main roadway.

Looking at the pathetic alligator whose exterior had deteriorated substantially from its days as a substandard museum artifact it was clear it was not going to fool anyone. Time had not been kind to the artifact. In its prime, about a tenth of a second before it was shot in some Louisiana slough, it had probably been majestic. But that was in the 1920s. In 1966 its scales had been worn smooth, only a tag of desiccated skin attached one leg and both glass eyes were gone. It was hardly menacing at second glance. But at first glance in deep grass it looked like a real alligator. So we conspired to do damage to our sworn enemy, Police Officer Harrison; first name unknown.

The plan was simple. Before Harrison arrived at his favorite ambush spot we would hide the alligator in the high grass of the apple orchard. Then we would call the Riverside Press Enterprise which was loathe to actually publish any news of merit other than sports scores, and tip them off that an alligator had been spotted in the apple orchard and that a law enforcement dragnet of sorts was underway.

We doubted it would do any good to call the police and tip them off to the alligator in an apple orchard because, frankly, would you believe there was an alligator in an apple orchard that was a good five miles from the nearest body of water into which an alligator might be found; if indeed there were alligators alive and loose in a desert community? But we knew that if we called the newspaper the reporters would call the police and ask. More likely, true as it turned out, the newspaper would call the police while a reporter and cameraman were on their way to the apple orchard.

That was Phase I of the deception. Phase II was to figure a way to lure Harrison out of his car and not only go looking for the alligator but actually find it. Even though the orchard was small in terms of acreage it was still large enough to make the hunt for an alligator daunting. Besides, if we could lure a newspaper reporter and a cameraman to the site, we wanted the gator to be found instantly.

What we needed was some movement around the gator, something that would make the location of the animal, er, former animal, apparent. By causing some kind of motion in the grass in the vicinity of the former animal, attention would be drawn to the location.

We anticipated that we, the perpetrators, would be secreted behind the decaying barbed wire fence from where we would give the animal the semblance of life by tying a rope to its tail and pulling it. This turned out to be a failure, as we could produce no movement whatsoever. The animal was too bulky to move. Then we tried weaving 50 feet of twine around some clumps of grass and then pulling the twine from behind the fence. This worked well in the sense that it gave the grass movement but the movement was toward the fence and would not fool anyone.

Then Wesley had a brilliant idea. The way to make it look like the alligator was advancing on Harrison and his parked car was to have the movement of grass in that direction. I said that was a great idea but that meant we would have to be in front of Harrison and there would be no place to hide and a getaway was impossible.

Not a problem, Wesley said, and he dug around in the back of his father’s car and pulled out a tent peg. This was one of those new-fangled kind pegs that were just coming into vogue. The older tent pegs were just spikes you drove into the grounds. But the new pegs had little carabineers on them. What you would do was drive the peg into the ground and then open the carabineer and loop a tent tag through it. When the carabineer was screwed closed, the tent was held firmly to the ground.

Wesley sank the tent peg into some high grass about ten feet from the back of the gravel lot where Harrison usually parked. Then he ran the twine from behind the barbed wire fence all the way to the tent peg, through the carabineer and then back toward the fence. We meandered the twine among clumps of grass and then Wesley pulled it from the other side of the fence. It worked like a charm. The twined snaked its toward the parking lot just like something was moving its way out of the deep grass.

Next came the tricky part. This was in the days before cell phones so we had to get our timing down perfectly. We figured it would take four or five minutes for the local paper to realize they actually had a story on their hands. They would probably send a cameraperson out about the same time that they called the police for confirmation. Give it another five minutes for the cops and news people to get to the orchard and then things would start popping.

The next Thursday after school all four of us went out to set up our evil deed. We ran the twine from behind the barbed wire fence all the way to the peg with the carabineer and then we wove it back through clumps of grass in a straight line. To make it easier to pull the twine, we tied an empty bottle on the end of the twine. We lay the alligator on its belly about three feet back from where the tent peg was buried in deep grass. Then we settled back to wait for Harrison to make his appearance.

I have to tell you that waiting around for something to happen is just a plain waste of time. You’ve got nothing to do but wait and if you don’t have something to sit on you have to lie on the ground. That’s not very comfortable and there are lots of ants and beetles and all other kinds of creepy crawly things. We didn’t see any snakes but I’m sure there were some in the high grass. Then there were the mosquitoes and flies.

Joe pulled out a pack of cigarettes, which upset us to no end. We were all track stars and smoking is not only bad for you lungs, it’s worse for your splits. Joe said that a cigarette wasn’t going to hurt him because the season was over. We still didn’t like it but we weren’t doing anything else. He went through a couple of cigarettes over the next hour and only stopped smoking when we saw Harrison back onto the gravel lot.

This was going to be fun!

While Joe and Wesley hunkered down behind the barbed wire fence, Harry and I jumped into his father’s car and burned rubber to the nearest pay phone. Harry dropped in a dime, what a phone call cost then, and dialed up the newspaper.

And that was when things started to go wrong. First, all Harry got was a recorded message that the receptionist was on another line. When she finally came on line she patched Harry through to the newsroom and he was put on hold again. There weren’t any reporters around at that moment and he was asked to leave a message.

He couldn’t really say ‘No’ so he got hysterical and started yelling about this alligator in the apple orchard. The woman in the newsroom thought he was a nut and transferred him to public affairs who also put him on hold. Then the managing editor came on the line and asked him if he had been drinking. Harry said ‘No’ and then used magic word: children.

To this day I remember the change that came over that phone line—and I wasn’t even on the phone. Apparently no one takes anything seriously until you say that children might be hurt. Then everyone will take anything you say seriously. That there might be an alligator in an apple orchard was, frankly, ridiculous. But the minute that Harry said that children who might be walking by the orchard could be attacked and injured, the managing editor took him seriously. He asked Harry where the orchard was and then asked Harry to stay on the line. In a pig’s eye and we were gone.

When we got back to our hideaway behind the barbed wire fence we found that all had not been going well there either. Joe had gone through a few more cigarettes but because he was not a smoker he didn’t know how to crush the tobacco tubes out. Or didn’t care. He had seen his father throw lighted cigarettes out of the car and so he just assumed he could do the same if he were standing and smoking. Well, he couldn’t. One of the lighted cigarettes had hit a patch of dry grass and there was a small grass fire moving across the orchard toward Harrison’s car.

When Harry and I got out of his father’s car and made it through the orange grove to the barbed wire fence it was Pandemonium. Joe and Wesley were desperately trying to figure out if the grass fire was going to burn through the twin while on the gravel parking lot, Harrison was out of his car and pawing through his trunk. He came out with a fire extinguisher and was moving toward the fire line when two vehicles pulled into the lot behind him.

We assumed that Harrison had absolutely no idea what was going on. In those days all the police had were radios and those radios were in the cars. When Harrison had gotten out of his car to fight the fire he had missed the call that asked about the alligator. So when the newspaper people showed up, he thought they were crazy. From a distance all we could see was a pantomime with Harrison clearly not believing the story about the alligator and the newspaper people were sure he was lying. After all, what was he doing there if there was no alligator and what about this fire?

Harrison then went back into his car and came out a moment later with a shotgun. In those days the police had a shotgun braced against the dashboard in the center of their front seat. Apparently Harrison has now gotten the call and he was looking for the alligator. At the same time, the fire was creeping toward the hidden alligator and the tent peg. Harrison was slowly moving around in the orchard with his shotgun at the ready. Behind him was a cameraman so close that Harrison turned around and told him to back off. We knew that because the cameraman stepped back a few feet but continued to follow the police officer.

Now it was only a matter to time to see which got to the alligator first, the fire line or the cop. The answer was both. There was a convergence of fates and just as Harrison stepped into the right spot, the fire line reached the grass where the twine was hidden. Wesley gave the twine a pull and nothing happened. He gave it another pull and nothing happened. The twine had not been burned yet because if it had, it would have pulled free easily. But it was caught on something.

Now we were all getting nervous. We kept whispering to Wesley to pull the string and he was tugging away. Finally the twine moved. Then he began pulling the twine.

Harrison saw the movement and in an instant was glued to the spot. As the movement of grass started coming in his direction, he raised the shotgun and waited to fire. The great god of comedy was surely looking down on us that day because just as the fire reached the alligator the twine burned through the twine. We pulled free just as Harrison unloaded two quick loads of double-ought buck into the weeds where the alligator lay concealed. The stuffed beast leaped into the sky, high enough for the newspaper cameraman to get a good snapshot.

Harrison must have believed that the alligator had been real because he kept pumping buckshot into the taxidermy corpse. With the third or fourth shot the beast exploded into multiple parts. This did not stop Harrison from firing and when the shotgun was empty, he waded into the grass with his service revolver drawn. We never saw the end of that drama because we were hightailing it through the orange grove to where Harry’s father’s car was parked.

It was one of the great tragedies in Riverside history that the photos of Officer Harrison gunning down a taxidermy alligator never made the paper. Worse, no such story ever appeared either. We, all four of us, of course, were appalled that such a newsworthy item with supporting photographic evidence was purposefully left out of the newspaper. That was blatant censorship and has no place in American journalism. But that being said, I am sure that somewhere in America, some journalist is telling his grandchildren one of the most outlandish stories, of a man-eating alligator loose in an apple orchard in the deserts of California being blasted to pieces by a police officer with a shotgun.

And he has the pictures to prove it.