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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
One musical note, held long and loud. Would the beast call out in return?
By Jeff Klinkenberg
Published June 10, 2007
One musical note, held long and loud.
[Times photo: Lara Cerri]
[Times photo: Lara Cerri]
John Banther, a student of Florida Orchestra principal tuba player William Mickelsen, lets loose with a booming B flat that reverberated through the deck.
[Times photo: Lara Cerri]
At Gatorland, an old-timey attraction near Kissimmee, the Florida Orchestra's principal tuba player, William Mickelsen, begins his serenade.
[Times photo: Lara Cerri]
The alligators initially responded to Mickelsen's deep B flat not with a bellow but with a courtship ritual. This female climbs onto onto the male's back to test his strength. No weak men for her.
On the way to playing tuba for an audience of alligators, William Mickelsen felt cocky enough to talk about his musical chops.
His well-trained jaw muscles, his lips and his tongue felt up to the task. His majestic lungs felt strong and elastic. He and his tuba were ready for whatever reptilian drama lay ahead. The night before, he and his fellow artists in the Florida Orchestra had played at Ruth Eckerd Hall behind composer Marvin Hamlisch, the Oscar winner for The Way We Were. Everything had gone swimmingly.
At Gatorland, the old tourist attraction near Kissimmee, Mickelsen was going to play a deep B flat for a battle-scarred, amorous male alligator named Toxic.
During mating season, alligators are known to do astonishing things. They swim miles looking for mates, crawl over land to find new girlfriends and scrap with other leathery Casanovas that happen along.
In the spring, feisty alligators, usually males, grunt and hiss.
They roar like thunder.
My ambition: to learn whether Toxic and his gator colleagues might answer Mickelsen's tuba with earth-shaking roars of their own.
If Toxic fell in love with the tuba, or even if he attacked it, we'd have a grand story to tell. Come to think of it, whatever happened would be grand.
A few months ago I heard an intriguing report on National Public Radio about the musical note B flat and its mysterious role in nature's soundtrack.
Certain black holes in outer space, reported NPR, hum in the key of B flat. Interesting. But not as interesting as the relationship between B flat and alligators. Play a low B flat just right, the reporter declared, and modern dinosaurs will reply with terrible bellows.
The report was inspired by an obscure study, "Responses of Captive Alligators to Auditory Stimulation, " conducted at the Museum of Natural History in New York City in 1944. Researchers had discovered by accident that B flat - and no other note - seemed to provoke alligator song. For whatever reason, that low B flat was part of the alligator's vocabulary.
I called Kent Vliet, the University of Florida's alligator expert, and told him about our upcoming concert for the dinosaurs. Vliet admitted he had once tried to duplicate the B flat experiment. But nothing happened when his tuba guy started with the oom-pah-pah.
"I suspect it's bunk, " Vliet told me.
I refused to be discouraged, seeing how I was headed to Gatorland with a sweet-lipped ringer who could play tuba like Johnny B. Goode had played guitar.
Chuck Berry wrote his rock 'n' roll anthem, by the way, in the key of B flat.
William Mickelsen, who was born in Ohio in 1952, took up the tuba after seeing The Music Man at age 10. In high school he was known as "Mister Music." At Yale, thanks to his brains and his tuba, he received a master's degree.
Mickelsen, who has played with the Florida Orchestra going on three decades, knows something about difficult audiences. If he misses a note, there is always the possibility a temperamental conductor will scowl in his direction. If nothing else, paying customers tsk, tsk in disgust.
"It was worse when I was at Yale, " Mickelsen told me. "I'd play my tuba in the cafes near campus for pocket change. Sometimes I'd play for an hour - and go home with just a quarter or two."
Of course, finger-snapping, coffee-swilling student bohemians never considered eating him. I couldn't vouch for the denizens of Gatorland.
Alligators began performing their own singular music long before Homo sapiens crawled out of the muck. By the time the modern tuba was invented in 1835, the alligator had been around 30-million years.
Tim Williams, the legendary gator man, waited for us at the gate of the wonderfully kitschy theme park where reptiles, and only reptiles, are the stars. If Mickey ever showed up here, he'd be gator bait.
Williams, 57, may be the only alligator-wrestling teacher on the planet. When he shows up on the Jay Leno or David Letterman shows to strut his stuff, he totes something with fangs. His hands look like they've been in a meat grinder. Because they have.
A few years ago, a 9-foot alligator, Sassafras, grabbed him while he was straddling her during a performance. Gators bite with 2, 000 pounds of pressure per tooth; one fang went through his right hand.
"If you're a carpenter, " Williams tells anxious proteges, "you're gonna hit your thumb with a hammer. If you mess with alligators, you're gonna get bit. Get used to the idea."
Williams thought our B flat experiment would end in disappointment, though probably without any biting of the orchestra. Years ago, a high school musician arrived at Gatorland with his tuba and went home crestfallen.
"Sometimes we can get them to bellow by bringing an airboat close to their lake, " Williams said. "We think the vibration of the loud engine stimulates them."
Williams told us he sometimes hears alligators bellowing at thunder. He told us he has heard them bellowing as the space shuttle descends over the park on its way to Cape Canaveral. "They'll start roaring - and then an instant later you hear the sonic boom when the shuttle breaks the sound barrier. They must feel it before we can hear it."
Bill Mickelsen unpacked his $20, 000 weapon, a Walter Nirschl-built replica of the famous tuba Arnold Jacobs played in the Chicago Symphony for four decades. "The Rolls-Royce of tubas, " Mickelsen called it.
John Banther, a 20-year-old New England Conservatory pupil who studies with Mickelsen during the summer, unpacked his fine Meinl-Weston instrument. Tuba playing is hard work and Mickelsen wanted a backup player.
On the boardwalk, we faced the breeding marsh. One hundred intimidating alligators drifted listlessly in the large lake.
The one called Toxic stood out. At 13 feet, he was the alpha and the ugly; his head looked as if it had been gnawed on by wild beasts. "Don't be reincarnated as a male alligator, " Williams advised. "A lot of the big males here are missing eyes, legs, chunks of tail. Toxic has been in lots of fights."
Mickelsen and Banther, despite their reservations, pointed their tubas at the marsh and began with the oom-pah-pah.
They did not play Johnny B. Goode, but a long sustained B flat - a punishing, jet plane B flat that must have echoed for miles. Mickelsen, it should be mentioned, plays with gusto. Some years ago, the contrabass player at the orchestra complained that Mickelsen had damaged his hearing during Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, ending their friendship.
The alligators failed to bellow.
But they swam toward the sound. Within moments about a dozen faced the tuba players, looking interested, if bewildered.
"This is harder work than playing for the Florida Orchestra, " Mickelsen said, taking a break. During a concert he typically rests between short bursts of music. Plus, he usually plays more than one note. "I feel light-headed."
He and his partner began again, coached by those unlikely maestros, Gatorland's Williams and Mike Godwin, whose grandfather had founded the park in 1949. "Longer . . . drag that note out, " Godwin recommended.
They dragged it out. Even tried the theme from Jaws.
Out on the pond, bull alligators began attacking each other in what Godwin called "territorial displays" - slashing with their tails and teeth, pounding the water with their jaws. Not the reaction Mickelsen usually gets from orchestra patrons.
Mickelsen hit B flat so hard he almost crossed his eyes. He got no bellow, but provoked some R-rated action: A female alligator sashayed up to a larger male and nudged him with her nose. "Courtship behavior, " Godwin whispered.
Now the vixen climbed upon Lothario's back.
"She is trying to dunk him. If she can hold him under the water she will know he is not a suitable mate. She is looking for a strong, dominant male."
It was all pretty cool.
But we wanted a bellow.
Mickelsen has a bad back, thanks to years of hauling his tuba from orchestra pit to alligator pit.
He told us he could no longer stand and play the tuba, even for the sake of what seemed to be a majestic scientific experiment.
He suggested a strategy change. He and his student assistant had been aiming tubas at the alligators. Why not play the tubas through the wooden boardwalk into the water below? Perhaps the wood and the water might enhance the note. Even better, Mickelsen could lie down on the job.
"We want to hit the B flat two octaves below middle C, " Mickelsen reminded his young assistant. "At 57 hertz. That's what that old scientific report advised."
The cheeks of the two musicians puffed out as if storing softballs.
Though only a few clouds scudded across the sky, we heard what sounded like thunder in the distance. It was a randy male alligator, turned on by tuba, telling the world that he was a study.
Then, closer to us, Toxic started acting weird.
He lifted his upper body out of the water while lowering the middle and raising his tail. Though he barely moved, a droplet spray exploded from the water covering his back.
"The water dance!" Tim Williams cried. Toxic let loose a roar that shook the earth.
"Astonishing!" Mickelsen cried. "I didn't think it would work!"
We carried our experiment to the busiest section of the park, the main lake, filled with dozens of even more humongous alligators.
Once again, our intrepid musicians played through the boardwalk into the water. They played all the notes on the scale for two octaves and then played the notes once more. Nothing happened until they hit the B flat two octaves below middle C.
All over the lake, male alligators bellowed back.
"It's the vibrations caused by the note that has to be exciting them, " Mickelsen shouted.
John Banther hauled his tuba away from the railing nearest the lake and knelt on the boardwalk. He saw an alligator below in the dim shadows. He wondered if it would be safe to serenade him.
As amused tourists detoured around him, the young musician lay on his side and hit the B flat.
As I took Banther's photograph, I felt the boardwalk shake. Was Krakatoa about to erupt?
An instant later hell broke loose below us. The roars of the bull alligators were so loud and so deep we felt them in our chests.
I recalled naturalist William Bartram's description of an alligator concert he witnessed in Florida in the 18th century. ". . . When hundreds and thousands are roaring at the same time, you can scarcely be persuaded but that the whole globe is violently and dangerous agitated."
I did what any man would do under the circumstances. I ran for my life.
Banther, young and nimble, leaped out of the way like a long-jump Olympian, abandoning his tuba.
It sounded like T. Rex was coming after us through the wood. But he was only flirting.
"You can tell people, " Williams had told us earlier, "that you know how to turn on alligators."
Mickelsen, a single guy, pondered the implications.
"I wonder, " he said, "if B flat on the tuba will help me with that cute flute player in the orchestra."