Requiem for a Swamp Rat

Everglades veteran Jesse Kennon loves to spend his days amid the saw grass and gators. But thanks to the government, he now qualifies as an endangered species.

“I learned all this by watching it over the years. For the last 22 years I've been here every day, seven days a week, you know, nighttime and daytime. It's not like I open at 8:00 and close at 6:00, you know. I see what these animals do and how they respond to different things. Each one of them has different reactions. Each of them has different personalities.

“This one here we call Ghost,” he says. “You won't even hear him coming and then all of a sudden you'll be setting someplace and all of a sudden you look, and there he is setting there. So we kind of gave him the name Ghost. A lot of 'em see the boat coming, they'll come out in the middle of the trail, you know. He won't. He might just be setting back on.”

Ghost eats another marshmallow. He is so close to the boat now and appears so tame that it's hard to resist the impulse to reach over and pet him.

The mayor with a fine-feathered constituent: A purple gallinule
The mayor with a fine-feathered constituent: A purple gallinule

“Yeah,” says Kennon, with a chuckle. “This is definitely not a petting zoo. He looks like he's very docile and he basically is, but you know if he feels threatened, then he becomes aggressive just out of protection.”

The faint buzz of another airboat rises in the distance. “This is an open area right here,” Kennon says. “Anyone is allowed out here.” Other tour operators, such as Buffalo Tiger's and Everglades Safari, have divided the land into informal but well-defined turfs. “They respect other people's territory and they'll stay away, most of them,” Kennon notes. “I think that looks like my friend Billie coming over.”

The man presumed to be Billie sidles up alongside the hammock and cuts his engine. It's impossible to see him over the tree line. “You all right?” Billie shouts.

“Yeah, we're all right,” Kennon answers.

“All right?”

“Yeah, I'm fine. Were you out just riding around?”

“Yeah, just farting around a little bit.”

“All right. I'm just sitting here talking, that's all.”

Billie heads off. As the noise from his airboat fades, the croaking of the bullfrogs and the click click of the tiny green tree frogs picks up.

“It is nice just to come out here and relax,” Kennon says. “It's totally relaxing. It's nice because even after work sometimes I'll just get out and kinda ride or just come out and set sometimes. 'Cause at night it's like a shift change. Everything becomes very still, you know. It's like before the next shift really starts. There's a feeling this time of day. The air feels different, with the winds usually dying down. The day animals are going to sleep and the night ones are just waking up.”

Before him, two young female alligators clock in by entering the canal. Kennon throws each of them a marshmallow. He watches, smiling, as they silently consider -- then devour -- the treats.

Even in the fading light, Kennon's skin appears so fair and is burnt such a violent shade of red, that he appears to be the last person who should spend his days out in the Florida sun. “My ancestors were Welsh, English, and Irish,” he explains. “The whole family's from southeast Missouri, though, basically from a part of the state that was major farmland, what they called the Dutch Valley. A lot of English sea captains settled in that particular area also. So that's my heritage.

“My cousin John Cooper originally came down here toward the end of World War II. The war plants where he had been building ammo were slowing down. He figured he needed some place to make a living. The family are all outdoorsmen, you know, so he came down here to Florida to start frogging.

“You know where now is Dade Corners? Well, just across the street from Dade Corners there used to be a little pier there. They'd drive their homemade wooden airboats up there and they'd clean their frogs and sell 'em to different passersby or take 'em to the fish houses or wherever they would sell 'em to. People'd see them selling their frog legs there and start asking them to take 'em for a ride in the Everglades. So John, he figured: “Well, heck, if I build a bigger boat I can haul people during the daytime in the Everglades and in the nighttime I can still frog.'

“After a while he came down and bought this property down here, which used to be the old Jimmie Osceola camp. Years before that, it was actually used as a layover camp while they built the road during the Twenties. John and his family lived in tents here for two years before he built the first house, in 1947. They were tough people, real pioneers. Everyone in my family's been this way. That's how they started the first commercial airboat rides in the Everglades. The family's been here ever since.

“I didn't come here directly. I was a kid raised basically on the farm, in southeast Missouri. I quit school when I was in the ninth grade. I was playing first-string football and I got my leg tore up so I couldn't play. Once I couldn't play sports anymore it was like, eh, now I can't play and have fun, so let's make a living. That was my outlook. When I turned fifteen, I left the farm and went to work in the city, St. Louis. I was a butcher's helper and then a packer in a warehouse. When I was sixteen, I come home drunk one night at midnight, threw everything I had in a car, and went to California.

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