Swamp Man

Glenn Wilsey reinvented himself around the lure of the alligator

They were Gladesmen. They lived a spartan and wild existence within the beautiful and lawless expanse of swamp that has since been carved into one of the most heavily regulated and federally patrolled pieces of parkland in the nation. Some were adventurers from the Northeast. Others descended from Crackers who fled the onslaught of Reconstruction. They came to South Florida seeking a kind of frontier playground, and they found it in the swamp. The alligator was their livelihood.

Tail meat and back strap could be fried on camp stoves to provide enough sustenance to get the hides back to trading posts on the fringe of Miami.

From the very beginning, visiting Yankee travel writers, photographers, and sensationalists trumped up fantastic tales of their brushes with smoke-breathing monsters — giant, horrifically abundant lizards. But Gladesmen treated alligators like reptilian sheep.

Jacqueline Carini

"[The] studied indifference to the dangers of alligators undoubtedly stemmed from necessity," Florida International University professor Laura Ogden writes in her 1998 book, Gladesmen. "Alligator hunting was essential to the cultural fabric of the people who lived along the margins of the Everglades."

In the late Thirties, alligator hunting became regulated — banned in Dade County, mainly because of the animal's spectator draw. According to Ogden, the move was really about protecting them as "indicators of wildlife" — nature's tourist traps. Thus began the outlaw poaching culture.

The National Park Service began buying up the playground in the late Forties. Today the agency continues to jump at every opportunity to seal off the Everglades from the foolhardy, curious, and wild, by buying up the swamp one parcel at a time and confining airboat jockeys to a series of well-trod trails. (Complaints against the perfidy of the National Park Service are almost as common in the Glades as gripes about mosquitoes.)

The Gladesman has been forced to reinvent himself and his role in the alligator economy over and over again; he hasn't been able to even touch a wild alligator since the Seventies.

Shacks and hunting camps have given way to RVs; moonshine to bottled water. Rifles have become cameras. Trading posts are long gone; most of what's dragged out of the swamp today is sold on homemade DVDs or posted as grainy snippets on MySpace and YouTube.

The new breed of Gladesman makes a commodity of the gator's image instead of its hide. He guides tours rather than illicit hunting expeditions. He is an entertainer rather than a survivor. Perhaps the only trace left of the now-extinct strain of Miami-Dade County's prodigal forebear is his strange relationship with the American alligator.

Glenn "Gatorman" Wilsey might be the exemplar of this new batch — a man who looked into the pretty muck and found himself.

Glenn Wilsey was born August 28, 1954, in Canastota, New York, the youngest of three children. When Glenn was six months old, his father, a pool hustler named Wes, moved the family to the San Fernando Valley. According to his older sister, Judy, Glenn grew up all over L.A. The siblings were largely estranged from their father, who earned a living as a handyman and a commercial fisherman. "He was not a good man," she says of him. "He was not a good father."

When Wilsey was 11 years old, his mother met a man named Les McCallister, who leased a flea market at 77th Avenue and Bird Road. The couple moved to Miami, taking young Wilsey with them. They rented a second-floor apartment behind the Tropicaire drive-in theater. "They lived right behind the movie screen," recalls Wilsey's childhood friend Keith Price. Wilsey paints a slightly different picture, saying he grew up all over the western fringe of Miami, in places McCallister bought and sold, until they settled in a trailer park at 122nd Avenue and the Tamiami Trail, and that from age nine he spent his youth romping in the swamp.

As a 17-year-old high school sophomore, Wilsey joined the army during the height of the Vietnam War. He was stationed in Germany, where he whooped it up in beer halls, until he pissed off his commanding officer and got booted back to Florida.

He returned to Miami, married his middle school sweetheart, "Susie Q," and took a job as a truck driver. Wilsey spent most of his adult life working at a wheel and tire plant. His son, Glenn Jr., enjoyed a wild childhood in a trailer park on the western end of the Tamiami Trail — duking it out with the local boys on the front lawn, fishing in the Glades, and collecting snakes. When Glenn Jr. left high school at age 17, got his GED, and moved to Orlando, his father quit his day job and became reborn, in the weird womb of the Everglades tourist industry, as Gatorman.

In 1989 Wilsey took a job as an airboat tour guide at Coopertown, a former frogging encampment that had been providing airboat tours to curious travelers since 1945. Three years later Wilsey left Coopertown to work for Gator Park, another airboat tourist outpost, about 10 miles down the Tamiami Trail. "It was heaven there for me," Wilsey recalls. He and his wife started their lives over again right in the middle of the Glades, on a concrete plot adjoining the park. Susie Q took up working as an NRA firearms instructor at Trail Glades Gun Range.

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