By Michael E. Miller
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The Wilseys occupied Gator Park's rear lot for more than 10 years. He worked hard to build his spot into a small paradise, erecting a winding deck, a pair of fire pits, and a dock over the water out back. From there it was open access to thousands of acres of Everglades; in the late summer the water came up to the edge of his front door. His enthusiasm overflowed.
The Everglades became Wilsey's full-time occupation. He joined the Airboat Association of Florida and began writing for its Website. He answered questions, told personal stories, and grappled with the wisdom of the National Park Service. "A lifetime of knowledge is worth as much or more than any college degree," he wrote in a posting titled Why I Do What I Do. "I live in the Everglades and I know my back yard better than any scientist, and my opinion is valid too."
Wilsey took on the role of an ambassador to the wilderness — a man intimately in touch with the swamp and one who revels in the experience of fearlessly swimming with alligators.
"It's almost erotic," he says.
On his MySpace page, the activity seems to define him. "I grew up in the Florida Everglades and learned to swim with wild alligators. I write about my life in the Everglades and why I swim with wild alligators."
Tourists loved Wilsey. He made them feel at home in the menacing mire. "You're safer walking through the Everglades for 30 days with no weapon than you are walking through any major city for one hour with a weapon," he would say to them from his elevated captain's chair.
Wilsey represented exactly the man they had traveled thousands of miles to see: a gentle American Crocodile Dundee — a genuine local, full of folksy wisdom and wonderful stories.
"Glenn was very knowledgeable about the Everglades," recalls his friend, Airboat Association president Keith Price. "When people called with questions, they would be directed to Gatorman [Wilsey], Gator John, and me, the Sawgrass Cowboy."
Before long, Wilsey was manufacturing his own DVD — Come Tour the Everglades with Gatorman and His Friends — and selling it online.
Wilsey would later have a falling out with the Airboat Association and be forced to enlist the help of an attorney to get his stories back for the purposes of his own Website, Airboats, Animals of Florida (aaof.us).
It's quitting time at Coopertown. The last tour boats have pulled into the dock at the tourist outpost, the oldest airboat service in the state. Mosquito-bitten fishermen are popping into the sagging restaurant and knickknack shop to pick up a cold one for the ride home.
The afternoon sun has fallen to a serene angle, bathing the gawky young boat drivers in tangerine light as they drain the day's cloudy water from a fish tank full of baby gators. The youths lug the foot-long reptiles toward a series of pens out back, where a half-dozen plump alligators await performances on sets of rap videos and potato chip commercials. Declining tour revenue has led Jesse Kennon, the 65-year-old "mayor" and owner of Coopertown, to supplement his income by renting out his facilities for television and commercial shoots.
"Glenn Wilsey?" says Kennon, grinning impassively at the mention of the name. "I got no use for him."
Like Wilsey, the old man came to the Glades as a young outsider, summering, he says, at his cousin John Cooper's place from his parents' farmhouse in Missouri. But even as a boy, Kennon says, he was earning money ferrying unsuspecting tourists into the grassy plains, pointing out alien plants and waters teeming with strange and terrible beasts.
Kennon says he holds dear memories of Cracker tour guides forced to give up poaching to work for tips. The first time he wrestled a gator, he says, was at the request of the world-famous Bobby Tiger, who pulled him aside and told him they could make a few dollars doing "stuff with gators" for a visiting film crew. "Everything I know I learned sitting around here listening to the old-timers," he says with stern pride.
In 1989 Wilsey, who would have been in his midthirties, showed up at Coopertown one day wanting to work as an airboat driver. "He didn't know anything back then," Kennon says, recalling the day he took Wilsey out and showed him how to operate the boat.
"I taught him everything he knows about driving airboats and the Glades," Kennon claims.
In 1992, according to Kennon, Wilsey left him for nearby Gator Park, with aspirations to work in management. "He took all the names of my tour operators and tour companies and handed them over to the boss over there," Kennon says.
Wilsey recalls their falling-out stemming from a disagreement over the age of an alligator, which played out in front of a pair of visiting college girls. "I called him a fool right then and there," he says. "Jesse didn't teach me anything about the Everglades," he adds. "He grew up in Missouri; I grew up right here in the Everglades."
Wilsey accuses Kennon of being the impostor, suggesting he got an offer to buy Coopertown while driving a truckload of tomatoes through Florida.