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Hey dad, guess what: I was in the gator pen and lived to tell about it!

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Reptile Gardens assistant reptile curator Matt Plank, in the gator pen

I was feeling a little giddy as I stood inside the door leading out to the alligator pen.

A childhood dream was about to come true.

Such things happen to reporters, you know. You get to do stuff most people don’t — stuff that’s even more exciting than, say, having a special press briefing with the governor prior to his annual budget message or getting the inside information on a possible fee increase by the state Board of Regents.

Zzzzz…. wait, where was I?

Oh, yeah, I was getting to more exciting reporter privileges, like having a sit-down interview with Barack Obama; or strolling around atop George Washington’s head at Mount Rushmore; or holding a baby pallid sturgeon in your hands as federal biologists prepared to release the tiny endangered species into the Missouri River.

Such things would make a certain Lyman County farmer pretty proud of his youngest son, if that farmer — who died in 1968 — were still alive to see or hear that the middle-school dropout turned out better than might have been expected.

This gator-pen thing, though, might have been the most impressive to Henry Woster. He loved the Reptile Gardens, after all, for the gator wrestling and the snake shows, for the glassed-over creatures from far-away places, and some not so far away, and for tortoises older than your grandma and pythons a long as the grain truck.

My dad also loved — over the objections of my mother — to share personal observations on prairie rattlesnake behavior with the the snake-handling professionals, sometimes while they were doing their shows. I imagine they appreciated that, even though they hid it well.

For all those reasons, Dad would have been as excited as anyone about this year’s 80th anniversary of the Reptile Gardens. The old place located on the hill above Rapid City, just off Highway 16 heading south, was a favorite Black Hills stop for our family when vacation time came around or rains made field work impossible.

Since we did often go there during rainy weather, we often ran into storms. And the family recollections include the images of Wosters sprinting across the Reptile Gardens parking lot as lightning crashed into the ridge line nearby. I’ll never forget the sight of my drenched mother sitting in our  ’56 Pontiac wagon, with dark hair coloring running down her face in distorted patterns that would have made Gene Simmons envious.

I loved those stops, first at the old Reptile Gardens up on the hill and later at the bigger, more impressive location in the Spring Creek valley south of town. There, with the unremitting flow of summer tourists cruising by on the asphalt, the family owned attraction continues to amaze, entertain and educate.

I’lll talk about that place and the anniversary celebration for the Reptile Gardens in a minute. I’ll also talk about an anniversary gala that attracted hundreds of current and former Reptile Gardens employees, including three dozen former gator wresters, one of them a retired state and federal judge who also did snakes shows and was bitten by a rattlesnake and a water moccasin.

I’ll talk about the Brockelsby family, and how the third generation is bit by bit — and bite by bite — assuming the creative burden of Reptile Gardens founder Earl Brockelsby and moving with serpentine smoothness toward the future.

But first, back to Henry Woster and his Lyman County posse for just a minute or two more.

I think everyone in our family except my mother loved those stops at the Reptile Gardens. She hated snakes and gators and other slithering creatures, and preferred never to see one in person. And she always feared that, despite all impirical evidence to the contrary, one of her kids was going to get bitten by a cobra or hauled off by an alligator.

Mom died in 2004. And she wouldn’t have been all that thrilled with my latest “lucky me” experience as a reporter.

I was thrilled, though, right up until the moment I followed Matt Plank through the door to the pen, took a few steps out into the sun and realized: “Uh, well, I’m now IN the alligator pen, surrounded on three sides by, well, alligators.”

And crocodiles. And caimans.

“Just stay in that area and don’t move around too much and you’ll be fine,” Plank said, as he grabbed a curved metal pole and began to herd one of the reptiles off of the green artificial lawn and into one of shallow concrete-bottomed canals  that wind around inside the pen.

That was a caiman, Plank explained, and one that tends to be unpredictable, especially around strangers.

“And how about the rest of these guys?” I said, nodding at the collection of toothy, doll-eyed reptiles, most of which seemed to be pointed in my direction.

Not far away, a younger gator wrestler who was in the pen preparing for the next show grinned and said: “Don’t worry. If there’s a problem. I’ll save you.”

He seemed capable. I still worried, though, as Plank finished relocating the caiman, checked the demeanor of a half dozen of the closest -- to me -- gators and crocs, herded one or two a bit farther away and walked 10 or 12 feet away to assume a picture pose near three gators resting in the shade of the only tree in the pen.

Meanwhile, I was trying to crouch down low enough for a better photo angle without indicating to any of the nearby gators that I was interested in joining them for lunch. As I did so, a couple of alligators a few feet to my right edged smoothly up out of the canal to rest their heads on the artificial turf. Again, with the toothy snouts pointed at me.

“They’re not going to bother you,” Plank said. “Just stay where you are. We sometimes have problems with photographers getting so involved in taking pictures they forget where they are.”

I assured him that I would not forget where I was. A great danger, I suggested, was that I might pay such close attention to my location, and to the corrugated creatures around me, that I would lose track of my bodily functions. And I have to admit, I was pretty, uh, relieved when one of my childhood dreams had been realized and I was out of the pen and back on the other side of the door, strolling toward the outdoors cafe for a sit-down interview with Plank.

The cafe is where Plank, a 30-year-old graduate of Rapid City Stevens High School, started working for the Reptile Gardens as a teenager. The summer he graduated from high school, they were short on snake-and-gator show performers, so he tried that and liked it. He came back to work summers while studying conservation/biology at Arizona State University.

His seasonal work eventually began full time, and he’s now the assistant curator of reptiles. Along with reptile care and oversight, he is a trainer for the snake and gator shows and typically only steps into the pens in front of crowds when colleges kids have taken off for the semester and performers are needed.

Along the way, he distinguished himself in many ways, including sustaining the most alligator bites — five — of any gator wrestler. Four of those were pretty common in gator wrestling, where part of the show involves pulling a gator out of the water by the tail and slipping onto its back, with knees behind both of the reptiles front legs.

It also means grabbing the gator’s snout with both hands, opening it — and having it snap shut, which leaves room for some minor hand bites.

In one, Plank admits he was distracted by “cute girls in the crowd.”

Being distracted and wrestling is a bad combination. And since most gator wrestlers are young men, it’s not an unfamiliar one.

Even so, Plan says proudly, “we’ve never had anybody lose a finger or anything.”

One of his five gator bites was different, and the incident was the most threatening to Plank. As he went to slide up on the gator’s back, the reptile thrashed sideways and threw him off, catching Plank’s arm with its teeth as its swept its head sideways.
As the crowd screamed, Plank scooted backwards quickly away from the gator, but he was bleeding badly. The gash at the base of his left bicep took 17 stitches to close, plus a few stitches on a smaller wound.

It left more than the physical scar.

“That one hit me a little differently than the others,” Plank said.

He still enjoys the gator shows, but always remembers their potential. There are no mixed feelings about the snakes shows, however. Plank has never been bitten, And he has always been particularly intrigued by snakes.

Like the gator shows, which have been altered to make them safer for performers and less likely to offend some reptile lovers who might consider some things to be mishandling of the gators, snake shows are more carefully done these days.

There was a time when they were a little more daring, and not always in a good way.

Marshall Young experienced the old ways in the old days. The 80-year-old retired judge from Rapid City started working at the Reptile Gardens when he was about 12 years old.

“I was putting on bumper stickers out in the parking lot,” he said. “I made a dollar a day back then, which was awfully good money at a time when movies were only about a nickel.”

Young said he “graduated on to gardening, but I was saving the weeds and killing the flowers. So I next became a guide in the snake pits. And I worked all the way through college.”

Riskier behavior then was more likely to produce snake bites. And Young was bitten once by a prairie rattlesnake and once by a water moccasin. He didn’t go to the hospital for either bite.

“Back then we just treated it,” he said. “With the rattlesnake bite, we used the old cut-and-suck method, which you’re not supposed to use anymore. My hand swelled up to the size of a football. But it wasn’t really all that painful. I was back to work in a couple of days.”

His physical reaction to the water moccasin bite wasn’t quite as severe.

“Back then with the water moccasin they said freeze the bite, and put a tourniquet on it instead of cutting and sucking.”

Young said he did end up with an impaired finger because of damage from the venom.

And gators?

“I never had a problem gator wrestling,” he said. “But I was a lot more careful with those critters.”

See, I can relate.

Long after he quit at the Reptile Gardens and had a successful career as a lawyer and judge, Young was national president of a judicial organization. He enticed other leaders to hold the group’s convention in Rapid City by promising to wrestle an alligator. And he did. He was in his mid-50s.

“Too old to be doing that sort of stuff,” he said. “And at that point the alligators were stronger and faster, and I was slower.”

Back then, gator wrestlers still flipped the animals over on their backs, which Young managed to do. He also opened its mouth “to show it wasn’t taped shut or anything.”

Young said the old gator-wrestling presentations used to be “more of a real show. Now they’re more educational and informational.”

But with that real educational values of today there remains a real element of showmanship, and danger. And, according to Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender, there’s a bit of culture, too.  South Dakota culture.

That’s what Allender promised a bunch of his relatives visiting from out of state a few years back, when he took them to visit the Reptile Gardens.

Allender delivered on that promise — or, at least, the Reptile Gardens did — when a young alligator wrestler dropped the F-bomb into his shirt microphone when the gator clamped down on his fingers.

The kid’s fingers were bleeding but intact when he got the gator to open wide.

“And, he finished the show,” Allender said. “And I said to my nieces and nephews: ‘See, South Dakota culture.’”

It was also an example of finishing what you start, which is something the Brockelsby family has been doing since patriarch Earl started the Reptile Gardens with a mess of snakes, a few other critters and a lot of nerve in June of 1937.

Eighty years later, and just a few weeks ago, Allender told the “culture” story from the stage of a local convention center, where the 80th anniversary bash was held. He also read from a proclamation declaring Reptile Gardens Day in Rapid City.

The second- and third-generation Brockelsby family members were present, along more than 300 current and former Reptile Gardens employees and guest.

My wife, Mary, and I were among them, sitting at the VIP table with Allender, his wife, Shirley, and a few other local media folks. Our place at the table was, in itself, a bit of drama — at least to Mary.

A fine writer and reporter, she had a respected journalism career in South Dakota before going to work first as general manager at Founding Fathers of the Black Hills -- a business that mixes art, tourism and history — and now as a grant writer for Catholic Social Services and the Diocese of Rapid City.

She’s VIP worthy in every sense.

But she’s also the sixth of 10 kids in an Irish-Bohemian family (Garrigan-Pekarek) where matriarch Shirley preaches humility. So Mary assumes she’s never going to be seated at the VIP table.

As the fifth of five kids (the 65-year-old baby, you might say) in a Bohemian-Irish family (Woster-McManus) where matriarch Marie didn't necessarily support humility when it came to her kids, I always assume I will be at VIP table. Self delusion or not.

So the birth-order thing was in full display when I informed Mary that she and I would be seated across from the Allenders at the VIP table of the Reptile Gardens 80th Anniversary Banquet.

“No,” Mary said. “Tell me you’re joking."

There was plenty of that at the banquet. But brothers Johnny and Jeff Brockelsby seemed serious about the VIP thing,  judging by our named cards on the table marked VIP. That gave us a great seat for what Mary later called one of entertaining banquets she’d ever attended.

Well, of course. That’s how the Brockelsby bunch operates, in entertaining ways. In fact, they put me in such a celebratory mood, I actually consumed one entire alcoholic drink. It was a White Russian, something of note to all the other Big Lebowski fans out there ("careful, man, there's a beverage here...")

And our VIP seats meant getting close up and personal with the three dozen current and former alligator wrestlers, including Marshall Young, as they lined up for accolades near the stage.

Standing up there in front of the crowd, the judge fit in pretty well with the others. Once a gator wrestler, it seems, always a gator wrestler — at heart, at least.

The program was highlighted by the hilarious antics of the Brockelsby boys. Johnny’s the unrelenting promoter and Jeff the detail-oriented bean counter and self-professed “nerd.”

Johnny was willing to share the stage and emcee duties with Jeff, but finally put his foot down when Jeff began going through a stack of daily receipts from the Reptile Gardens — beginning with opening day in 1937. He just figured we’d all find them interesting.

There’s no joke, though, in the way the family has succeeded at one of the most difficult tasks in business — making a family enterprise prosper and endure.

Like, say, for 80 years, and counting.

“Eighty years is a really long time to be in business,” CEO and Brockelsby cousin Joe Meierhauser said at the banquet. “And it’s a really long time for a family business.”

Allender called the Reptile Gardens “one of the staples of South Dakota Tourism.” And is has been that since not long after Earl Brockelsby started it with a $400 bank loan guaranteed by his father, John.

Earl began the family tourism institution on leased land at the top of the Highway 16 hill just south of Rapid City. And on opening day, with an entrance fee of 10 cents per adult and 5 cents per child, it took in $3.85 in gate receipts (I included that for you, Jeff!).

Since that humble opener, it has grown to be the largest Reptile exhibit on earth, with more than 1,000 living creatures representing 200 species and subspecies.

It has also wound its way into the memories an imaginations — and into the hearts, really — of a unending stream of visitors from South Dakota and around the world.

One of them was a farm kid from Lyman County, who finally realized a 60-year-old dream.

And made it out of the gator pen with fingers intact.