Inside the Gator
What am I doing on the stage in an alligator costume before a cheering audience I cannot see and can barely hear, bouncing to the music and trying not to fall off the stage? My daughter, Genne´, drafted me to be Albert, the University of Florida mascot, for the Cure by Design fashion show to raise money for cancer research. How could I say no? As the models, all cancer survivors, drift by in a world of bright light and music, I bounce and stumble like a drunken hockey goalie, doing my surreal part toward finding a cure.
Alberta and I suit up in a storage room just off stage. Terry, an O.R. nurse who works with Genne´, is having problems with her costume, but I figure that she played Rudolph in a Christmas gig at the hospital, so she can handle it.
The pants are baggy, of course, with woolly green legs and a wide hoop at the waist. The contraption, which includes the tail, is held up by suspenders velcroed together at the top. Buttoned to the suspenders is a foam breastplate that prevents the front-heavy head from tipping forward. I slip on the huge orange jersey, jam on the doughy Gator feet that I’m supposed to walk in, and I’m ready for the head.
But not the smell that the previous Albert left behind after the hotly contested Florida-Kentucky basketball game two days before. When I tried on the damp 4-fingered gloves, I sensed trouble ahead. Then I think about all those cancer-survivors taking part in Cure by Design, too many of them kids, and the many more who will benefit from the research funded by the show, and it’s hard to feel sorry for myself. Besides, I only have to be in here for a few minutes.
I’m surprised how heavy it is. Not as heavy as a fifth-grader’s backpack, but heavy in a massive but resting-on-my-shoulders way. My head wedged snugly in the suspension system, I shuffle after Alberta toward the darkened wings of the stage to await our turn. We are ready.
Inside the full costume I feel totally sealed off. I’m vaguely aware of what is going on from yesterday’s rehearsal, with the models bravely struttin’ their stuff to the upbeat music in designer outfits donated by local stores. Visual contact with the brightly lit stage and the shadowy backstage crew comes only through the narrow mouth, hinged with a spring mechanism so it flops open and closed. Even that elusive slit is draped with black mesh. Of course, the fact that I had to remove my glasses doesn’t help. Sounds seem distant. After posing with some models awaiting their number, I yell to the side of Alberta’s head, “You seem to be a mile away.”
“I am,” she replies,
I soon learn that the costume is not engineered for a tall person because when the head rests on top of the breastplate, the jaws point 45 degrees toward the ground, so all I can see are feet and electrical cables. I roll my shoulders forward to catch the rim of Albert’s neck while arching my back like a drum major, a posture that makes chiropractors thumb through yacht catalogues. But it works for me.
After the shadowy forms stop floating past, someone mercifully leads me from the stage. I follow Alberta back to the dressing room, where I remove my head and stare at my hybrid self in the mirror. As I begin to change into my next costume, a shirt and tie for the benefit luncheon, I reflect that Albert was a success. Nobody was injured, including me. My high-5’s didn’t deck anybody. And my Gator Chomp was convincing enough, even though I rooted for my Wolverines against the Gators in the Outback Bowl. I’m proud to be associated with these survivors. Proud of my daughter, who had produced the event. And most importantly, I’m proud that Cure by Design raised a quarter of a million dollars for cancer research. I am Albert, and Albert rules!