About a year ago, someone suggested that I write a song for a Florida song contest. Well, it might be a dirty little secret, but I wasn’t born in Florida. At that time, I wasn’t even living in Florida. I’m afraid I have “Product of Savannah, Georgia” stamped on my forehead in indelible ink, even though I have spent the majority of my life elsewhere. But the Sunshine State figured prominently in my childhood, if only because it seemed like an exotic destination that lay within driving distance. And when I was a kid, a driving trip involving my parents and all of my brothers and sisters, sealed in a car lacking air-conditioning, was always a memorable experience.

In those days, interstate highways were rare and located nowhere near us. What seem like reasonable drives now, were then long, grueling trips on two lane highways that connected one very small town with another. Between the towns were long stretches, lined with electric-power poles and billboards. Some billboards were large and represented national products. Some were relatively small, advertising some side-of-the-road gift shop or tourist trap. I clearly remember heading south on U.S Highway 17 with my littermates and seeing sign after sign for a place that promised live alligators for sale. On that particular day, we not only pulled over to check out the place, but we also drove away with an alligator. It’s hard to say that the gator became a pet, but he shared our lives for a considerable period of time and inspired a song.

When I sat down to write this song, I wanted to tell the truth. And I think I did. The details are suspect, many are gathered from various car trips that we took over a number of years, but the main points hold up and can be verified by others. We did have a gator named Lord Chesterfield¸ and he joined our family in much the way I describe:

Gators for Sale
(Ballad of Lord Chesterfield)

We were headin’ south on US 17
The sky was blue, the trees were green
Muggiest day I think I’d ever seen

The sun shone hot on our sedan roof
Sweat rolled off my daddy as he began to droop
When up ahead like a mirage we saw a sign

Chorus:
“Come see our gorilla,” the billboard screamed
“And snakes by the dozen” like an African scene
“And gators, yes genuine gators for sale!”

We were six-packed in a car built for four
Excitement grew ’till we could take no more
Mama threatened murder if we didn’t hush

But in a moment of weakness my daddy pulled over
At a shabby little shack called The Jungle Marauder
And like a herd of jackals we bolted right out of the car — Chorus

Now it wasn’t quite Disney’s Animal Kingdom
And Busch Gardens had nothin’ to fear
But back in ’63 it was the finest thing we’d seen.

When we all burst in, that man had our number
Showed a tiny little gator from this land down under
“Florida’s finest,” he said with a wicked leer. – Chorus

Mama said, “No” but Daddy Said “So
I wonder how big the little critter’ll grow.”
“Please, Daddy, tell him that we’ll take it!”

Guitar and Harmonica Break (2 stanzas)

Well once we were on the road again
We named him after the Lord Chesterfield Inn
“Chester” for short and he was for a while

But he outgrew his box in a few
So we moved him into our unfinished bomb shelter
To be ready, it seemed, for whatever might commence — Chorus

You see, we thought Chester might feel at ease
In that block-lined hole with the water of green
Displayin’ his chompers pretty as you please

Besides the cold war didn’t seem so hot
In light of this growin’ reptile we’d got
I guessed the Russians would just have to wait — Chorus

Well, it’s many years later and I say with a tear
We released that gator not far from here
In a swamp just perfect for his sun-lazin’ style

And as far as I know he’s probly content
With a Mrs. Chesterfield to commit
To makin’ gators, genuine gators for sale

Chorus 2x ….

We’re talkin’ gators, Lord Chesterfield Gators
For Sale… (Words and Music: Bob Tatum 2010)

I decided that I wouldn’t enter “Gators for Sale” in the Florida song contest. After all, it doesn’t really talk about Florida that much, but it will be included on our original CD that we are hoping to release this summer. – Bob Tatum

My daughter Naomi will be in for a visit this weekend. Right now the weather is perfect in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Of course, that is not too unusual. Sound Traveler will be performing in Port Canaveral this coming Saturday, helping to commemorate the last naval battle of the American Revolution. Check our schedule for coming events.

To respond to this post or to share your own experiences, click on the title of the post, scroll down fill us in!

15 Comments to “SongTravelin’:2.28.11 – Gators for Sale”

  • I thought it was illegal to sell alligators on the side of the road.

  • Back then it wasn’t. A lot of things were different.

  • Bob,

    Enjoyed your story of Lord Chesterfield. It brought back many memories. I understand that artists can make use of “poetic license” to tell thier stories, but, I as I remember it, we acquired Lord Chesterfield not on the way to Florida, but on our return to Georgia and that the alligator stand was in South Georgia rather than Florida. You are a “couple of years” younger than I, so maybe you do not remember all of the Lord Chesterfield story. Good song though and you should have entered it in the contest. I am sure it would have won in some category.

  • Actually, that’s how I remember it also. I distinctly remember that we were in south Georgia when we acquired our miniature reptilian beast. Since I was originally pitching the song to a Florida audience, I thought heading south to Florida sounded better than the other way around. The main thing was that we traveled on a two-lane highway, pulled over at a road-side tourist trap, and ended up with a live gator that lived in our bomb shelter. All that is both true and weird. Worthy of having a song written about it.

  • Hey, accurate details are often overrated…how else could you explain the popularity of tall tales like Paul Bunyan or any of the crazy things that happen in cartoons! It’s a riot, and Bob delivers it like a true storyteller. Mark Twain would be proud – the story has just enough truth in it.

  • What I remember about Lord Chesterfield – I remember that even though his back was tough his stomach was soft and squishy. I think I remember that he bit a couple of thumbs. At first we had a little habitat for him with land and water and then when he got bigger he went into the unfinished bomb shelter – like a cement pond. We caught minnows in the creek and some would survive in the bomb shelter. He had plants and frogs and fish in there so he began to get kinda wild. I remember one night we brought him inside because we were afraid it was going to freeze. The way I remember it he was in a cardboard box on a top bunk bed for the night. The next morning we awoke to screaming when he went into my sister’s room and surprised her. I may not be remembering that right though. One story that is told is of my sister painting his toenails red.

  • Patty, regarding tall tales a a tour guide in Savannah once told us “Don’t let the truth in the way of a good story”.

  • That is certainly well said. I’ve also heard it said that “if it didn’t happen that way, it should have!”

  • To Bob and all of those who thought I was too tough on Bob’s “facts” in his telling of the legend of Lord Chesterfield: First of all, I acknowledged, as an artist, Bob’s right to fudge the facts a little for the sake of art…no problem. However, to me the fact that we picked up our little friend on the way home was very significant because Mom was not in favor of buying the little critter in the first place and she sure as heck would not have put up with us buying an alligator on the way to Florida. (This is a great argument for kids having Dads because but for Dad there would have been no Lord Chesterfield). Also, I have always taken pride in picking the name for Lord Chesterfield. As I remember it, we were all trying to come up with a name for our newly acquired pet and we passed the Lord Chesterfield motel. I suggested that name and all concurred. I think it fit his personality very well. And yes, I also heard the story of painting his toenails pink…I was not an eyewitness to that part of the legend of Lord Chesterfield but I believe it to be true and, as Bob said, “if it didn’t happen that way, it should have”. The legend of Lord Chesterfield survives and grows and time goes on. P.S. to Karen: I remember Lord Chesterfield sleeping under the bottom bunk, not way up on the top bunk where he could fall and hurt himself.

  • I think it is cool that you know more of the facts and can share them. It makes the whole story even better. I remember that I enjoyed the movie “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” even though the writers and producers took some liberties with the actual events (one trial instead of three, for instance). But I also enjoyed the A&E special that told the actual facts behind the movie. Since I had moved from Savannah just before most of the events of the movie happened, I was glad to see a faithful account of the events in a well-researched documentary format. “Gators for Sale” uses some images from an actual situation, stirs them around, seasons them with a little apocryphal spice, and presents them in a way that casual strangers might enjoy. Before performing the song, I will often give a little disclaimer, acknowledging that not all the “facts” are verifiable but that many of the weirder aspects are. I used to really enjoy Paul Harvey’s radio shows in which he told “The Rest of the Story.” It is fun to hear my siblings share the true story, even the true legends, behind a memory we all value.

  • Great song Uncle Bob. If dad is trying to give you a hard time about historical inaccuracies tell him a totally truthful song is not nearly as interesting as a song that is 90% truth with 10% bull (or aligator droppings in this case) sprinkled in. Can’t wait to hear it for real on the album

  • Good to hear from you Crab Claw Willie! Seems to me I remember a few tunes that you wrote with some interesting details — like a house with a shrine in the basement. Also it’s good to get some traffic from an Alaskan reader. Keep making music.

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