When I was about the age of 15, I was sitting in class when I received a note from the office that I had a phone call. I excused myself and ran up to the office desk and picked up the phone. As students we knew that when we were getting a phone call at school it was not usually a phone call from one of your parents telling you they loved you.
I picked up the phone and said, “Hello, this is Tana.”
“Tan it’s your Dad, Hey babe, how are you?”
“Dad, what’s up? Everything ok?”
“I am sending your Mom to come pick you up, I need you to wrestle an alligator for the ‘Mike Douglas Show’ today.”
“I thought it would be fun for you to be on air with your old man, plus you’ll do great as long as you listen to everything I tell you, kid. I love you. Mom should be there in the next 30 minutes, go home and get some shorts and tee-shirt. Love you.” And the phone went dead as my heart jumped into my throat.
I am not sure what the poor secretary was thinking as she overheard this conversation, but I am sure she was thinking of calling child services. I smiled at her and just said, “Family Fun Time, thank you,” and walked away. I couldn’t stop going over the stunt in my head. I had been around alligators and didn’t have a problem with them nor was I afraid of the stunt, but pleasing my Dad on National TV, now that was terrifying. I hated to let my dad down and loved to prove I could do anything the men could do.
Mom collected me from school and drove me home to get a change of clothes for the show. She said, “Dad wants you to wear a tee-shirt and shorts.”
“Mom, I am not wearing a tee-shirt while wrestling an alligator in water on national television! Don’t need the world to see my ittie bitties, thank you very much!” I went to my room, picked out a red flannel shirt and jean shorts and got changed. I packed clothes to change in to afterwards. I knew this would not please him and he preferred me to look more girlie, but he had a tomboy for a daughter and this was what he would have to settle for.
We got to the set and everyone was hustling and bustling around. I loved being on set as I felt right at home. Mom and I were greeted when we walked in the studio and we were shown where my dad and the guys (trainers) were. We walked over and I was greeted with a hug from my dad and a collective “Hey Tan” from the guys!
Dad, affectionately gripped my shoulder with his hand and led me over to where the metal swimming pool was where I would be doing the stunt. I saw this thing and said, “It really isn’t that big”
“Na, you’ll be fine.”
“Okay. Dad, where is the Alligator and how big is he?”
“He is in the back right now chilling. He is just over 6 foot, perfect size for you!” I just gave him one of those quizzical looks. I was 5’6”.
Dad gave me the up and down look, cocked his head and said, “ What are you wearing?”
“What I feel comfortable in,” I said.
“Well, I guess it will do,” said Dad.
Dad pulled me to the side where no one would hear us and started to talk to me about the stunt. He always talked to me right before and never let me rehearse, which was unheard of for most stunt people. Dad new I had already been working with animals longer then anyone there besides him and he trusted his animals and me completely. Keep in mind that doesn’t mean I went in all conceited, it means I knew better then to ever think I couldn’t get hurt. I always had a respectful fear, a lion is a lion not a dog, no matter how loving, their natural instincts always came first and I respected that at all times for every animal. The animal’s safety and the animal feeling safe with you was also very important.
“Okay Kid, this is what you have to do. The men are going to hold the alligator in position for you when you step in to the water. I want you to kneel down, one knee on the right of him the other leg over is back so you can lie down when we let go…” This conversation lasted about 3 minutes, we covered hand and body positioning, his teeth, mouth, protruding scales, nails and tail- I had it all down. I was ready.
“Dad, since I have never wrestled an alligator before, what is the hardest thing to do, and to make it look like a great stunt?” “If you can flip him over on his back. It is not easy and takes a lot of strength and I am not expecting you to be able to do that. Just do what I have told you, be careful of the things I have warned you about and you will be fine!”
“ One last question Dad, do I have to be with you during your interview? Can I just be waiting by the ‘gator?”
“Of course you will go up with me! You’ll be fine and Mike is looking forward to meeting you.” That was when my heart started to pound! I hated being in front of the camera, alligator no problem, but when that darn red light went on and I was meant to talk, the world started to spin.
I went back and reacquainted myself with the Alligator and gave him a pat. All the guys were there making fun of me as usual and trying to wind me up, but it never worked, I was comfortable with stunt work and at home with the animals, it was all the rest of it, which no one knew, I was smart enough to keep that to myself and just breathed deeply.
We were in position to go on stage, ugh, head spinning, heart pounding…
We were introduced and walked on stage. I was trying to smile without my lip quivering, it always gave me away if I didn’t control it. Mike and the guests were all very nice and concerned for me. Dad and I assured them I would be fine. I was thinking, just let me get off this stage. Finally it was time for me to wrestle the alligator, I just thought ‘thank god’. We all got up and walked over to the metal pond and I stepped in, my whole body relaxed as soon as I was with him, my head cleared, my heart slowed down. I got in position and the guys asked me if I was ready. I said “Yes, let him go,” and the wrestling started.
When I was in the middle of any stunt, everything came naturally and instinctively.
I knew before I started this stunt there was only one thing I had to do, and do it fast, as I would only be on camera for less then a minute, and that was to figure out how to hold him tight and flip him over so his belly was up.
Time was ticking down, I couldn’t hear anything except the alligator and the water splashing. It was about 20 seconds into everything I got my hands and legs in position, I was getting tired so I had to act now. I pulled him in to my chest. I took a deep breath: I knew I might go under the water with the weight of him on me. I held on, flipped us both and his beautiful shiny belly was up! Just as I did this I heard “Cut” and then all the applause from the audience, Mike and his guests. I flipped us both back over and waited for the guys to step in and take over.
I stood up, wiped the water from my face and looked for the only person who mattered to me, my dad. My dad’s and my eyes met, that was all I needed. He had a huge smile on his face and he helped me out of the water and patted me on the back! “Great job, kid, you did me proud.”