In the 1950's, '60's, and '70's, few vacation destinations in the world were as appealing to the average American as Florida
. With its sunny beaches, spectacular scenery and numerous historical sites, Florida was the obvious choice for any middle-class
family looking for a week in paradise.
Normandy, Tennessee is quite different from Florida. Situated in a large valley among Tennessee's rolling hills and surrounded by dense woods, Normandy was a bustling railroad town in the early years of the 20th century. Things have greatly mellowed out since the trains stopped carrying passengers, and the 2000 Census ranked Normandy as the second-smallest incorporated town in Tennessee. Normandy's summers are not quite as hot as Florida summers, and Normandy usually receives one or two major snowfalls a year.
Despite the obvious differences, Normandy and Florida had something in common...for a while.
Of all the fascinating creatures to be found in Florida, the most exotic and deadly is the alligator. Before strict laws governing the sale of such pets were enacted, anyone with a few dollars to burn and an unwitting mother or wife could buy a baby alligator of their very own. Thousands of the creatures were sold in this manner, and baby alligators made their way to all corners of the country.
One such specimen made its way to Tennessee. Normandy, Tennessee, to be specific.
Many parents don't let their children get kittens because kittens become cats. Likewise, cute baby alligators will soon grow up to become not-so-cute adult alligators. Although the pet alligators didn't often live long on improper food and in their new, unfamiliar environments, many alligator owners eventually needed a way to dispose of the beasts. Some may have been returned to Florida, others donated to local zoos. New York City's persistent rumors of alligators in the sewers started when New Yorkers flushed their hapless gators down toilets.
The alligator that someone brought back to Tennessee didn't die of malnutrition and wasn't donated to any zoo.
It was released into Normandy's Bedford Lake.
Coy Gaither Bedford Lake (as it is now known) is not a big lake by any stretch of the imagination. It is small enough, in fact, that most fishermen forgo any kind of motorized boat; the lake is simply too small for a big motor to be really useful. For a long time, this tiny lake was the home of a genuine Florida alligator.
Sometime in the late 1970's, rumors began to circulate about an alligator that had been spotted in Bedford Lake. Nobody believed the stories at first, but within a few years many lake patrons had either seen the gator for themselves or had a trustworthy friend who had spotted the creature. After a while, it was locally understood that the gator was real. Taking its name from the lake and county in which it resided, the gator was christened Bedford.
The legend of Bedford spread far and wide. Many people would rent a boat to simply paddle around the lake in hopes of spotting Normandy's most famous resident. Over time, Bedford's image went from that of a cold-blooded killer to more of an affable, scaly mascot. While most sensible people stopped swimming in the lake, no one reported being attacked by the alligator for all the years it lived in the lake. All along, Bedford lived on a diet of fish. On a typical day in 1996, however, Bedford was hungry for something a bit more...substantial.
One day in the fall of 1996, Bedford Lake's caretaker heard his black Labrador frantically barking. Running towards the commotion, the caretaker came across a terrifying sight: Bedford had come ashore and was attempting to devour the dog. Running back to his dwelling, the caretaker grabbed a high-powered rifle and rushed back to the water's edge. The caretaker's dog proved to be Bedford's last meal, and his deer rifle did what a dozen Tennessee winters could not; Bedford the alligator was dead. (First mistake by lake management: shooting their main tourist attraction.)
A dissection of Bedford's stomach produced a radio tracking collar that belonged to another dog of the caretaker's, a dog that had gone missing some years earlier. The circumstances of Bedford's death and the discovery of the tracking collar darkened Bedford's legacy, and the gator is often remembered as Bedford Lake's shy, loveable, dog-killing benefactor.
An article about the alligator's untimely death was printed in a local newspaper. Bill Hall, an avid outdoorsman and Nashville's WSMV-TV weatherman, mentioned Bedford's passing at the conclusion of one of his evening telecasts. It was the end of an era, and today few Normandy residents under the age of 20 have any recollection of Bedford's existence.
Bedford's survival is quite amazing in light of the conditions it was forced to endure. Bedford somehow lived through many winters, including two winters with sub-zero temperatures. Reptiles do not possess any special ability to adapt to new climates, and Bedford may well have been the only alligator in history to survive in such an environment. Bedford Lake is known for its fishing, so part of Bedford's longevity could be attributed to the dependable food source.
The fact that the alligator was placed in Bedford Lake seems to indicate that the creature was brought to Tennessee before 1976. In 1976, the Tennessee Valley Authority completed construction of Normandy Dam. The dam created Normandy Lake, which handily dwarfs Bedford Lake by many square miles. If someone was looking to quietly rid themselves of an alligator, why wouldn't they put it in the largest body of water available? Had Bedford been released into Normandy Lake, its chances of being spotted would've been slim. Another story persists that Bedford, while still young, escaped its owners as they fished from the shore of Bedford Lake. (But really...who takes an alligator on a fishing trip?) Barring any deathbed confessions, the exact means of Bedford's introduction to the lake will probably never be known.
According to the lake's staff, Bedford lies buried in an unmarked grave on the far side of the lake's earthen dam. I have personally seen the area where Bedford was supposedly interred and couldn't find any telltale signs that something was buried there. Bedford was approximately six feet in length and weighed several hundred pounds, and disturbing enough dirt to bury something of that size would scar the ground for years. (Second mistake by lake management: burying their main tourist attraction beyond the reach of the average tourist. I had to walk several hundred yards and bypass a gate to get there.)
Decades of scientific research have been unable to prove that Scotland's Loch Ness contains a sea serpent, and New York's Lake Champlain may or may not be the home of a similar creature, but one thing is for sure: a real, live alligator once lived in Normandy's Bedford Lake.
I saw Bedford for myself in the summer of 1986. Watching its glistening, log-like shape float silently in the dark waves of Bedford Lake is my earliest memory.