It was 1937, and the Great Depression showed no signs of relinquishing its brutish grip on either of the nations - the Americans' or the hoboes.' Sully Irwin, aka Doc Aquatic, having fought and robbed and pickpocketed and unmentionabled his way from Hampton, Virginia to South Florida, was a man on a mission, nearly devoid of hope, but not officially resigned.
In life, back in the twenties, he had been a veterinarian. Then the markets crashed, the banks were run upon, the machinery of commerce ground to a halt, and while Doctor Irwin's job technically was not lost, those of most of his clients were. He let his assistant go, and then his secretary, and finally his office. With his vet bag in hand, he was welcomed back into the Atlanta home of his parents in 1928.
Mr. and Mrs. Irwin were peanut farmers. Well, Mr. Irwin was a peanut farmer. His wife was the wife of a peanut farmer, as it was, in fact, the 1920s. They were killed by a rogue family of elephants, who had noticed the scent of the Irwins' harvest as the circus train had passed the farm in August, 1929. The once-majestic, now-captive pachyderms didn't mean to squash the Irwins' heads into the loamy Georgia soil like a couple of gourds; the pair was simply in the way. Sully held onto the farm for a year, but when the bank that housed the family's holdings - mostly in cash - closed its doors, he was left with no options. He went hobo in 1930.
Walking for miles, searching for day-labor jobs, and hopping freight trains was to Sully an utterly alien existence. He survived - barely. "Oh, how I long to be a real veterinarian again," he would lament to his fellow vagabonds, "I was ready to dedicate my life to my reptilian friends, when all this misery descended upon us."
"Oh shut up, Doc Aquatic," his fellow hoboes would snap, "and give us whatever medicine you have left in that silly alligator bag."
"Crocodile," he would correct them.
As a hobo, Doc Aquatic found that the opportunities to practice veterinary medicine were few and far between. He helped farmers and ranchers when he could, but his dream was to correct the overbites of the nation's crocodiles. While the average hobo's most prized possession was has bindle stick, or lint wad, or tin coffee pot, Doc's was a rusty old noose designed solely for the capture of crocodiles. For years, he wandered through the Carolinas, Georgia, and the northern Gulf Coast, searching for crocs in need of mandibular correction.
He found only alligators.
"You too far north, man," Buck Mope told him on Christmas Eve, 1936. "Got to get way down Florida - down past Tampa. Everglades is where you got to go, if crocs what you huntin' for..."
"I am not hunting them," Doc Aquatic insisted. "I am seeking new patients. I am a doctor of veterinary medicine, and it is my intention to put a healthy smile on the poor, wretched face of every last one of our beloved crocodiles."
"Beloved? Ha!" Buck scoffed. "Make more sense if you just stick to horses and cows. But tell me - you know anything about ferrets?"
Doc Aquatic knew nothing about ferrets. His mind was made up. He knew what it was that he was put on this earth to do. He worked his way south, eventually finding the Florida East Coast Railway. In Saint Augustine, he thought he had caught a patient, but it turned out to be an Alligator. In Jupiter, another. In the desolate backwaters of St. Cloud, the same. In Pahokee, he saw nothing but crocodiles, some upwards of twelve feet long, but they casually, infuriatingly eluded him, and he caught nothing but mossy logs, and dead birds.
He had thrown his rusty noose into the water on numerous occasions, but he always reconsidered, and at great risk to life and limb he would wade into brackish water and retrieve it, swearing to himself, "okay, just one more try, and then I quit forever."
On the eastern shore of Lake Surprise, more Keys back country than Everglades, he spotted the familiar bumps on the otherwise polished black surface of the water. He waited. The animal was asleep, but at one point it opened wide for a languorous jaw stretch.
"Oh, brother croc," Doc said quietly, "you are in desperate need of veterinary orthodonture." He waited some more, careful to be sure the beast was still asleep. It was. He moved closer, and silently thrust his noose forward over the croc's snout, then jerked it back toward him. It worked. After a hundred alligators, and months of failures of every kind imaginable, Doc Aquatic was going to fix the crooked bite of his favorite of all the reptiles.
He only had one long-expired syringe of sedative left, so he worked more quickly than he would have liked, but after thirty-five minutes, he was reasonably satisfied with the outcome. This multi-hundred pound lizard, battle-scarred and old, now had perfectly-aligned jaws and, apart from the two that had to be removed, perfect and very clean teeth.
"Beautiful," Doc declared, nearly overcome with joy and pride. "I knew I could do it." Such was his satisfaction, his unadulterated bliss, that he was still admiring the creature's luminous teeth from the inside, as it swallowed him whole.
The story of this particular member of the 700 Hoboes Club was inspired by the writing prompts "Doctor" and "Crocodile," courtesy of my friends at STUDIO 30 PLUS.