(The following ran as a column in The Press-Sentinel back in 2013. It chronicles my tri-generational pilgrimage to visit “Okefenokee Joe.” With permission, I’m republishing it. For more on Joe’s fascinating life in music, survivalism & education, check out my other blog post on his early life & music career.)
“Okefenokee Joe is dead.”
Those words crashed down on me like a piano in a Laurel and Hardy sketch, a matter-of-fact response to my “Remember Okefenokee Joe?” passing comment to a wildlife expert.
If you didn’t grow up in the southeast between the ‘70s and the present, the name “Okefenokee Joe” might not mean much to you. If you were among the fortunate who attended one of his thousands of school assemblies, though, or you visited Okefenokee Swamp Park during his time as caretaker, you know how big of a deal he was.
Thankfully, the stranger’s verbal obituary was wrong. After a few days of online snooping, I received an email from the legend himself: “It’s not true. I’m very much alive, and I have been for a long time.”
Joe agreed to let my dad, my son and me visit his home on Earth Day a few years ago. And yes, I was geeking out.
My father and I had both seen Okefenokee Joe during our younger days, but Ben, my five-year-old son, had narrowly missed the 41-year window of opportunity. After recently releasing the last of his snakes, Joe was officially retired from school shows.
On the ride up, I tried to rein in my excitement for Ben’s sake. We had watched Joe’s “Know Your Snakes” series a few days prior, and Ben was rattling off the six venomous serpents to avoid.
“Okefenokee Joe is like Yoda,” he blurted, after reminding me that a coral snake is an asp, and its bands go all the way around, unlike the scarlet king snake.
“He’s like Yoda, because he’s really wise and he lives in the swamp,” intoned my budding Star Wars geek.
“That was a long time ago,” I said. “He doesn’t live there anymore.” (Though I was starting to doubt myself as we snaked around more curvy dirt roads flanked by thick pines.)
“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away!” Ben blurted. I let the young padawan have that one, my mind drifting back to interview questions.
* * *
In 1972, a man named Dick Flood decided he was sick of the fickle songwriting business after years of Country hits and misses. He moved to a rustic cabin deep behind Okefenokee Swamp Park, where he was tasked with giving talks on the surrounding ecosystem. One day, as his show was about to begin, a coworker broadcasted his name over the loudspeaker.
“Don’t do that!” Flood hissed, after finding the coworker. “I don’t wanna be found.”
“If I can’t say your name,” The coworker replied, “whattaya wanna be called, then?”
Flood shrugged. An eavesdropping desk clerk spoke up, “How about Okefenokee Joe?”
Flood repeated the name in his head a few times, “Yeah, Okefenokee Joe will do.”
Needless to say, the name stuck.
Soon after, Joe’s son moved in with him, and Joe realized the park shows wouldn’t pay for both of their needs. So he began touring schools, educating students about the snakes he had encountered during his eight-year “independent study” in the swamp. He did the educational shows for decades, up until this past April. It was a significant difference from his earlier touring schedule as a Country artist, though the transition worked well.
“School shows were done by 3 p.m. instead of a.m.,” He said. “It’s still show business, but you weren’t drunk afterwards.”
* * *
I first discovered Joe as a six-year-old wallflower with a serious case of retro-culture shock. My family had just returned from a stint in Sierra Leone, West Africa, where all electricity was shut off at dusk, and televisions were just as scarce as safe drinking water. In Sierra Leone, my dad once picked up a green mamba to show the locals that not all snakes were venomous. Turns out, though, that the green mamba is highly venomous, and my dad wouldn’t have survived a bite. The rules of the swamp didn’t apply there, and danger could be disguised to look like a harmless garter snake.
Upon my return to the states, I rediscovered marshmallows, the Sears catalog and an entire grocery aisle devoted to cereal. What was this strange land? We now lived in Ocilla, Georgia, where I was fortunate to be classmates with my cousin, Josh. Even at six, Josh had already established himself as an athlete, a jokester and a popular kid. This shy redhead couldn’t compete, so I stayed in the back of the room, hovering over my textbook and hoping to God no one would acknowledge me.
One day, we all went to the gym to see Joe’s new T.V. special called “The Joy of Snakes,” and it transported me back to the realm of the familiar: venomous serpents, treks through the wilderness and simple living with beloved pets. As I was entranced, cousin Josh did his own transporting out of the gym, terrified and fighting back tears. While Josh revealed his Achilles’ heel for snakes, I found my strength. My newfound understanding of this South Georgia ecosystem empowered me.
When Okefenokee Joe himself visited our school that next week, Josh was conspicuously absent. I didn’t notice, though. My eyes were transfixed on this reptile whisperer and his stories of life in the swamp – stories that evoked vivid memories of my past two years in the cobra-infested bush.
In 1990, Joe’s Emmy-winning “Swampwise” special hit the air, and my family scheduled our week around it. We had just moved to Thomson, GA, and my fish-out-of-water scenario began all over again. More new faces meant more new threats, and I kept my head down as we filed into the gym for the annual school assembly. Raising my eyes as I plopped onto the hard, cold floor, I noticed something familiar: Stacked wooden crates and an acoustic guitar leaning against the stage — telltale signs that Joe was here. It seemed that no matter where I moved as a child, Joe would eventually catch up, assuring his audience that fear comes from the unknown, and that knowledge begets power.
* * *
I recognized that same connection now in Ben as we listened to Joe’s new tracks. “Jesus Is Home,” (from his latest gospel album) began to play, and Ben’s eyes widened.
“I thought you were just a snake and alligator man!” Ben blurted before the first verse could finish.
“Nope,” Joe replied. “I’m a Jesus man, too.”
Later, we discussed all the times Joe allegedly died. He took this phenomenon in stride, it seemed. Much of his 80 years on earth have been spent convincing people that he’s not done yet — willing himself back to life in Vietnam, returning to his songwriting roots now, and occasionally sending good news to wrongfully mourning fans.
But Joe’s not dead. I know that now.
As long as there are mamba-grabbing missionaries and recovering-wallflower writers, as long as there are wide-eyed youngsters who refuse to wear anything other than their Okefenokee Joe T-shirts around the house, Okefenokee Joe will never die. That assurance brings me comfort and strength, just as it did when I was around the age of my own swampwise son.
Wanna hear about my own adventures alone in the swamp? Next week, I’ll share a 5-part series of how it all went down & what I learned in the wilderness.
The Ballad of Okefenokee Joe
Blessed are the Lightbringers
SWAMP LIFE – Day Five: Resonance
SWAMP LIFE – Day Four: The Ominous Stench of Death
SWAMP LIFE – Day Three: My Wilderness Healthcare Plan
SWAMP LIFE – Day Two: The Power of Vision
SWAMP LIFE – Day One: Trying Out Superhumanity
Of Hater Blockers & Coal Mines