Fred Langdale, right, helps tune a guitar that is being used by fellow student, Amy Perry during class. Langdale lost his arm to an alligator attack about a month ago. When Langdale gets his prosthetic arm, he will start playing guitar again.
Moore Haven, Florida (News-Press) -- Steering past the sugar cane hemming his yard and over a bridge named for his great-grandmother, Fred Langdale pulled his pickup into his school's parking lot Monday to join 50 Moore Haven seniors for the first day of class.
The 17-year-old scooted into his seat for first period: math for college readiness. His teacher passed out a sheet with clues for a scavenger hunt to learn the classroom rules.
"Any questions?" she asked.
Langdale raised his left hand. His first instinct is sometimes to lift his right, which is gone.
"What if you can't write?" he asked, lightly.
"You can partner with somebody," said the teacher.
If anyone at his school was wondering if they should tiptoe around the fact that half of the senior's right arm ended up in a gator's belly over the summer, they could look to Langdale and those worries may dissolve.
Photo Gallery: Teen loses part of arm in alligator attack
"Shake what's left of my arm," he said to a classmate during the hunt. The boy obliged. They both smirked.
The early July gator attack attracted a national spotlight to Langdale and his native Moore Haven, population 1,680, a town surrounded by sugar, citrus and cows. The gator bit off his right arm while the teen was swimming in the Caloosahatchee River. Since then, townspeople said river swimming has tapered. (That trend doesn't include Langdale, but more on that later.)
His plucky reaction has made Moore Haven proud. Some people navigate life with a stiff upper lip. Langdale's approach is much warmer. "There's no way around it so might as well do it with a smile," he said.
Daily living skills
Langdale has learned to drive his truck without his right hand. He can shoot a .22 rifle. His father is rigging his airboat so he can drive left-handed. His mother has seen him rip the plastic from a paper towel roll with his teeth rather than asking for help.
Buttoning jeans is his biggest annoyance. Wranglers are near impossible, so he sticks with Aeropostale. Before school, in his room with a sign "I'm Just a Country Boy," he wriggled into jeans. A guitar was on his bed. He is taking a guitar class in school and plans to learn how to strum with his prosthetic arm.
He zipped. He struggled. He sighed.
"Hey mom, where you at?" he called.
Felinda Langdale, an elementary schoolteacher, emerged from a bedroom.
She buttoned the jeans and suggested, "Tuck your shirt in."
"Who tucks their shirt in?" he said, before ducking inside the bathroom to brush his teeth.
Felinda smiled. She admires her son's resolve. In the past month, only once, has she seen him waiver in optimism. That was after a second surgery on his right arm and the pain was grueling. "I should have let the gator take me," he told her late one night.
That attitude quickly passed, even though the pain has not completely.
He had planned to find a job in the sugar industry, like his father, after graduation but now he's considering college. Losing his arm might make college more accessible financially.
Later this week, he will be fitted for a prosthetic arm and will eventually receive a $80,000 bionic arm system donated by Hanger Clinic, a national prosthetics and orthotics company, and Inner Wheel, an organization made up of wives of Rotary members.
The family is grateful for the kindness of strangers and friends. On Oct. 6, residents have planned a "Fred Day" with a 5K race, a band, bounce houses and an airboat show to raise money for bills beyond the prosthetic arm.
"We just don't know what lays in front of us," Felinda said. "But he's going to make it work because he's that kind of kid."
Monday morning, Langdale returned to his room to tug on his cowboy boots. Though he mostly wears Crocs and boots, he has Googled how to tie his shoes left-handed.
At lunch, Fred Langdale waited for pizza in the school cafeteria line as a semi-circle of students formed around him.
"Does it hurt?" one girl asked, looking what was left of his right arm.
"I just took some pain medications," he shrugged.
Cafeteria manager Gloria Reese greeted him as she watched the line.
"Come give me a hug!"
"A half hug," he said, reaching his left arm around.
"That's a whole," she insisted.
In her eyes, he's a much bigger person than he was last year.
The 17-year-old's upbeat response to the attack has inspired school employees and students. Thoughts aside on the danger of river swimming when gators are near, he's a model of the old Florida resiliency that kept his forebears in this picturesque but blazing-hot inland spot before air-conditioning made the state inhabitable for the rest of us.
Principal George Coates said he and the teachers don't want to limit him.
"At first, everyone was devastated. But, after seeing his reaction how could we even be down?" Coates said. "It's going to be amazing to see what he accomplishes next. ... There's a lot of stories of resilience here."
Langdale returned to a shop classroom to work on his left-handed welding technique before heading to the guidance counselor's office to join the ranks waiting to switch classes.
"Who's next?" Shannon Bass called from inside.
A student stepped inside.
"Hey, the one-armed person should go next," Langdale cracked.
During his turn, Langdale asked to take a writing-intensive government class on the computer. Bass pointed out that the teacher could make accommodations. Langdale said he preferred the computer.
"How's it been? Are you tired today?" she asked.
His eyes were ringed with fatigue. His forehead was sweaty.
"Oh yeah," he said.
His agreement offered the slightest hint that this was not like any other first day of school. But he doesn't want to focus on what's different. He wants his life to be like it was.
That's why, two Saturdays ago, he returned to swim in the river. His father joined. It wasn't about proving something, Langdale said. Plain and simple, it was hot. That's what he does to escape the swelter. He dove in and opened his eyes. His mind flashed to the curve of the 10-foot alligator's back. The long tail. Its eyes. Langdale stood his ground against memory and remained in the water. The odds were with him, he figured, given his history.