When I was a tiny little guy, I had a pet turtle. Its whole world consisted of a little island of aquarium rocks in the bottom of a fishbowl. I can’t remember his name…I don’t even know if “he” was a boy or girl. I just remember that my sister killed him.
About once a week, one of my supervising adults would clean my turtle’s bowl, and that entailed filling it with water and scooping the rocks out for cleaning. Meanwhile the turtle would swim…swim…and swim. As it turned out, my sister was the responsible supervising adult to whom the bowl cleaning fell on one fateful day. So, she filled the bowl with water, scooped out the rocks, and left my little reptilian friend to swim. Then promptly forgot him. He swam…he swam…he swam,…and he swam.
He eventually wore himself out with all that swimming around that glass bowl and drowned.
I buried him in my little animal graveyard out behind my dad’s garage. If an archaeologist dug up and sifted through the soil behind that garage, he or she would find any number of animal bones: the turtle, Peppy my parakeet, Fonzie my hamster, Sugar my dog, and any number of dead birds I found around the yard. I even sometimes erected little markers, all of which are long gone now, of course.
I think I always sort of resented my sister for killing my turtle, but that didn’t stop me as a teenager from being excited when her son came home from a few days at some guys house in the country with a large wild box turtle. It was about six inches long and very docile. He found it near the White River while he and his mom were staying with this guy for a few days, so he picked it up and took it home as a pet.
My sister had met a man after her house burned…a man she ended up marrying…and a man who turned out to be abusive. Despite that, she married him more than once and allowed him to live with her even when they weren’t married. Theirs was a troublesome relationship and he was often just plain mean, both to my sister and to my nephew. It was during one of their break-ups that my sister took up with this other guy who had the house in the country. It didn’t last long, but it gave me the following turtle story.
David brought it home and for some reason painted it white, probably my sister’s idea. Regardless of who thought of it, the poor thing got painted.
I think this little guy had a cat’s set of lives. First, to even get to be six inches long meant he had already lived for several years, maybe decades despite the perils of the White River. Eastern box turtles in the wild can live to be up to 100 years old and be only about six inches long. I don’t know for sure what kind of turtle my nephew’s painted turtle was, but I think he had the potential to be quite old. Secondly, he survived being painted and the return of my bad-attitude brother-in-law.
After the little guy got painted white, he also fell into tooth range of my nephew’s dog, Smokey. Smokey was a great dog, but he didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to try to eat a box turtle. So, when he got the chance, he snagged the reptile up and chewed around on him, leaving multiple scratches in the white paint on his shell. Even so, the turtle was rescued before he could suffer death by dog.
Eventually, as I’ve said, my sister reconciled with “Sicko.” (That’s the name she ultimately gave her sometimes husband. When they finally broke up for good, the bitterness he left behind hung around for many years.) Anyway, when he returned to the house and found the turtle there with the crazy painted and scratched up shell, and when he learned where it came from, he was having none of it. He took the kidnapped fella out the back door of my sister’s house on south Monroe Street and tossed it all the way across the backyard and into the alley.
Gone. David’s turtle was gone. Thrown by a grown man hard enough to fly thirty or forty feet in the air and land hard in the gravel alley. My nephew was not allowed to retrieve it. And, it was nowhere near any body of water. We assumed that he didn’t survive the hard landing.
Okay, so let’s recount the abuse this turtle faced:
1. Kidnapped by a twelve year old boy from its home
2. Removed from its normal food sources
3. Had its shell painted white
4. Chewed on by a large dog
5. Thrown forty feet out a back door
6. Abandoned miles from any natural habitat
When I heard about all this, I was upset. I had always had a hyperactive sense of empathy even toward animals, and I was especially sensitive toward cruelty. I couldn’t believe what had happened to this poor helpless turtle.
In thinking back on this series of events, this must have been the spring or early summer of 1978. It was quite an eventful year for me, and this just adds to the character of that special year.
The reason I say spring or summer was because about a week later, my dad was out mowing the lawn. We lived about four or five blocks east of my sister. She lived at about 20th and Monroe; while we lived at 21st and Hackley. Anyway, it was a nice sunny day and my dad was cutting the grass in the side yard near the road. As he was mowing along, he happened to glance over at the pavement on 21st Street and he spied our little turtle friend just trudging along, headed east…like he knew where he was going.
My dad must have heard the story of the plight of this little guy because he stopped his chore long enough to pick the turtle up out of the road and put him in our yard. When I got home, he asked me about David’s turtle.
“Did you say they painted it?” he asked.
“Yeah, they painted it white,” I answered.
"Well, you won't believe this," he continued, "but..."
Then, he told me the story…I went out and looked…and sure enough…it was David’s painted turtle all right. Safe and sound. In my backyard. He was right. I couldn’t believe it!
But, what to do with it?
I kept it around for a couple of days. I needed to think about what to do. Could I keep it? Maybe. I considered it. It couldn't go back to David. What else could I do? That’s when my empathy kicked in. If I were the turtle, what would I want me to do?
I figured he’d want to go home. I figured that was where he was headed as he meandered down 21st Street. So, I decided to fulfill that desire. I would return him to the White River.
I put him in a box, loaded him up in my dad’s ’68 Chevy Nova, and he and I took a drive. We went out Burlington Drive to Inlow Springs Road. I found a pull off along the river and parked the car. I then carried my little friend to the water’s edge and let him go.
It was an odd parting really. You’d think that the turtle would simply swim off into the water and be gone, but that’s not exactly how it happened. He did scuttle right into the water, but instead of simply diving into the depths, never to be seen again, he came back up and looked at me.
He surfaced and looked right at me. Then, he went down again for a few seconds before returning once more to the surface to look at me. He did that three or four times before he finally swam away. It was almost as if he appreciated what I had done for him and he was saying “thank you.”
I want to believe that anyway.
Now, here’s a thought for you: Box turtles can live to be 100 years old. This story occurred in 1978. That was, as of this writing, only 35 years ago. There is a reasonable chance that my little friend may still be swimming around the White River out east of Muncie. So, if you happen to come across an old box turtle with what seems to be the residue of old white paint on his shell…first, leave him be…second, tell him hello for me.