by Allen Long
When I was a boy in Arlington, Virginia, in the Sixties, I owned a box turtle that came when I called him. His name was Grover, and he lived underneath the evergreen trees in our backyard. I stood in the middle of the lawn, holding his meal of raw hamburger and iceberg lettuce and shouted, “Grover.” Within seconds, he sprinted at turtle-speed to where I stood, and he let me crouch down and talk to him while he ate his meal. I was gentle with him, he allowed me to hold him without protest, and he never retreated into his shell on my account.
I loved Grover fiercely. With the loyalty and trust he exhibited, he was the next best thing to a dog—I’d been thrilled when our next door neighbors brought home a beagle puppy, but they quickly returned him after he tore up their flower garden. My family owned a cat I loved, but she was community property. I felt deep satisfaction in feeding and caring for Grover, especially since I didn’t feel that my parents took particularly good care of me.
A few days earlier, I’d been sprawled on my bed engrossed in a Hulk comic when my mother called from the kitchen and asked me to take out the trash.
“Be right there, Mom,” I said.
Immediately, my father shouted, “You’ll do it this instant, or else—five, four, three, two, one!”
When he reached one, I was hurrying out the front door with the bag of trash. My father grabbed my nearest arm and jerked me down the hall to the bathroom, where he unhooked the thick oak paddle he’d made from its hanger and whacked me a dozen times on my bottom with nearly all his might. The pain was severe, and the spanking, as always, felt life-threatening. My mother did nothing to protect me. In fact, she liked it when we were spanked, and she once suggested my father spank me in the nude, which he did, delivering two dozen blows. My brother Danny received the same treatment.
My mother once read me a fairy tale about goblins who snatched human babies and left their own offspring behind in the infants’ cribs. Somewhere, two lucky goblins were raised by our real parents.
As a sixty-year-old, my favorite color is swimming pool blue, but as a kid, I loved orange; it was a hot, exciting color that symbolized both the joy I felt at childhood delights as well as the terror I experienced over the physical abuse. Grover had warm orange eyes and orange and black splashes decorating his shell and pebbled skin. He reminded me of Halloween, my second favorite holiday after Christmas. I felt as if he’d been custom-designed for me.
I admired the way few predators could harm him once he withdrew into his shell. I wished I could do the same. In my later years, I’ve explored his mystique on the internet. Turtles, says New Ager Avia Venefica, have an innocent energy because of their lack of enemies. Science dates the turtle order, Tustudines, back to ancient times, over 157 million years. Now their descendants navigate mazes, demonstrate long-term memory.
When I looked into Grover’s eyes, I sensed he was both intelligent and wise.
These days, I feel bad about his diet. Hamburger and iceberg lettuce are not nutritional mainstays for a box turtle. A healthy diet includes earthworms, boiled chicken, squash, sweet potatoes, romaine lettuce, a wide variety of fruit, and many other foods, according to http://www.boxturtlesite.info. At least the hamburger and iceberg lettuce didn’t appear to do him any harm.
In fact, Grover seemed almost a magical, impervious creature. Every late fall, he burrowed deep into the earth to protect himself from the snowy winter. And every spring he suddenly appeared again, including a few times my father dug him up without harm while planting spring bulbs. My parents were churchgoers, and I knew from Sunday school about Jesus rising from the dead during Easter. Grover’s reemergence every spring seemed like a miracle.
Eventually, Grover disappeared, never to be seen again. I was heartbroken, but Arlington was woodsy in those days, and I found another box turtle I named Aristurtle, and when he vanished, I discovered Great Garloo, named after a children’s toy. I loved these turtles with a passion, but they were never as precious to me as Grover. Even as I write these words, I feel a deep longing to hold Grover and talk to him once more.
Inside our childhood home, Danny and I owned two small green turtles that constantly played together and made us laugh at their antics. Even our father, who disliked children and never visited us in our rooms, often stopped by my room to watch and chuckle at our pets during the two years we owned them–they died at the same time under mysterious circumstances, perhaps from a virus, but I suspect their innocent spirits were crushed by our father’s malevolent energy. These were some of the only times we felt safe and comfortable around our father. When our father was angry with us and in pre-spanking mode, he ground his forehead into ours while he growled and looked us directly in the eyes with utter, insane hatred.
Even as a kid, I admired how turtles have peacefully co-existed with others since the days of the dinosaur. Our green turtles (illegal in small sizes these days because they can carry salmonella) certainly worked a little magic on our cruel father.
The next turtle to appear in our lives was an unusually large creature Danny and I rescued from the street in front of our house. As we sat on our front porch examining it and wondering what to name it, an older neighborhood boy named Roger Graton joined us.
Wondering if our pet was a snapper, Roger thrust his index finger close to the creature’s face. The turtle opened his mouth slightly, then closed it. Roger and the turtle repeated this process. Danny and I were uneasy—we hated cruelty to animals, and we always handled our turtles in a respectful manner. When Roger jammed his finger at the turtle for the third time, it struck with nearly invisible speed, taking the first joint and a half of Roger’s index finger into its powerful jaws. Roger screamed. He tried to shake the turtle off his finger, but this was even more painful, and the creature’s jaws held tight. He shrieked and cried. Eventually, our mother convinced the turtle to let go by pouring scalding water over its shell, an idea devised by our nefarious father. One of the ambulance crew that arrived picked up the creature and hurled him into our front bushes.
After Roger went home with a wound dressing on his mangled finger, Danny and I sat in silence. I don’t know exactly what Danny was thinking, but his thoughts may have been similar to mine. I admired the way the turtle had struck at Roger when bullied, something Danny and I secretly wished we could do to our abusive father. We never saw our pet again. As it happened, the poor creature’s ill treatment seemed to settle a curse on our house, and Danny and I never discovered another box turtle.
Many years later, during the summer of 1995, I married my second wife Elizabeth on the back porch of our California home with about fifty friends and relatives in attendance. Not only were we highly compatible, we strongly supported each other as we healed from past traumas—we’d both been abused by our parents and first spouses. For our honeymoon, we flew to Oahu, Hawai’i, where the pleasantly warm but refreshing turquoise water is remarkably clear. We took up scuba diving.
Before our first boat dive, our dive master addressed us. He was a Japanese-American of about thirty named Dave, who wore a sun-bleached baseball cap backwards and grinned frequently. He was fluent in both Japanese and English and specialized in serving Japanese tourists.
“I just want to give you a heads up,” he said, first in Japanese and then in English. “There’s a sea turtle named Tripod who frequents these waters. You’ll recognize him because he’s only got three legs—a shark probably got his missing one. If he comes close to you, just stay calm and relaxed. He’s harmless. I dive here all the time, and we know each other.”
Elizabeth and I and several other divers who weren’t certified gently fell backwards into the shimmering water and swam down forty feet, where we were allowed to spend forty minutes before returning to the boat. Dave hung out with us while the certified divers descended to the ocean floor about sixty feet below us. Shafts of sunlight glinted through the water, illuminating brightly colored fish.
And then Tripod arrived.
The sea turtle startled a woman in our party by swimming up to her and peering into her mask. At first, she jerked away; then she remembered Dave’s advice and relaxed. Unperturbed, Tripod moved from diver to diver, repeating this process. He gazed into my mask from about a foot away, his expression curious and friendly.
He quickly moved on until he recognized Dave; then he became wildly excited, as if he were a dog greeting his master at the front door after a long day’s wait. While Tripod swirled around Dave, our dive master stroked Tripod’s head, throat, and great shell, which thrilled the sea turtle. Alas, these creatures are endangered, and it’s illegal to touch them, but we were all delighted to see this inter-species display of affection. And I like to believe that Tripod blessed our marriage, since Elizabeth and I have been happily married for twenty-two years.
I realize my thoughts about the magical/spiritual properties of turtles might be escapist nonsense dreamed up by a physically abused kid who also sought solace in comic books, science fiction novels, and fantasy-adventure TV, such as Star Trek, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. However, these beliefs are strong and comforting, and I hold to them. Readers, of course, are welcome to make up their own minds.
At present, our home is filled with turtle icons and photographs. A turtle statue nestled in our front garden guards our main door while his brother on our patio protects our rear flank. Framed photographs of sea turtles decorate our downstairs bathroom walls, and a statue of a sea turtle surfs our living room carpet. Elizabeth and I have acquired these items without ever discussing the turtle theme.
“Why do you like turtles so much?” I asked her recently.
“Because you like them, and I love you,” she said.
“But what about all the times we’ve swum with sea turtles in Hawai’i?” I said.
“That’s different,” she said. “That’s awe-inspiring.”
When my son Mathew was ten, he acquired a Chinese box turtle he named Flash because the two yellow stripes on his head reminded Matt of the yellow wings on the head of the DC comic superhero. Also, the year was 1992, and the yellow stripes also reminded Matt of the masks worn by the super popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Matt obtained Flash shortly before I divorced my first wife Linda and she moved out. Then Elizabeth entered our lives, took a liking to Flash, and immediately made some suggestions about how we could make him more comfortable in his aquarium.
Flash is a wonderful turtle who feels like a reincarnation of Grover. He loves to be held and talked to, and his head and limbs are always out of his shell when he’s visiting with us humans. Elizabeth and I have taken him to several vets over the years, and they always comment that he’s the most social box turtle they’ve ever seen. On one visit, the vet trimmed Flash’s nails and beak and gave him an injection of vitamin A. At this point, Flash decided he’d had enough, so he unfolded his penis, which looks like a large black orchid, to show that he was a badass who wasn’t going to take it anymore. Gotta love a turtle with personality and balls!
Matt has grown up and settled in Japan, so Flash lives in our study where I do my writing. I love having him as company. And the Berkeley Vivarium, where Matt bought Flash, estimates he’ll live to be about fifty, so we’ll be able to enjoy him for decades to come. His fiftieth birthday will be around 2042, and I’ll be eighty-six, if I’m so lucky. Elizabeth and I have put the care of Flash in our will in case he outlives us!
As I write this, Flash is sleeping under his towel. In a few minutes, I’ll hold and talk to him and provide him with a warm bath and half a dozen night crawlers. But even as he sleeps, I’m filled with comfort and joy. I love him, and he reminds me of all the turtles I’ve owned or encountered and the things they’ve taught me, and my loved ones.
Allen Long is the author of Less than Human: A Memoir (Black Rose Writing, 2016). His memoirs have appeared or are forthcoming in Broad Street, Copperfield Review, Eunoia Review, Scholars & Rogues, Stepping Stones, and Verdad. An assistant editor at Narrative Magazine since 2007, Allen lives with his wife near San Francisco.