When I was a kid, we always had a turtle. Eastern box turtles were plentiful then if you knew where to look. They could be found crossing roads in the woods, or crossing a field you were in the process of mowing. In both cases, an encounter between either a car tire or a brush hog blade would not end well for the turtle. So I generally gather them up and bring the home for the kids as pets. Since they are fairly hardy somewhat rare, and adept at escaping, the residence time of a pet box turtle averages a couple of weeks.
My dad was a butcher who would eat anything. His buddy, Henry Venanzi who owned the beer distributor in town (and, thus, a very important person indeed) was an avid fisherman who happened to also catch no small number of snapping turtles. It was not unusual for us to have two or three of them in a bushel basket in our basement awaiting a transition into turtle soup. We would put a stick into the basket and get them to bite on it. You could lift them out of the basket and they’d never let go.
Once Henry came with three snappers and one box turtle. They were no good to eat, so I kept him as a pet for the whole summer. I named him Henry after Mr. Venanzi. Now when feeling threatened, a box turtle can withdraw into his shell and snap it shut. Henry was so used to me that he would never go back into his shell, and would perch on my shoulder. I would catch night crawler earthworms and feed him. He had a beak and would bite the worm in half, then repeat the process until he finally got one of the ends in his mouth. At that point, he’d suck in the worm like a piece of spaghetti.
I’d be broken-hearted when a Henry would inevitably escape and go back to his secret turtle life. However, it seemed there was always a new Henry to take his place, and it was a rare summer when I didn’t have a Henry in residence.
Fast-forward twenty or so years to our farm. Mowing my field one day, I spied Henry running (kinda slowly) for his life. I gathered him up for his own good, and brought him back to the house. We built an enclosure for him several bricks high, put a water dish and a large flat rock for dining on earthworms. My daughter Laura was delighted, but my son Ricky, who had several thousand Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures, gave him a wide berth. He knew what havoc these creatures could wreak.
For the next part of our story, I invited a contribution from Laura as she was an eyewitness, while I only heard the screams from a distance.
It was a really humid morning on our little farm. Both of my parents were working that summer, so our neighbor Carrie came down the hill to babysit us. Our days were lazy and filled with classic Nintendo, tire swings, cooling off in Carrie’s pool and my first introduction to soap operas with Guiding Light. For lunch we had bologna sandwiches and potato chips. Things got hectic around 5:00 PM when my parents were on their way home from work. A mad dash to pick up hundreds of action figure toys and Legos. You think I am exaggerating. Ask my brother some day how many action figures he had.
The morning was going great, considering it was heading above 90 degrees. It was just fine in the second floor air conditioning where Carrie and I took turns trying to get past level 5 in Super Mario Brothers 3. This was a month before the Game Genie would make all of our prior efforts seem so futile. The television hooked up to our console was about 13 inches across. Microscopic video games.
Around 9:30 AM, just the beginning of Carrie’s long babysitting day, we heard my brother scream outside. I dutifully paused the game and we listened some more. Ricky was a dramatic child. He could occupy himself for hours with his “guys”. Five inch Captain Americas battling Turtles, Batmans, Spider-Man’s and the Hulk. We lived in a remote location and no one batted an eye when he would holler out while combatting the plastic figure in his hands. Thus, we were skeptical at first. Did we really need to go downstairs?
The second scream was louder and it was actually my name. I peered out the sunporch window. I couldn’t see him. It certainly sounded like he was over there though. As we went down the stairs and ran from the porch we heard him sobbing. Big, gasping sighs. We rounded the corner and saw him in the turtle enclosure.
Our box turtle lived a semi-charmed life. He had shady foliage, a “pond” ahem, a large shallow blue bowl set into the ground for his bathing pleasure, and copious amounts of earthworms and lettuce. Henry only had one problem. He was a pet, so he would be picked up by his owners and moved around at our whims.
Ricky’s face was screwed up in pain. He was panting and red. He was holding Henry. I was about to lecture him about scaring us, when he started waving his arms frantically and blubbering. The turtle appeared to be fused to his hand. Upon closer inspection, he had a turtle closed up on his thumb.
Carrie’s jaw dropped. I changed my lecture to a shriek “What did you DO???” He collapsed into the hillside. The turtle stayed firmly attached to his thumb. We entered a childhood panic. How could this particular problem be remedied? Of course I pulled on the turtle. Of course I nearly severed his thumb. Henry wasn’t going to budge. Carrie called her dad.
Mr. Zizick arrived within 10 minutes. We tried to keep things light in the meantime. Carrie got Ricky some candy and an oatmeal pie snack cake and he appreciated it. He was only whimpering now. As the car pulled up the driveway we all looked hopefully and hoped for a quick solution. He trudged up to the turtle enclosure. Ricky held the turtle out with his free hand.
Carrie’s dad looked down and picked up a stick about the size of a pencil. He stuck the stick into the backside of the turtle. Like magic, Henry opened his shell. My brother was free.
We never forgot that summer and the many interesting predicaments we got ourselves into while in poor Carrie’s charge. But that morning we all learned some practical information for handling shy or otherwise unsociable turtles. And we still don’t know exactly how Mr. Z. knew that barbaric trick would work. I don’t really want to.