Slice of Life #8: Turtles


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In 2005, I was living in Spotsylvania, Virginia, in a little apartment in a wooden building with a deck for an entryway. I’d just moved down to Virginia from New York, and after being an itinerant elementary music teacher for three quarters, I was enjoying the summer before I started working as a middle school band director in Stafford County. I’d begun teaching marching band at Stafford High School as their visual coordinator – that’s the person who teaches how to march; I was always pretty good at that! – and the summer wasn’t nearly as swelteringly humid and disgusting as I thought it’d be.

I had a 2000 Jeep XJ – that’s the “Cherokee” for you non-gearheads – and I used to have to check traffic pretty righteously before diving onto Courthouse Road, because my apartment was at the bottom of a valley (read: canyon) that had steep roads up going in either direction. It was a divided highway, with a little swale between. The strong I-6 engine in the XJ had no troubles with this, and I enjoyed putting it through its paces. (I’ve got three more stories about Jeeps that perhaps I’ll use for my next few posts!)

I was happily jamming out to something loud and fun – it wasn’t Tokio Hotel or The Rocket Summer yet; too early for that, but it was like that – and zoom! I turned right and roared up the hill… er, wait. No. What’s that?

On the other side of the divided highway, was an object.

It was moving.

Being from Upstate New York, I know a turtle when I see one. After my folks moved us to the suburbs when I was eight, I grew up literally in a swamp – Cicero Swamp, to be exact – and I’ve seen more turtles, to use my grandmother’s expression, than Carter’s has pills.

And then the light at the top of the hill turned green.

Now, as I said, the hill down to the valley is steep, and long, and people such as myself who knew there wasn’t any traffic on that side of the road and no place to pull over or pull off tended to roar down said hill.

To this day, I don’t know what came over me, but all I remember thinking was NO NO NO NO NO, not on my watch!

Brakes squealing, slamming into neutral – that transmission would pop into N without depressing the clutch button; as I said, we’ll talk more about this wunderauto – and tugging up the 4WD transaxle before popping back into gear, and thundering across the swale, I gunned up onto the road, with plenty of visibility from the hill to me, as the cars came down, threw on my blinkers, threw open the door, and ran to the huge turtle in the middle of the road.

Now, the eastern snapping turtle is many things, but friendly on land is not one of those things. I’m no herpetologist, so I have no idea the gender of this turtle, so we’re going to use the neutral xe pronoun. Xe was a big turtle, but not massive. Snapping turtles don’t cross the road very often, and it was July, so this one should have been happily in the big muddy pond it was heading toward long ago, but I suppose this “what the heck am I doing here” situation may have contributed to xyr being very unhappy about being picked up by a long-haired yam-shaped wacko shouting “I’VE GOT YOU BUDDY” after having hatched from a strange square-ish maroon colored metal egg that was now sitting crosswise in the middle of the road.

I was cautious to approach from behind, and grab it on the back part of the shell as to be out of neck-bending range – those turtles can snap to serious injury and can get an angle with their neck, in my experience! – and started waddling over to the safety of the ditch that led down to the muddy pond.

Inevitably, some jerk lays on the horn, leaning out of his window to snap at me in his own way.

I don’t know what came over me. I was so angry, so incensed that this person couldn’t wait the surely-brief period of time I was taking to save this hapless snappy, that I did the only thing that one does in such a situation.

Turning toward him – he was leaning well out of his window, visible over the hood of my Jeep as I was nearly to the side of the road now, and probably 20 feet away – I thrust the turtle at him like a weapon, and indignantly shouted a line that has followed me around to this day:


The drive was so nonplussed, evidenced by the utterly baffled look on his face, that he simply slunk back into his car and sat quietly while I glared at him – or rather, we glared at him, as my snappy friend had joined me in staring down the driver, no longer thrashing, I think sensing that I was a fellow shielded and hard-backed nature paladin with a wonky face and a tendency to attack – before I resumed my trek to the edge. I placed the snapping turtle down, and xe simply waddled off into the marshy ditch. I strode back to the Jeep, disengaged four wheel, and gently made my way back to the opening in the divided highway to U-turn a second time in ten minutes, and head back on my way.

So, if you’re ever wondering why there are several turtles in my office, like the one below fashioned by a Mayan family I visited in Quintana Roo, just outside of Cobá (another story), it’s because… that’s right…

Turtles are important.