‘CRAZY DAYS’: Hieroglyphic turtles considered as Nature’s telegram

EDITOR’S NOTE: On the West Virginia backroads and throughways, it’s that time of year when the turtles begin to manifest, looking to cross the road. Too often the result is turtle mash. Many of us who travel the state will have rescued their fair share of turtles (or, sadly, turn back to rescue one and find you are too late.) A few days ago, I ferried the box turtle above — which had its neck craned, ready to waddle onto a highway — into the woods. His markings got me to thinking about an early draft chapter below from my forthcoming ‘sorta memoir,’ titled ‘CRAZY DAYS: Confessions of a Fallen Altar Boy.’ In this piece of ‘fictionalized non-fiction’, my family has arrived in ‘FOREST PARK: The Planned Community,’ a suburb north of Cincinnati, where we have just moved from Columbus, Ohio. The year is about 1965 and I will start fourth grade that Fall. The backyard of our new house delivers a telegram from Nature after we pull into the driveway and we kids ‘tumble out like otters’ to greet our new homeplace. For news of the book’s release (the author knocks on wood and pixels) free subscribe to: thestoryisthething.substack.com)

And then … Oh gosh! Oh, gosh! “Mom. Dad! Look at this! Look! Can we have him? What will we call him? Maybe it’s a her?”

I have found a turtle in the tall grass in the back yard, lounging beneath a stately weeping willow. It is a box turtle, with odd orange and brown hieroglyphs adorning its shell. I have never seen one in the flesh, much less held one, although I have seen drawings in the dictionary. Captivated by the enigmatic artwork on the turtle’s body, I think I must have realized then and there that there were languages other than spoken ones. Such odd hieroglyphics must mean something, right?

“Well … ” says my mother.

Robby and I hold the turtle jointly aloft, like the priest holds high the holy Host at Sunday Mass at Holy Spirit Church in Columbus. Dad unloads luggage from where he has roped it down on the station wagon roof. He marches it sequentially, in stages, to the porch, where he lines it up in rows. He paws through the ring of keys he sometimes lets us jangle, to find the one for our new home.

“He lives in the woods. That’s his — or her — home,” says my Mom.

She readjusts Kathy on her hip.

“But he can visit at our house. But not inside our house. You can keep him on the porch, if the turtle will even stay.”

Whooping, we pass the turtle — now retreated deep into its shell — hand to hand, brother to sister, until Dad finally unlocks the front door. We set the turtle carefully down on the porch, into a shoebox which Dad helpfully produces from a laundry basket from the wayback, full of the things that hadn’t fit into the luggage.

We kids will return to the turtle later. It needs a name. And that will mean a contentious debate among the four of us who still hang out together, before adolescence and gender careen us apart in years to come. At the moment, there are far more pressing matters. Best bedrooms to claim and no time to waste! A six-kid family is an ongoing skirmish, not a democracy.

The turtle is gone by the time we get back to it. The box tipped over. He apparently had other plans. Or she.

There will be other turtles in the yard and woods. And cats, who will adopt us, wandering in from who knows where. And raccoons — their scary, thrilling bandit eyes challenging you after you click on the back porch light to study them. After which they waddle on their fingerish front paws, at their ease, butts swaying, into the dark. And cows from the farmlands a mile away on a rise. I love to hear them lowing in the night as I lie beneath the blanket and sheets which my mom air-dries on a backyard clothesline. She says this makes them “smell like the wind.”

And they do.

My first bedroom is on the second-floor, sharing a bunk bed with Robby. Me up high, him below. But after Dom moves out some years later, Robby and I end up in his basement bedroom in our own beds, beside a storage room down there and a clankety-clank furnace. I spend endless nights in my lair down there, nose buried in science fiction and fantasy books. I read them under the covers with a cheap General Electric flashlight, escaping all the screaming upstairs, which Robby seems somehow able to sleep right through. Mars is a far better place for me when the noise grows too loud and disturbing. If not, indeed, gone out of the Milky Way entirely.

I keep the window open as long into the winter as I can. If it isn’t cows conversing on a farm hilltop a mile away, it is the sound of trains clicking and hooting through the valley. Even now, let me hear a cow or train in the night and I am back in that basement, cool and musky as a cave.

I come from a country called the Midwest,” Dylan sings in some song.

You and me, both, Bob.

For news of the release of ‘CRAZY DAYS: Confessions of a Fallen Altar Boy.’ free subscribe to: thestoryisthething.substack.com)

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