by June Kilpatrick
My husband and I used to live in Reston in a house with a few linear feet of lake frontage. The lake could accommodate canoes, kayaks, small sailboats, and pontoon boats, known around the neighborhood as party boats.
In the water, sometimes visible from, say, your canoe, were fish, turtles, and skinny snakes that occasionally surfaced and skittered for several feet in a series of esses before swimming back into the murky depths. On sunny days, turtles climbed out of the water to sunbathe, arranging themselves haphazardly on logs at the water’s edge. But if you paddled in too close they would roll off in a series of splashes and disappear. Occasionally a blue heron would pose regally on the overhead frame of our party boat and poop a majestic whitewash splash across the awning.
In this setting, a turtle appeared one afternoon, not at the lake but out front in the street. I was coming home from my walk, and there in the cul-de-sac was the biggest turtle I’d ever seen, sporting a shell the size of a soup tureen. He was working his way slowly across the pavement, heading purposefully toward Glade Drive at a pace that would put him directly under someone’s wheels just about dinner time when rush-hour traffic peaked–if, indeed, he made it out of the cul-de-sac without a mishap. Fortunately, I had arrived just in time to intervene. My plan was simple: I would carry him down to the lake, which, I assumed, was his home.
I bent over, grasped the creature by its edges and tried to lift it. Admittedly, my only prior experience with turtles involved placid woodland tortoises, small and easily deterred from danger. I had stopped my car numerous times to pluck a tortoise out of the road and set it safely in the grass at the other side. This fellow was considerably heavier, but I was the only human at hand to save him from his folly, and save him I would. I had not yet absorbed my husband’s motto: Just leave nature alone. This incident would help that lesson sink in.
As I said, I picked him up by his edges and suddenly he began bucking like a wild pony, thrusting out his head on a lengthening neck, baring his teeth perilously close to my hand, and thrashing with all four scaly legs, claws extended. Carefully but expeditiously, I set him down. Clearly, this was no woodland tortoise. His itinerary was set, and he would brook no interference. What to do?
Women of my generation generally call for their husbands in such cases, but mine, although conveniently retired, was, as usual, whenever a household emergency arose, safely positioned on the seventh tee at a golf course in Front Royal. Or thereabouts.
A shovel. That’s what I needed. I would transport the turtle with a shovel. With an ear cocked for cars, I stepped quickly into our garage where a review of all the hanging implements disclosed no such tool. The shovel, like the husband, was missing. However, I was a woman with a mission, and I would save this turtle.
Our front door was one of a half-dozen facing the cul-de-sac. I chose one and banged urgently. A young man in shorts and a ragged tee shirt, home from college for the summer, answered. He was wearing flip-flops and holding an open beer can. Breathless with the urgency of my errand and the imminent danger to my turtle, namely, of being crushed by a car in the cul-de-sac, I explained my problem, doing my best to recruit the young man to my cause. He yielded, reluctantly, only because I was older and he had nineteen years’ experience in obeying Older. He didn’t yet realize that he now had a choice. He followed me out the door, beer can in hand.
There on the pavement my turtle had once again pointed his bill toward Glade Drive and was making slow but steady progress. “No, you don’t,” I said, “You’re going to get yourself killed.” The young man eyed the turtle, shook his head, and tossed down a swig to fortify himself. Clearly, he considered me a lunatic. “Ma’am,” he ventured, “that is a snapping turtle. He can take your hand off.”
A moment’s hesitation. But, no, I was committed. “What we need,” I replied, a light bulb coming on at last, “is a wheelbarrow. Watch him while I go get one.” I headed back toward our garage.
And amazingly, when I returned a moment later with the wheelbarrow, my reluctant accomplice was still there, keeping watch. “We’ll load him up and roll him down to the lake,” I announced. Together, somehow, we hoisted the bucking turtle safely into the wheelbarrow, facing him forward. But with a sudden scraping of claws on metal, the creature executed a decisive about-face, challenging me again with teeth bared and head lashing. “Just settle down,” I told him. “You’ll be lots better off in the lake.” Down the hill we rolled, the unwilling beneficiary thrashing and snarling all the way, my young accomplice warming to the project and preventing a hasty exit from the wheelbarrow with a firm hand on the shell–well behind the thrashing head. The welcoming waters of Lake Audubon waited.
At the edge of the lake I had a belated epiphany. Could it be, after all this, that my turtle was not a swimmer? I could not arbitrarily dump him into the lake; he might drown. So I tipped the wheelbarrow and left the choice to him. Land or water? Again the scraping of claws on metal as he made another lumbering about-face and chose–water. Water offered salvation from the land-bound lunatic who had hijacked his journey. Water it was. He swam gracefully away.
When I told the story at supper, smugly, I confess, my beloved had no compliments to offer. Instead, he chided me. “That poor turtle,” he said, “probably had important business in the creek on the other side of Glade. Most likely he spent three days and three nights crawling up that hill, and you wiped out his entire effort in thirty minutes. I’ve told you before, dear: Just leave nature alone.”
But it’s so hard not to help.
WbtR Member June Kilpatrick is author of Wasps in the Bedroom, Butter in the Well: Growing Up During the Great Depression.