A tale of two turtles

From a strictly herpetological standpoint, our family has always been a bit odd: snakes, lizards, turtles, anything from the order crocodilian, well, we just love them. “All things Reptilian!” is our rallying cry (at least for three out of four of us — the lady of the house, the sensible one, the children’s mother and my wife, is merely tolerant of the scaly, the wriggly, or the carapaced).

It began with my childhood, and my mother’s admonition that the snakes we found in our garden were, “beautiful and fascinating, with skin-like living velvet, not at all slimy. Here Peter, now hold him gently…” And, despite the popular phobia, Mom was right; hence began a fury of collecting that continued right into my own children’s young years. At one point, my son (when he was about 10) had 28 assorted snakes living in aquariums stacked all over his bedroom, and I clearly remember the day when I heard my daughter kicking at the back door and yelling, “Quick, let me in!” — kicking, because she had a writhing snake in each hand and couldn’t open the door herself.

When my son reached adolescence, the fascination became turtles, especially snapping turtles, and the bigger the better. Oh, those summer nights father and son (and often daughter) spent out in the boat, cruising the weedy shallows of the local lakes on the lookout for snappers, armed with root beer, bags of chips, three-million-candlepower spotlights, huge nets, and wooden crates reinforced with rebar. Family bonding at its finest, and completely legal (if slightly redneck).

One fine summer day, I was returning from work when I spied a mid-sized snapper crossing the road. Knowing that it would just make my son’s day, I pulled over, grabbed the hissing reptile by its stout tail, and heaved him onto the floor of my car in front of the passenger seat — the whole operation took barely 30 seconds and I was downright proud of my courage and deft.

Shifting thorough the gears, I had just gained fourth and was reaching for the radio dial when I heard a distinctive heavy clunk. My first thought was the transmission, until I felt something damp and coarse rasp against my sandal-shod right foot. And there my carapaced friend was, underneath the pedals and thrashing about, clicking his beak wickedly and hoping for blood. Well, if you’ve ever tried to drive a car with one foot out the window and the other in the glove box, you can just imagine my ensuing difficulty. I couldn’t reach the clutch or the brake; I could only steer, work the emergency brake, and scream as I coasted toward the breakdown lane, the engine straining and complaining and sputtering until it finally died. At which point, I stuck both feet through the driver’s window and yanked myself out like a racecar driver. Mister snapper was summarily dumped in the trunk, where he hissed again and gave me a savage stare. When I got home and popped the trunk, my son was impressed. “Hmm, nice one Dad,” he exclaimed. “And sorry about your golf clubs.”

On another day, my son skidded his truck (towing his boat) to a stop in front of the house and ran in yelling, “Dad! Dad! You won’t believe how big this one is!” Out into the dooryard we all poured (sans Mom), only to find nothing in the boat but a splintered paddle. “He was in there, Dad,” the exasperated boy exclaimed; thence into the truck we three jumped, squealing tires and spinning gravel off onto the lawn as we raced back toward the lake, shortly finding two young girls, screaming and running and pointing frantically behind them toward something huge and black in the breakdown lane — 43 pounds of scraped-up hissing malevolence.

We’re all grown-ups now, leading mature (if slightly boring) lives as respectable members of society. There is nary a scaly creature in the house. As a father looking back on his role as a nurturer of children, I think of our reptilian years as the good old days, precious times spent instilling values, building trust, demonstrating the rewards of hard work and diligence, and leaping around in a boat late at night trying to avoid getting our toes snapped off. My wife says we were all just nuts.

Peter Lewis resides in Bridgton.

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