I’ve come to call him Tank. Though as it turned out, sadly, he was anything but. Tank the Turtle.
The first time I saw Tank, on a hot summer day, he was lounging lazily in the middle of the parking lot at our office. At least, I thought he was lounging. I was on my way somewhere in my car, and not paying too much attention. I had just enough time as I approached Tank to realize he (she?) was not just a pile of leaves or a displaced rock, but in fact a plucky little turtle, six inches long, head poking out of a brown shell glinting in the sun.
I made certain that I positioned my tires so he passed safely beneath the body of the car. Well, I believe that I did. No, I’m sure of it. Tank was just fine when I last saw him that morning.
* * *
What makes turtles cute? Bog turtles I mean, the little ones swimming languidly in golf course ponds or sunning themselves on the banks of creeks. They are, after all, reptiles, brown and scaly, with impenetrable eyes and, let’s face it, no personality. If a turtle were a dog that just sat there, moving at 0.01 mph if at all, carrying a doghouse around in case something even slightly scary happened, no one would keep it. There’s a double standard. If you knew a person who was like a turtle—and maybe you do if you think about it—you would probably hate that person: silent, judging, bored.
According to the Division of Fish and Wildlife, bog turtles can live for 20 or 30 years. It’s difficult for me to imagine what 30 years of living like a turtle would be like. And it was hard for me to imagine it before I read that bog turtles, in an effort to stay cool or out of danger, spend half their lives burrowed in mud. It’s an even less invigorating life than I’d dared to consider.
Since 1974, the bog turtle has been classified as an endangered animal in New Jersey. That only makes me sadder as I think about Tank the Turtle.
Turtles are omnivores, who enjoy a tasty slug if they can find one. Or let’s not kid ourselves, flavor has very little to do with it. If you were a turtle in search of protein, what would you eat? Would you eat one of the few animals on earth that moves even more slowly than you do?
Yes, you would.
* * *
I spent a certain percentage of my childhood in the sometimes scorching tan vinyl interior of our family’s Ford Fairmount station wagon, waiting for my parents to finish up whatever they were doing, wherever we were. At some point, I learned the strategy of begging, “Can I stay in the car? Please?” and I guess a parent, after so many years coping with moody recalcitrant trudgings up and down the aisles of ShopRite and K-Mart, is eventually tempted to take a 9-year-old up on that offer. Of course, the cautious parents of 2014 would never leave a child alone in a car. But those were, as we say, simpler times.
I recall sitting in the car one day at one of Route 130’s many garden centers, looking out the window (what else was there to do?), when I spotted a turtle slowly emerging from the tangled, weedy median.
The ordeal that followed was surprisingly gripping. Would the heedless turtle make it across two lanes of heedless traffic?
I remember the sense of the miraculous that I had as it reached the center stripe unharmed. Sometimes people are surprised to learn that I am not superstitious, that I don’t really believe in superstition. Maybe my attitude about this began that day, with that turtle. I mean, either your number is up or it isn’t. Crossing my fingers, sending my mojo onto the pavement trying to buffet the turtle in a pillow of positivity, that could have no effect on its fate.
I breathed out when the Route 130 turtle reached the shoulder and then the gravel of the parking lot. A harrowing journey, at least so it seemed to me. I don’t think the turtle thought too much about it.
* * *
Alas, poor Tank. When I returned to the office that afternoon, Tank was in the same location, and the same posture as before. “Wow,” I thought, “that is a really lazy turtle.”
So deluded was I that I went to check on Tank. Maybe he was OK. But no, Tank was not OK. I will spare you the graphic details, but I will tell you that I looked into Tank’s lifeless eyes, and I am haunted by them.
I don’t know what kind of person runs over a turtle. With a tire. Maybe the kind who thinks the turtle is a pile of leaves or a rock. Even after Tank was gone, and maybe repeated runnings over would be a kind of mercy, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Someone could though. See, Tank is still with us, and he might be for a long time. In the weeks since his demise, Tank has been gradually flattened by passing autos, to the point that he’s a fixture now, a piece of the pavement. You can still see the details in his shell. If you are, you know, strange enough to go over and look.
We’ll never forget Tank. At least not until heavy rains finally wash his remains away. The only consolation we have, given the stoic lives that turtles lead, is realizing that Tank—poor, silent Tank—isn’t really that much worse off dead than alive.