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Working Turtles

When I was a wee lad (shortly after the great Cretaceous extinction) my brother, sisters and I were always (wisely it turns out) left in the care of a baby sitter when our parents left for an evening out. Our particular babysitter of long standing was a wonderful woman – Mrs. Halbe – whose penetrating gaze and exceptional hearing missed nothing and whose memory extended far into the past (or so it seemed to me at the time). She would often relate strange and marvelous events of her own childhood – The Good Old Days – and perhaps the strangest and most marvelous tale she told concerned turtles.

The Situation

Our neighborhood possessed a lake – the centerpiece of a park constructed for the workers and their families of a former planned industrial community – the remnants of which we inhabited. She told of luminous summer nights spent dancing under the stars and brass bands performing on the old bandstand – of strings of lights ringing the lake with boat rides in summer and ice skating in winter...

And tragedy.

It seems that in The Good Old Days someone or other was always falling into this lake and drowning with a frequency that even as a child I found disturbing. This, of course, necessitated the retrieval of the decedent's remains which had invariably sunk out of sight.

Whether because of the incompetence of the searchers or faulty equipment or technique the lost bodies were difficult, and sometimes impossible, to locate through normal means. (I found this point rather odd since the searchers seemed to have plenty of opportunities to practice their craft and the lake was fairly small). Yet there you are – grieving relations on shore and no one to bury – an awkward situation at best.

The turtles

Then came the story's unorthodox and deliciously ghoulish climax: an old man was summoned – ancient, mysterious, unnamed – and possessing a pair of marvelous turtles (species undetermined) to set the situation aright.

Now these were no ordinary turtles because they each had a hole perforating the edge of their shell. Upon arrival at the lake the old man would tie a line to each of the turtles' shells, attach a float to the free end of the line and then toss the turtles into the lake to wander and explore while he sat on shore observing his turtles' travels.

According to Mrs. Halbe this waiting sometimes took up to three days but at length the floats attached to the turtles would cease wandering and settle in one place. The recovery crews would then row to the spot indicated, hoist up the turtles and drag that spot for corpses. They invariably found what they were looking for. The old man would then gather up his turtles and with them disappear into shadowy legend until death and despair once again summoned him to perform his odd (but apparently essential) community service.

The lesson of the story

This is a true story (as is proved by the fact of the lake's continued existence) and was apparently a not unheard of technique for locating stubbornly elusive bodies in the late 19th and early 20th century – though it appears to have gone out of fashion of late. At any rate it made a great bedtime story (since I still remember and reflect upon it over 40 years later) and beautifully illuminated the role even the lowly turtle could play in human affairs.

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Copyright © 2004 Jim Jung