I came upon this question yesterday in my security settings for an online account. It was in the list with What was your mother’s maiden name? and What street did you live on in the second grade? I suppose those are things you never forget. Your first pet, especially, gets a forever-place in your neural strongbox. It’s as indelible as the memory of the first girl you made out with. Or the teacher who humiliated you in class just for the hell of it. Or that scene in Jason and the Argonauts where the giant bronze dude rains havoc on the Argo and its crew when Hercules tries to abscond with stolen treasure. You don’t remember the bronze dude’s name, but you never forget that scene.
Herman was a baby snapping turtle. Black beady eyes and a bumpy green shell about the size of a silver dollar. My little sister, Susan, adopted him during a fishing expedition with our dad on a Saturday in June. I couldn’t muster the Zen for sitting in an aluminum johnboat on a hot afternoon, and I had turned down the offer to join them. So my little sister, not I, was perched in the catbird seat when Herman swam alongside the boat and Dad scooped him from the water with the wide part of the scull. She was still bubbling when, turtle in hand, she related the moment for me. I could see her plucking the creature gleefully from the spruce oar, the way she might snatch the last Oreo from a plate. In that instant, she had become the owner of the world’s coolest pet. I was now the world’s most envious brother.
Susan and I were 17 months apart and practically inseparable. She knew me better than anyone did, and I knew her just as well. Dad referred to us as Heckle and Jeckle, after the mischievous cartoon magpies. We liked being thought of as rascals. We often treated each other as such.
I was determined to wheedle Herman from her. My first plea, a mishmash of psychobabble and outright begging, left her as unmoved as the iceberg that sank the Titanic. I upped the ante. A cigar box full of my own hand-drawn comic strips, my most treasured holding. She softened a little. When I floated a vaguely defined, joint-custody arrangement, she acceded. Herman became, nominally, mine.
Our first order of business was to secure suitable lodging. We didn’t have a terrarium or even a big glass jar. But we did have an old, insulated metal bait bucket. It held about two gallons. We filled it about one-third with water and set a big shard of cement in it that we had excavated from somewhere around the foundation of the house. Herman could swim about and, we reasoned, crawl onto the cement to rest when he got tired of swimming.
We didn’t know what to feed him. By instinct, we gravitated to insects, tossing all sorts into his lair. I don’t remember how many species perished at our hands before we discovered the filet mignon: a shiny black beetle about a half-inch long. These thrived in the damp soil beneath the sill cock on the shady side of the house. We called them water bugs. They were fabulous swimmers, which enhanced the entertainment value of feeding time. Herman would chase and attack with relish, clamping his small but mighty jaws onto the abdomen to effect a rupture of no less goo-inducing force than you would expect under the heel of a 230-pound accountant in wingtips.
By coincidence, a neighbor kid, Bobby, adopted a baby snapping turtle that summer, too. I don’t remember his turtle’s name, but I do recall Herman was slightly bigger. I was strangely proud of the fact, like a father who attaches a measure of his own worth to a son’s physical stature. If there were tryouts for a turtle team, I told myself, surely my turtle would make the roster before Bobby’s.
Bobby suggested our turtles might like to spend the night together. In retrospect, that idea seems a little weird. But at the time it made sense. Overnights and slumber parties were fun for us kids. Why not for turtles? The next morning I walked the two doors over to retrieve my pet, and Bobby came out carrying both turtles in shoebox.
“Your turtle bit my turtle’s tail,” he said.
I peered into the bucket. Sure enough, the lithe, tapered point was missing. In its place was a stiff-looking stub.
“Sorry,” I said. We both laughed. After all, they were snapping turtles. And mine was bigger.
As summer ebbed through the sticky days of July and August, my interest in bugs and turtles waned. I spent most of my waking hours a block from home, on the playground at Dexter School. I was part of a neighborhood throng, preoccupied with softball, tether ball, box hockey and horseshoes. Only occasionally did I peep into the bait-bucket and flip Herman a water bug before running off to play.
By the time Labor Day rolled past, and I was back in school, my parents had decided it was in everyone’s best interest for Herman to go back into the wild. Naturally, I protested. Such an action seemed tantamount to murder. What chance would a little turtle have in a big, heartless food chain? He’d be gobbled up faster than a toasted marshmallow at a Boy Scout jamboree. But the folks insisted. I believe the real, unspoken reason was my mother’s fear of keeping an animal indoors.
We set Herman’s departure for Sunday. It was a family event. Everyone loaded into the Chrysler. I sat in the back seat, bait bucket between my feet, acting as nonchalant as a warden escorting a condemned man to the chair. We drove west on Washington Avenue to U.S. Highway 41 and turned south. After about five minutes, we turned onto a gravel road at the approach of the bridge that crosses the Ohio River. When the car stopped, I got out, carried the bucket to the edge of a slough, and tossed Herman in. He landed with a little splash a couple of yards from shore and disappeared into the murky green. I stood for a few seconds, praying for his safety. Then I returned to the car and a chorus of consolation. This looks like a good place for turtles. He’ll be just fine here. Don’t worry.
I looked out the window and a soft surge of guilt washed over me. It receded like ripples on the water which, as we slowly drove off, disappeared behind the cattails and brush. As the car turned onto Highway 41 and headed north, I wondered what we would be having for dinner.