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Donna Oja Smith's English Class at Trenton High School

The Turtle by George Vukelich

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            They were driving up to fish the White Creek for German Browns, and the false dawn was purpling the Wisconsin countryside when they spotted the huge humpbacked object in the middle of the sand road, and Jimmy coasted the station wagon to a stop.

            “Pa,” he said.  “Turtle. Lousy snapper.”

            Old Tony sat up.

            “Is it dead?”

            “Not yet,” Jimmy said.  “Not yet, he isn’t.”  He shifted into neutral and pulled the hand brake.  The snapper lay large and dark green in the headlight beams, and they got out and went around to look at it closely.  The turtle moved a little and left razor-like claw marks in the wet sand, and it waited.

            “Probably heading for the creek,” Jimmy said.  “They kill trout like crazy.”

            They stood staring down.

            “I’d run the wagon over him,” Jimmy said, “only he’s too big.”

            He looked around and walked to the ditchway and came back with a long finger-thick pine branch.  He jabbed it into the turtle’s face, and the snakehead lashed out and struck like spring steel; the branch snapped like a stick of macaroni, and it all happened fast as a match flare.

            “Looka that!” Tony whistled.

            “You bet, Pa.  I bet he goes sixty pounds.  Seventy, maybe.”

            The turtle was darting its head around now in long, stretching movements.  “I think he got some branch stuck in his craw,” Jimmy said.  He got out a cigarette and lighted it and flipped the match at the rock-green shell.

            “I wish now I’d brought the twenty-two,” he said. “The pistol.”

            “You going to kill him?”

            “Why not?” Jimmy asked.  “They kill trout, don’t they?”

            They stood there smoking and not talking and looking down at the unmoving shell.

            “I could use the lug wrench on him,” Jimmy said. “Only I don’t think it’s long enough.  I don’t want my hands near him.”

            Tony didn’t say anything.

            “You watch him,” Jimmy said. “I’ll go find something in the wagon.”

            Slowly Tony squatted down onto his haunches and smoked and stared at the turtle.  Poor Old One, he thought.  You have the misfortune to be caught in the middle of a sand road, and you are very vulnerable on the sand roads.  Now you are going to get the holy life beaten out of you.

            The turtle stopped its stretching movements and was still.  Tony looked at the full webbed feet and the nail claws, and he knew the truth.

            “It would be different in the water, turtle,” he said.  “In the water you could cut down anybody.”

            He thought about this snapper in the water and how it would move like a torpedo and bring down trout, and nobody would monkey with it in the water – and here it was in the middle of a sand road, vulnerable as a baby and waiting to get its brains beaten out.

            He finished his cigarette and field-stripped it, got to his feet, walked to the wagon, and reached into the glove compartment for the thermos of coffee.  What was he getting all worked up about a turtle for?  He was an old man, and he was acting like a kid.  They were going up to the White for German Browns, and he was getting worked up about a God-forsaken turtle in the middle of a God-forsaken sand road.  God-forsaken.  He walked back to the turtle, hunched down, sipped at the strong black coffee, and watched the old snapper watching him.

            Jimmy came up to him holding the bumper jack.

            “I want to play it safe,” he said.  “I don’t think the lug wrench is long enough.”  He squatted beside Tony.  “What do you think?”

            “He waits,” Tony said.  “What difference what I think?”

            Jimmy squinted at him.

            “I can tell something’s eating you.  What are you thinking, Pa?”

            “I think it is not a brave thing.”


            “This turtle—he does not have chance.”

            Jimmy lit a cigarette and hefted the bumper jack.  The turtle moved ever so slightly.

            “You talk like an old woman, an old tired woman.”

            “I can understand this turtle’s position.”

            “He doesn’t have chance?”

            “That’s right.”

            “And that bothers you?”

            Tony looked into Jimmy’s face.

            “That is right,” he said.  “That bothers me.”

            “Well, of all the dumb, stupid things,” Jimmy said. “”What do you want me to do?  Get down on all fours and fight with him?”

            “No,” Tony said.  “Not on all fours.”  He looked at Jimmy. “In the water.  Fight this turtle in the water.  That would be a brave thing, my son.”

            Jimmy put down the bumper jack and reached for the thermos jug and didn’t say anything.  He drank his coffee and smoked his cigarette, and he stared at the turtle and didn’t say anything.

            “You’re crazy,” he said finally.

            “It is a thought, my son.  A thought.  This helpless plodding old one like a little baby in this sand road, eh?  But in the water, his home…  Tony snapped his fingers with the suddenness of a switchblade.  “In the water he could cut down anyone, anything…any man.  Fight him in the water, Jimmy.  Use your bumper jack in the water…”

            “I think you’re nuts,” Jimmy said.  “I think you’re honest to goodness nuts.”

            Tony shrugged.  “This does not seem fair for you, eh?  To be in the water with this one.”  He motioned at the turtle.  “This seems nuts to you.  Crazy to you.  Because in the water you are not a match.”

            “What are you trying to prove, Pa?”

            “Jimmy, this turtle is putting up his life.  In the road here you are putting up nothing.  You have nothing to lose at all.  Not a finger or a hand or your life.  Nothing.  You smash him with a long steel bumper jack, and he cannot get to you.  He has as much chance as a ripe watermelon.”


            “So, I want you to put up something also.  You should have something to lose or it is not a match.”

            Jimmy looked at the old man and then at the turtle.

            “Any fool can smash a watermelon,” Tony said.  “It does not take a brave man.”

            “Pa, it’s only a turtle.  You’re making a federal case.”

            Old Tony looked at his son.  “All right,” he said.  “Finish your coffee now and do what you are going to do.  I say nothing more.  Only for the next five minutes put yourself into this turtle’s place.  Put yourself into his shell and watch through his eyes and try to think what he is thinking when he sees a coward coming to kill him with a long, steel bumper jack.”

            Jimmy got to his feet and ground out his cigarette.

            “All right, Pa,” he said.  “All right.  You win.”

            Tony rose slowly from his crouch.

            “No,” he said.  “Not me.  You.  You win.”

            “But, Pa, they do kill trout.”

            “So,” Tony said.  “They kill trout.  Nature put them here, and they kill trout.  To survive.  The trout are not extinct, eh?  We kill trout, also, we men.  To survive?  No, for sport.  This old one, he takes what he needs.  I do not kill him for being in nature’s plan.  I do not play God.”

            Jimmy walked to the rear of the wagon then and flung down the bumper jack and closed up the door and came back.

            “Pa,” he said.  “Honest to goodness you got the nuttiest ideas I ever heard.”

            Old Tony walked around behind the snapper and gently prodded it with his boot toe, and the turtle went waddling forward across the road and toppled over the sand shoulder and disappeared in the brushy growth of the creek bank.  Tony and his son climbed into the wagon and sat looking at each other.  The sun was coming up strong now and the sky was crackling open like a shell and spilling reds, golds, and blues, and Jimmy started the engine.

            Tony put the thermos away and got out his cigarette and stuck one in his son’s mouth.

            “So?” he said.

            They sat smoking for a full minute watching each other, and then Jimmy released the emergency and they rolled slowly along the drying sand road and down past the huge cleansing dawn coming, and the pine forests growing tall in the rising mists, and the quickly quite waters of the eternal creek.

"He who learns but does not think is lost! 
He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger!" 
Confucius 551-479 B.C. (Chinese philosopher)


"YOU make choices, but  CHOICES make you." (DOS)
“Men are not prisoners of fate, but prisoners of their own minds.” (FDR)