THE BULLIES AND THE DEAD TURTLE


I want you to picture this. A kid, about ten years old. He's a bit chubby with red hear and a face full of freckles. He's gone to the local municipal swimming pool because he loves to swim. At one point, he needs to use the restroom: Number Two. He towels off and locks himself into a stall in the boys bathroom. He's right in the middle of letting nature take its course, when two teenagers enter the restroom. They know he's in there. They've come looking for him.

The teenagers pound on the door to the stall, the sound echoing out into infinity. They yell insults, threaten him, let him know in no uncertain terms that the moment he's finished, the moment he steps out of that stall, he's going to be beaten and kicked, bruised and bloodied.

I was that kid in the stall.

I'd escaped unscathed that day. I mean, the pool's office, where all the off duty life guards hung out, was literally right across the hall from the bathroom. And, as the entire facility had been made of concrete and nothing was insulated, the ruckus these two teenagers caused could be heard clearly from the other room. So in the end, I'd been rescued.

It had been a terrifying experience. Trapped in a bathroom stall, swim trunks around my ankles, wet, and highly vulnerable.

I don't know why they chose me that day. I'd done nothing to either of them. I don't even recall if I had known them previously. I'd just been this ten year old chubby kid with red hair and freckles. And I suppose for some bullies, that's all it takes.

Looking back, I can't picture their faces, and I don't remember their names. But, considering that since that day I've never been able to poop comfortably in a public restroom, and will avoid the act entirely when at all possible, they had clearly left an indelible impression upon my psyche.

Most of my childhood, to be honest, was relatively bully-free. I tended to get a long with most everyone. Granted, you can't grow up chubby without being the focus of many slurs against your character, but I've found that I can take most of what people give me verbally. Or at least never let them see that their words have any affect.

I was lucky. Luckier than some. But there were a few occasions in which I had been pestered by meatheads in a more violent way.

One of those times, of course, you've just read about.

The second occasion involved a dead turtle.


I grew up in a small town in Kansas, the type of community that boasted a population of 3,300 and growing. As a matter of fact, it stated just that on our sign. "3,300 And Growing", it said, yet the sign never changed. At least not in the 18 years I lived there.

My dad was an air traffic controller and by the time I could walk, we are afforded the opportunity to move to the newer side of town. So new in fact, that our house was pretty much one of the first on that side of the street, and until I was almost in high school, the couple of blocks across the street from us were nothing more than an empty lot full of trees with a little creek running through it.

We called this area across the street: "the Woods", and my brothers and I, along with all the other kids on our block, spent most of our free time in there building forts, playing war, digging large holes, filing in those large holes with dirt, and riding our bikes around the trail that ringed the place.

I have fond memories of the Woods. It was easy to get lost in there. I don’t mean lost as in “I can’t find my way home”, we’re only talking about two, maybe three city blocks. I only meant that even though my house was less than half a block away, I sometimes forgot that there was a whole town around us when we hung out in the Woods. To me, we were in some untamed wilderness where we could only rely on our wits, our skills as woodsmen, and our all-around manliness to survive.

But one day, when I was in the fourth grade, a couple of friends and I were making a trek through the Woods. We were going from my house to one of theirs, and the shortest route was through the Woods. We were traveling east to west. The western edge of the woods was an area we didn't spend a lot of time in. I can't recall why. Maybe we just always felt it was maybe a little too far from home. But again, we are taking about two to three blocks. Yet again, when you're a child, two to three blocks can be forever.

We were there, my two friends and I, moving through the western edge of the woods, a clear open lot just ahead of us, when we realized that something wasn't right. There had been rumors going around the neighborhood that a group of sixth graders had come to claim the Western Woods as their own. The story was that they had even built themselves a fort. We would quickly learn that the rumors were all too true.

We found ourselves standing in a clearing on the edge of a small creek that marked the boundary of the western end of the Woods. Further west, just on the other side of the creek and through a line of small trees and scrub was the empty lot. On the eastern bank of the creek was a large tree, one thick branch hanging out over the running water.

As we stood there, we noticed that someone had nailed boards to the trunk of the tree to form a crude ladder that lead into the lower branches where sections of plywood were secured, forming the walls of a rudimentary shelter. This would be the Sixth Grader's fort. But what made us stop was what we found in the creek beyond. A rather large, and very dead, snapping turtle that found the creek bed it's final resting place. The cause of death had been easy to deduce. A steel pole, about six feet long, four inches thick, and hallow, had been driven through the top of the turtle's shell, pinning it to the creek bed.

I'd seen dead fish, dead birds, and even a dead rabbit or two by the time I'd come upon the turtle that day, but there was something about seeing an animal that large, and so obviously not killed by natural causes, that was more that a little unsettling. The way the shell had been broken around the shaft of the pole and the glistening something that peaked out from underneath the broken pieces were both something that made the contents of my stomach churn in revulsion.

As the three of us stood there, looking down upon the poor dead creature, throwing wild theories around regarding the circumstances that would involve the impaling of a snapping turtle, I couldn't take my eyes off of the pole. It called out to me, pulled me in. I wanted to reach out and take it in my hands, pull it free from the carcass and toss it aside. My whole focus, my world, had been that pole. So, as the other two talked, I stretched out an unsteady hand, and touched the pole.

Then all hell broke loose.

The second I made contact with the pole it fell. The metallic clang that resulted and echoed off through the trees mixed with the unmistakable sounds of people approaching. It was the sixth graders.

There were two of them, we could see them striding through the trees.


“Run!” one of us yelled. I’m not sure who had said it, but I know that it hadn't been me. I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to outrun two sixth graders. I was, after all, a chubby kid with red hair and freckles.

So I stood my ground as my friends jumped the creek and bolted west through the empty lot and up the street. The sixth graders, hearing the shouts of my friends, rushed towards me like sharks smelling blood in the water. But still, I stood my ground. Then they were on me, pushing, shoving, and filing my nostrils with their hot breath as they yelled, demanding to know what I was doing there and why I would knock over the pole.

I stammered, I back-pedaled, I shrank in fear . . . but I didn’t cry. No, instead I became submissive and tried my best to put the pole back into the turtle. It was hard going, the pole was quite big, and though I was a portly boy, I was still a little guy.

But I couldn't do it. The two sixth graders continued to shout. They hurled threats at me like dodge balls. If I couldn't get that pole back, my life would come to a quick and violent end.

I only had three options:

Run.

Fight.

Cry.

Running was out. They'd catch me.

Fighting wasn't going to happen either. There were two of them and they were bigger than me.

Crying and hoping the two would take pity on me was going to have to be the route to go.

Then, just like with the swimming pool, rescue.

Salvation came at the hands of a woman who lived just fifty yards or so from the clearing where I was being tormented. Just as the tears were about to flow, this woman, alerted to my danger by the shouts of the sixth graders, burst into the clearing. She demanded to know what was going on. What happened with her and the two sixth graders after that, I'll probably never know. Once she had put herself between me and them, I ran, leaping over the small creek and puffing west up the street.

A few days later, someone went down there to the fort built by those sixth graders and pulled it apart. I’ve never known who did it, but because I was the one they caught down there, I was the most likely suspect, and the sixth graders wanted revenge. They caught me on the playground after school and chased me up onto a wooden play set. They had me trapped on a swinging rope and wood bridge. I stood there teetering, felling as if I was on the Bridge of Death itself, one angry sixth grader on one end of the bridge, the other angry sixth grader on the other.

I tried to tell them that it hadn't been me. I hadn't been the one to wreck their fort. But they were deaf to my pleas.

Once again, luck had been with me. Just as the pounding was about to descend upon me like the fiery wrath of God, a teacher rushed out of the school and quickly put an end to it.

And here's the thing. I still run into those two guys from time to time. I hold no grudges, no ill feelings. We are always friendly when we see each other. I'm sure it would be different had they continued to torment me for the rest of my school career, but they hadn't.

There's no lesson in this story. No bit of wisdom or sage advice to share. It was just two experiences that in some way helped shape me into the flawed character I am today.

I don't think about it all that much. There's really no reason to.

But I do think of that turtle now and again.

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