George F. Smith
Close your eyes and think of the worst thing that could happen to you.
Think you got it?
Bet you don’t.
Imagine this: it’s the first day of summer vacation, and you bust your ankle jumping out of a tree.
Okay, I fell out, but I was planning to jump.
I like to jump from things. When I get older I want to be a stunt man in the movies.
I’m a tough guy but this made me cry. I didn’t cry when I fell. I only screamed.
My mom drove me to see Dr. Wingate. The doctor is not one of my close friends.
He said, “Chad, I’ve got good news!” Dr. Wingate never has good news when he says that. “Now you’ll have a good excuse to sit around and read all summer. Your foot’s going to be in a cast. Can I be the first to sign it?”
That’s when I cried.
I was too mad to read. For the first few days I sat like a piece of rotting fruit watching TV. Do you know how awful daytime TV is?
Sure, my friends came to visit. Davey and Hack came to sign my stupid cast. So did Shannon, who thinks I’m her boyfriend. Then they went back outside and disappeared forever.
But I was about to make a new friend.
One day I decided to go out back with my Book of Big Things.
It takes awhile for me to get someplace. I walk with crutches, and everything gets in my way. Even worse, mom came along in case I needed her.
Our house is on a hill, and we have some woods behind us. I saw the tree that I fell from. At least it was big.
A small stream runs through the woods. We’re not getting much rain this year so the stream isn’t very deep. In fact, it’s pretty much just mud.
I wanted to lay in the hammock but mom wouldn’t let me. “You might fall out,” she said. Mom would keep me in a glass jar if she could.
“Let me know if you need anything, hon,” she said, then went back inside.
So I sat in a lawn chair with my book. I read about big animals, big planes, big buildings. Even big trees. They’re called redwoods.
I wondered if the tree I fell from is a redwood. I thought probably it was.
Then I saw something moving on the ground.
It was only a leaf. But leaves don’t move by themselves. And there was no wind to move it.
Something was underneath the leaf.
It was sneaking up on me. Sneaking up very slowly, so I wouldn’t notice.
I rolled out of the chair on my hands and knees. I crawled to the leaf and picked it up.
A turtle. A turtle smaller than my hand was sneaking up on me.
I laughed. “Who do you think you are?” I said. In a blink his head and feet vanished.
Mom doesn’t allow me to have pets. “They’re smelly, and they would ruin the house,” she told me before. “And pets will bite you.”
But this guy was so small, mom would never know he was around.
I decided he and I were going to be pals.
“What’s your name?” I asked him. But he didn’t have much to say.
“Listen,” I said, “I gotta call you something. I can’t just call you ‘turtle.’”
So I looked at him and thought about what to name him.
“Maybe I should call you soldier boy, because you’ve got a helmet and were crawling on your belly like a soldier under fire. Yeah, I should call you soldier boy. How do you like that name?”
He didn’t have much to say.
Then I remembered a story my dad told me once when he came to visit.
Dad likes to talk about wars. It makes mom upset when he does. We were watching TV and an ad came on showing the Pillsbury Doughboy.
Dad said to me, “American soldiers were once called ‘doughboys.’ They were heroes of the First World War.”
I asked, “Why, because they looked like him?” I gestured at the TV.
“No,” he said. Then he told me the story.
He said a long time ago American foot soldiers were sent into Mexico. As they marched along they’d get themselves covered with dirt and sand. It turns out the soil in Mexico is called adobe, which is pronounced “ah DOE bee,” which is sort of like saying “a doughboy.” Since the soldiers also looked like doughnuts when they were coated with the stuff, someone started calling them “doughboys.”
“Man,” I said to him, “if I were a soldier I wouldn’t let anyone call me ‘doughboy.’”
“You would if you lived back then,” he said. “A doughboy meant a good American fighting man. Soldiers were proud to be called doughboys.”
I wondered if that name would work for my turtle?
I decided it would.
Then it struck me. Doughboy was looking for a new home. It used to be the creek, but it had dried up.
“I’ll help you find a new place to live,” I told him. “But we’ve gotta keep you alive until we get you there.”
I put him in my hand. He still hadn’t come out of his shell.
“It’s not going to be easy, you know. Me, the hobbled one. And mom, the party-pooper.”
Then I had an idea.
What was it mom said when she went inside -- “Let me know if you need anything”?
She won’t be saying that again for awhile.
“Hey, mom!” I hollered.
When she came out, I told her I was getting hot and wanted to sit under the umbrella at the patio table.
So she put the umbrella up for me while I crutched my way to the patio.
Then I asked her to please get my Tommy squirt gun. And a big bowl of water. A BIG bowl. While she was inside I hid Doughboy behind a straw broom leaning against the house.
She brought a bowl out from the kitchen.
“Not big enough, mom,” I said.
“If it’s too big you won’t be able to refill the gun,” she said.
Then I showed her how I’d tip it over the edge of the table into the gun’s water tank.
“There’s a big bowl in the garage,” I told her, “sitting under a huge flower pot we don’t use.”
She made a lot of noise getting the flower pot bowl. I guess it was buried under some junk.
I could tell she needed a big smile so I gave her one. “Would you get me some bubble soap? The kind with the wand that you wave and make bubbles?”
She was trying to look happy.
“I need something to shoot at,” I explained.
While she drove to K-Mart to get bubble soap, I hobbled about the yard on my crutches and scrounged up a pile of stones. I put them under my chair.
I gave her a hug when she came back with the soap. Moms like hugs.
As soon as she was inside I filled my Tommy gun. I spilled a lot of water on the patio, but that was okay, I had more than enough. Then I waved some bubbles into the air and blasted them. I howled when I made a hit. I wanted mom to feel good.
Besides, I was having a ball.
Then I built a little island in the center of the bowl with the stones I had collected. So Doughboy could sun himself.
“Okay, Doughboy,” I said, “your new digs are ready.”
I hopped to the broom and moved it aside.
Doughboy was gone.
When a mud turtle disappears on dry land you don’t panic. It’s a turtle, not a jack rabbit. It couldn’t be far.
Unless something got it.
The only predator I could think of was mom. But maybe a bird had swooped down on him while I was stone hunting.
Then I looked--
--on top of a wall on the other side of the garden -- the garden adjoining the patio--Doughboy, moving toward the edge, his escape velocity amazing--
--and beyond the edge, a big drop into another garden with huge rocks in it--
--and me, anchored by the stupid cast, watching, helpless--
--but not quite helpless.
I dropped down and crawled like a flash flood in his direction.
Ever crawl with a cast on your foot? It’s hard and it HURTS! And I couldn’t think about what I was doing to mom’s flowers. I kept yelling, “Ow! Ow! Ow!” while I crawled.
Doughboy fell before I got to him.
But a spider web had broken his fall. I caught him before he slipped through--
--”What are you doing!” I yelled at him.
I looked back. Mom, standing on the patio, her hands on her hips. Big trouble.
“What are you doing!” she hollered.
This was a good time, I thought, to tell the truth.
She didn’t take kindly to Doughboy.
“I won’t hear of it!” she said. “Those things carry diseases. You could get very sick.”
“I’m only going to keep him while we find him a new home.”
“That’s what you think.”
She turned and went inside. When she came out her hand was wrapped in a plastic sandwich bag.
She stuck the hand out. “Give him to me,” she demanded.
“Um, I don’t think that’ll work.”
“He could bite through it.”
“Nice try, Chad. Put him in my hand.”
I set Doughboy in her bagged hand. “What are you going to do with him?” I asked.
“You can’t do that!” I shouted.
“It’s nothing but a filthy rodent.”
“It’s a reptile. All he wants is another place to live.”
“I’ll see that he gets there fast.”
She headed for the door. I almost panicked.
“Let me do it!” I hollered. She stopped. “Please.”
Maybe you think I had a plan, but I didn’t.
When we got to the bathroom she insisted I wash my hands. Then she got one of those stupid sandwich bags and made me put it on.
She handed Doughboy over. “I’ll give you one minute,” she said.
My heart was pounding. “Time to go, little buddy,” I said. Doughboy had his head out, peering around, wondering where he was. “You’ve fallen into enemy hands, and she’s putting you to death for being a turtle.”
“Chad!” she growled.
“Know that you died a brave soldier, well-deserving of your name. Don’t hate her for doing this. Grandma wouldn’t let her have pets, either. In her heart she believes she’s ridding the world of evil. Bet you didn’t know you were evil, huh?”
“Put him in the toilet.”
“Minute’s not up yet!” I protested. I glared at her and felt my eyes fill up with tears.
She was getting nervous. She looked at her watch, then back at me. “Twenty seconds,” she said.
“We all need someone, Doughboy. Too bad you didn’t have anyone who cared. If mom had someone who cared, she probably wouldn’t be doing this to you.”
“Stop it!” she said. “I won’t have you putting a guilt trip on me for doing the right thing. Put him in the toilet.”
I set Doughboy in the bowl. What an awful way to die. Then I placed my hand on the flush handle. I stood like a soldier waiting for a command. “I’ll flush when you say, ‘kill.’”
She said in a shaky voice, “We care for each other.”
I didn’t feel much like agreeing.
“We do,” she insisted.
She looked at Doughboy. “Go ahead,” she said and started to turn away.
“You’ve gotta say ‘kill.’ And you’ve gotta watch.”
She said something awful then pushed my hand down, flushing the toilet. Doughboy was being swirled in smaller and smaller circles, headed to his death.
“Get him!” she screamed, plunging her hand in and blocking the drain. I slapped my hand on Doughboy’s shell and pulled him off the back of her hand.
Then I set him on the floor and gave her a hug, a real one this time. She was sobbing.
Doughboy seemed to like the home I built for him. And mom got him some turtle food at the supermarket.
I was happy to have him around. I made soap bubbles for him once and read to him from my books. He liked to look at the sky, except when it thundered.
I didn’t know much about turtles so mom got me a book from the library.
You know how turtles can’t get back on their feet if they flip over on their shells? Same thing if they swim upside down in shallow water. If you’re going to keep them as pets, make sure you give them enough water to right themselves when they swim.
And be careful you don’t feed them too much. Otherwise they’ll get too fat for their shells.
The book I read got me to thinking.
I felt like I was keeping Doughboy in jail. I said I would find him a new place to live. That’s what I decided to do.
So a week after he crawled up to me from the woods in back, we drove to a nearby cemetery that had a nice pond with ducks and other turtles.
I set him down on some grass and watched while he crawled toward the water. I’ll never forget how small he looked. Even the grass looked bigger than Doughboy.
As he reached the water’s edge he stopped. He looked around, checking out the pond.
Then he did something I didn’t expect. He looked back, at me.
He didn’t have much to say.
“Good luck, Doughboy,” I said.
“Bye,” mom said from behind me.
Then he waded in and swam away.