Turtle Story
Pete Hofmann

We went walking; there were three or four of us and a dog. It was common to take that dog out for a run in the summer. He would run out ahead and we would maintain a steady pace. We lived in a suburb that abutted farm land and acres of undeveloped land between the farms. We took advantage of all the space. No one was around to report our gunfire. No one screamed at you to get off their property. It was a very good place to be 13.

To be sure, the land around us belonged to someone, but we didn’t care. At that age, we felt we were just as entitled to it as anyone else. We knew all the trails. We walked in all seasons, in all weather. It was something to do. We went pheasant and rabbit hunting. We never once got a bird; we trapped two or three rabbits and ate them. Gamey. We were a little bit like Huck Finn. We had the back waters of the mighty Mississippi for rafting and swimming, too. We also had the railroad tracks.

It was one sweltering summer day on those railroad tracks that we came across a dead turtle. It was a huge snapper, about the size of a small paper shredder or an average HP printer. What do kids do when they find a dead turtle near the tracks? Put him on, of course!

It all happened so fast. We discovered the turtle, and in a matter of minutes, maybe less, a train was coming up the tracks. We placed the big boy right on the rail and hid in the weeds a good distance away. // Fair warning, the remainder of this story is not for weak stomachs. Stop reading now if you think it might be disgusting to have an exploding turtle described to you. // I mean that thing just exploded when the train hit. The blast was mostly in the same direction as the train was heading. I was really surprised at the amount of liquid. At this age, I was not clear on the process of decay. So when we came forward to inspect the remains, I was shocked by the stench. I could not believe something could smell that bad. I also could not believe that so many things would be crawling inside. When we first encountered the big guy, there was no outward indication that thousands of maggots were at work inside the shell. But when you are 13, you don’t know this stuff. You read about it, you might even see something about it in a movie or in science class. But to witness it up close, for real? The images may be forever seared into my memory.

I have gone through a few phases in terms of how to regard our actions. It was certainly juvenile. At times I have thought it was funny. Other times it seemed disrespectful. Tonight, as I write this, I feel the turtle was a teacher that day.