A LITTLE TURTLE GOES A LONG WAY

(or A LITTLE TRAVELER’S BIG TAIL/TALE)

On a crisp autumn 1986 morning seeming as if only yesterday, wood-carver Stuart Smith and his wife Ada, the premier cook of this or any other community and who might never be equaled nor surpassed not even by Paula Deen, approached our front door carrying a pail holding “Traveler” and “Snapper” who legally belonged to the Smith’s cute toddler great-grandchild Brandon.  Tiny painted turtles, out-of-towners earlier crossing a Florida road, had transferred their citizenship to Columbia City, Indiana, and both basked in the sunshine while floating within a pond, gracing the south yard of Smith & Sons Funeral Home. Winter approached.

Referred to our “rent-free” aquarium by my mother whose house we recently had purchased, the couple asked us to board the two reptiles until the spring.  Clinically speaking, each “Chrysemys picta’s” carapace measured the equivalent of a half dollar. Their room-mate, a Musk turtle resembling a tennis ball and named Franz Kafka, posed no threat and welcomed them to his world…”three’s company” his motto. 

The Smith family and the Duncan family literally go back as far as I can remember –Terry and my sister Sarah belonging to the Class of ’57!   We spent so much time at Stuart’s “stable”, converted into a cozy home, that Terry continually suggests re-viewing the oodles of 8 MM films of the three of us “kids” mesmerized by his electric Lionel train chugging repetitively ‘round and ‘round the extensive track constructed in their basement.  Perpetually cheerful Charlie and Edna Smith, parents of Stuart and his brother Boyce and sister Louva, lived next door (in the upstairs rooms of the funeral home itself) beside the present-day Carriage House. Edna’s dream-like, white flowering Hydrangea shrubs I never shall forget.  Both individuals stepped right out of central casting.  Director Frank Capra would have adored them.  I know that I did.

In 1935, Charlie Smith purchased that quarter of a block, Smith and Sons Funeral Home’s present location, for $5,500.00, including the realtor’s fee.  Lumberman, philanthropist, and owner Simon J. Peabody had died at Daytona Beach in 1933, and his home remained unoccupied for two years.

Ada — whose mom Mrs. Bessie Keiser rated as my sister Sarah’s favorite elementary school teacher — became ill during that year when her turtles wintered with us. The couple never returned for the Floridian Chelonians.  As time passed, only Traveler survived.  In his loneliness he bonded with our doggies, Murphy and Bogey.  At suppertime, this little soul – a replica of the first painted turtles roaming our Earth 15 million years past — stood tall upon a rock imported impressively from California’s “Petrified Forest”.  Stretching hind legs to full height with his teensy nose pressed against the fogged-up glass, he literally wagged his tail to beg for food.  He never barked though — as far as we knew. 

Recently reminiscing with C. Taron Smith whom I’ve referred to as Terry all of my life (as differentiated from attorney Terry Smith, a more recent acquaintance), my sister’s classmate spoke of earning straight “A’s”, during his banner 3rd grade year, courtesy of “Grandma” Keiser!  Ada, Stuart, and Terry (named for “Grandpa” Charlie and also Stuart’s Wabash College chum) moved into their home, refashioned from a building containing horse stalls (housing Simon J. Peabody’s famous racing steed) that same year of 1947.  To install their basement, where we kids consumed many succulent meals and enjoyed countless home movies, Terry mentioned the soil being sufficiently hard enough that the ground beneath the structure had to be dynamited which rattled the windows of our local DX station while startling townspeople who believed an earthquake had occurred.

Drafted during World War II, Stuart departed for duty as a Laboratory Technician — to be assigned “all over France” — the exact day that his son entered kindergarten.  Years later, in the 50s, we listened attentively spellbound by Stuart’s battle-stories whenever he chauffeured car-loads of us basketball fans to Terry’s high school “away” games. Stuart would roll down all four windows of his Buick as we approached every railroad crossing while cocking an ear to listen for distant train whistles, perhaps overly-diligent for the safety of his passengers.  One Friday evening, the master-mortician gifted me with a Belmont Memorial Record Cylinder Tube probably to keep restless “little Susie” quietly occupied in the back seat. That bronze gadget gleamed in my hands as I repeatedly twisted off either end, fidgeting with the mysterious device.  When my mom informed me that those indestructible instruments got placed into coffins with deceased folks, my enthusiasm waned just a bit.

Several years after Ada’s death, our neighbor and attorney Earl Tison, his four-year-old son Ben, and I carried Traveler down the alley to visit Stuart. Secretly, I entertained the idea that this funeral director, whom I had known all of my life, would consider turtle re-adoption?  I did not wish to force the issue.  Result?  We returned home to Line Street with Ben still gently swinging the water-filled Ace Hardware bucket containing Traveler happily sloshing and skidding to and fro, remaining a Duncan rather than a Smith. 

As seasons passed, our pup-turtle increased his circumference many times over while matriculating at Wabash College and subsequently the Ohio State University as well; hopefully beer parties never factored into his weight gain.  Would have to quiz big brother/ guardian Roy on that score!  Traveler’s girth demanded a more representative name …a kind of tribute to the portly method-actor “Marlin” Brando…answering to simply a shout-out of “Brando!” for short! 

Currently, having attained the dimensions of Tom Hanks’ “Cast Away” volleyball dubbed “Wilson”, this terrapin rivals the famous, legendary “Beast of ‘Busco” and has yet to locate “Stella”. 

Once again, Traveler/Brando has followed his dreams and now inhabits the college town of Ann Arbor, and by the time his periphery measures that of a basketball, he may have earned his MBA (Michigan’s Biggest Aquarium) from U of M!

Brando’s longevity astounds us!  Edging toward 30, his name –with a slight adjustment– should be included in the Guinness Book of World Records because a painted turtle’s life expectancy reaches an expiration date of approximately age 20.  We extend an overdue apology to Brando whose first and only trip, last spring, to a veterinarian — practicing in the “Wolverine” state — resulted in a surprise diagnosis.  Brando’s new name is now…Brandy!

“…There’s a port on a western bay, and it serves a hundred ships a day. Lonely sailors pass the time away and talk about their homes. The sailors say ‘Brandy, you’re a fine girl. What a good wife you would be. Yeah, your eyes could steal a sailor from the sea.’ “ ~ Looking Glass

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