2009-07-29 / School & Sports

Backroads and Bobtails

by Bob Kornegay

I've always been a noticer, a taker-inner of sorts. That's natural, I suppose. A lifetime's rambling through the woods teaches one to notice things others seldom see, like that softball-size hump over there in the dead leaves beneath the big hickory. What is it? A half-buried? An Indian relic?

The year was 1995. It was summer, and I was cautious. I approached the object tentatively. Summer woods harbor hidden dangers, like diamondback rattlesnakes in tight coils and windfall hornets' nests full of angry tenants. The thing under the forest-floor detritus could be, well, anything. No such hazard this time, though. No fang, no sting. I brushed aside the leaf cover, reasonably certain of my safety.

Any trepidation remaining immediately vanished when the highdomed shell came into view. It was an Eastern box turtle. Terrapene carolina; the most innocuous of reptiles, sleeping through the heat of the day, beneath damp leaves in the cool shade. I somewhat rudely removed the peaceful creature from its hiding place. It made no move in protest. The unique hinged plastron simply shut itself tightly against intrusion.

I held the armored terrestrial creature in a gentle hand until it opened up and poked its venerable-looking head from beneath the colorful carapace. The eyes were red, signifying a mature (very mature) male. Turning him upside down, being careful not to get tinkled on, I noticed the caved-in underside, another sexual identifier.

Brushing the dirt and humus from his wornsmooth belly, I noticed something else. There was a crudely carved script, fading, penknifeetched wildlife graffiti, which read simply, "D.L. 1968."

I'd read of this happening before, turtles (especially long-lived box turtles and gopher tortoises) discovered with some memento or other carved into their shells. In some, the cuts were deep and clear enough to survive the passage of years. On all the turtles I'd ever unearthed, however, I'd never actually witnessed this phenomenon until now.

I wondered, of course, who D.L. was. Was he a small child doing something wickedly creative with his first pocketknife or maybe just a bored rural Georgia teenager who thought scratching his initials into the shell of a box turtle was "cool?" Did he know box turtles live a long, long time and that this written legacy might actually turn up over a quarter-century later? The former is likely. The latter doubtful.

1968. My goodness. Pause for thought.

I was a high school sophomore in Ashford, Ala., informed and somewhat aware I was living through one of America's most turbulent years. Now, in 1995, I held my "captive" for a moment or two, then placed him back onto the ground. I watched him crawl slowly away as my thoughts drifted backward in silent reflection.

In 1968, a draft call went out to more than 300,000 young (they now seem so very young) Americans, some of whom wound up in a strange land called Vietnam. 500,000 were already there and 30,000 who'd gone before and would return only in stacked, flag-draped boxes. Would I, Dot's and Robert's oldest boy, be a like statistic a few years down the road?

In April, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. Cities burned while an oppressed people mourned. A few months later, Bobby, another in a too-long line of ill-fated Kennedy family, was gunned down in Los Angeles.

College campuses across the nation fell hostage to students protesting the war. When I went to college, would I, too, major in mayhem?

Helen Keller and John Steinbeck died. Poor people marched on Washington, and George Wallace of Alabama ran for president. I pulled for George. My granddaddy said I had to.

Richard Nixon won the presidency in the aftermath of vicious street violence at the Chicago Democratic Convention. I was too busy looking forward to 11th grade to think much about it.

We orbited the moon. Apollo VIII astronauts Borman, Lovell, and Anders read from Genesis. I watched on television, and my father was angry because "I Dream of Jeannie" was preempted. Mom and I, though, got goose bumps. Still do.

In 1968, all that happened and more. We sailed seas, climbed mountains, and died in Southeast Asia. The Seventh Soul Division performed at my school's homecoming dance, the one I didn't make because I couldn't get a date. God, that seemed so important then.

Yep, helluva year, 1968. The same year a young'un named D.L. carved his initials into a turtle's shell in the South Georgia woods.

(Email Bob Kornegay at cletus@windstream.net)

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