Morning Walks with Harold

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Sean Dietrich

By SEAN DIETRICH

What I am about to tell you is going to sound ridiculous. So, I won’t blame you if you speak ill of me. All I ask is that you do it behind my back.

For 17, maybe 18  years I have been going on daily walks. Always the same route. When I’m walking, people honk and wave at me because I am a fixture in these parts. A very odd, gangly, bearded, fixture. But still, people wave at me. Everyone always waves.

Over the years, I’ve seen the world undergo a lot of changes on my walks. I’ve seen car models change each season. I’ve watched fashions change among teenagers who ride bikes on this old road.

For example, at one time it was “cool” for boys to wear baggy pants so low on their hips that when viewed from behind you could see their Great Divides. This fashion changed.

Soon the fashion became the exact opposite. Boys were wearing pants so skinny that whenever they opened their mouths to speak they sounded like first tenors in the Gaither quartet.

Technology has changed, too. Eighteen years ago people weren’t using smartphones. But today you rarely see a kid riding a bike who isn’t staring at a cellphone. If you ask me, this is a dental disaster waiting to happen.

On my walks, I usually see young couples pushing strollers. I’ve watched the kids in the strollers turn into adults over time. Today I see those same young people driving SUVs. They wave at me when they cruise by at 93 miles per hour while texting on a cellphone, steering with their left knee, and blaring music that sounds like an industrial chainsaw fight.

But like I said, everyone waves at me, young and old. It’s an unwritten tradition. I’m hard to miss. I’m the guy on the shoulder of the road with the beard.

But I’m getting off subject here, which is: Every day for several years I have passed a small turtle on my walks. He is always in the same spot.

On my route sits a large Floridian swamp. It is the quintessential West Floridian bog, covered in trillions of lilly pads and petrified cypress trunks that date back to the Crimean War.

This turtle was my pal. I named him Harold. He was the only turtle I ever saw on my route.

You’d think there would be hundreds of tortoises living in a Panhandle swamp, and maybe there are. But all I ever saw was Harold.

I know it was him because I once marked Harold with fingernail polish just to see if it was the same turtle I kept seeing. Sure enough. It was him.

It took nine years for that fingernail polish to wear off.

Usually, Harold was crossing the road when I saw him. Sometimes I would help him cross. He never bit me, never hissed, never fussed. He was a pretty cool customer.

I liked to watch him slip into the dark water and swim around the lilies, his little head bobbing while he dog-paddled.

A few years ago, our town did renovations around the swamp to improve roads. I was certain they were going to scare old Harold away with all their heavy equipment, but they didn’t. When the city was done bulldozing, Harold was still around.

It’s always been a mystery to me how turtles survive. They don’t seem like very good hunters. I mean, what do they eat? A friend of mine used to have pet turtles, she said they eat pretty much anything. Bugs, caterpillars, decaying flesh, rotten caracasses, excrement, congealed salads, etc.

So, today I was on my walk. It was sunny. I was going to stop by the wetlands to see Harold. But something was wrong. Up ahead I saw buzzards were picking at a lump on the road.

No.

I trotted toward the the accident. It was a smashed shell and tire marks. And my friend was gone. I tried to shoo the birds away, but they wouldn’t leave.

I won’t go into detail here, but a vehicle ran over Harold. The worst part was, Harold was only 12 inches from the edge of the vacant road. Meaning: If the driver would have turned the steering wheel an inch to the left, he would still be alive.

I just lost it. My eyes got blurry and I felt sick to my stomach.

I told you that you were going to think I’m silly.

I could hardly make it back home. Later, I returned with a shovel, gloves, and a shoebox, but I was too late. Harold’s remains had been run over by more cars. So I placed fragments of his shell into his favorite swamp. I watched his splintered tortoise pieces sink into the lilly-covered water. I said a few words over him, my hat in hand.

I’m sure old Harold couldn’t hear me, but you never know. I used a loud, public-speaking voice for an audience consisting of one heron and a nosy squirrel.

I told Harold the same thing I once said over my father’s grave once. I said that I hoped his old soul awoke in a wonderful place filled with lillies, pure water, live oaks, clear skies and love. And I hope that one day I might go there too.

A few cars passed during my pathetic eulogy. They were probably wondering what the weird,  bearded man with the wet,  puffy eyes was doing. Even so, they waved at me. I waved back. Everyone always waves.

They say He watches over sparrows. But I think He watches Harolds, too.

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