During the early 1960’s the first four members of the Hamilton Clan rented a small but well-located three bedroom home on Clovis Avenue in Clovis California. It was well-located, because it was near where I taught school, and it also had easy access and visibility for a new real estate brokerage business that I was starting. We remodeled the living room into an office, and this meant that Jori and Jill could play outside in our backyard most of the time except during poor weather. Fortunately, winter only lasted a couple of months where we lived.
Our backyard was almost picture perfect for the five and three year old, blond-haired, ponytailed little girls. The previous owners had dug deep footings, poured eighteen inch high curbing, and installed a four foot chain link fence on top, which completely surrounded the rear and side yards. A concrete block garage and a sliding chain link, tight fitting gate in a concrete runner completed the perimeter of the yard.
Nothing, no animals or little girls could get in or out of that yard without a big person’s assistance. Vicki, the girls’ mom, loved it because it was a huge, secure, and totally safe playground for her little sweethearts.
There was one thing, however, that none of us knew! We had another resident that lived in our backyard too! The people who had rented the house to us had forgotten to tell us!
We had moved in during cooler weather and by April of the next spring, the air was deliciously warm and, OH! YES! We had a large, thirty foot tall loquat tree. Loquats are about the very first fruits to ripen in the Central Valley of California. Jori and Jill had discovered that fact by climbing up the trunk of the tree, and reaching as high as they possibly could they picked the yellowish orange ripening fruit. As far as fruits go, loquats are not the best tasting lot, but like I said they are the first to ripen, and that makes them very special.
When Vicki first discovered large lumps in the girls’ cheeks and saw the yellowish ooze leaking from the corners of the kids’ mouths, she was concerned. Had they been scavenging in the garbage? Were they holding some of their breakfast in their cheeks? Then she discovered the large, olive-sized, smooth pits. What could they be? The girls were trying to keep them secret, not because of the fruit, but because they had to climb the tree trunk to get it, and they did not want to get in trouble for climbing the tree without permission.
Jori, our five year old, showed her mom the tree. The whole side towards the house was a dull orange in color. Mom tried one. It was not that tasty, but was okay, and early fruit was a lot better than no fruit at all. Plus it was free! The girls helped her pick a large bowel full, and when I got home we had a real picnic.
Of course we shared with Grandma and Grandpa Hamilton and our friends. Grandma had grown up in Fresno and they had a loquat tree, so this brought back lots of precious memories. The little girls had bragging rights and that made their day!
Within just a couple of days one early afternoon, while the loquats were still ripening, Jill and Jori came running into the house. Both were wide-eyed, excited, and exclaimed simultaneously, “Come quick! Momma, there is a big wild animal in our yard and it looks real mean!”
Alarmed, Vicki ran out to see what caused the emergency! Right there inside our secure yard was a one foot diameter land tortoise. It was a pretty good-sized tortoise! Where did she come from? Who put her there? How did she get into the girls safe, private yard?
Well, ten years earlier, before the owners had poured the concrete wall, a large dump truck delivered twelve yards of fill dirt so they could finish filling and grading the lot, and guess who came with the dirt? The tortoise, and nobody had told us! Our new friend was probably at least ten years old then and by now she would be nearly twenty.
“Can we name her Mom? PLEEEASE!” the girls begged excitedly. “What should we call her?” They did not think long. “Myrtle!” they both shouted at once. “Myrtle the Turtle” was one of their favorite stories in a children’s book they owned.
Now what about Myrtle’s secret? Where had she hidden for the last several months? Well she kept her secret, and she would not tell the answer until right after Thanksgiving, and that was a long time away from when we found her.
Myrtle became the center of attention that summer. “No! You can’t pick her up. You can’t turn her over, and girls if she accidentally gets on her back, quickly turn her on her stomach because she might die. Turtles usually cannot turn themselves over,” I read from the World Book Encyclopedia. “She eats lettuce of all kinds, some celery, grass, and rhubarb! Rhubarb? Yuck, the girls did not like rhubarb unless their mother mixed in some strawberries and made a pie.
Jori said “Mom, she eats loquats because we gave her some.”
“How old is she Dad?” the girls asked me. “She is at least twenty years old. She is almost as old as I am.” I told the girls. “Your Dad is only twenty-seven.” Jori and Jill just called her an “OLD LADY!”
Myrtle had lots of visitors. Every Tuesday night after my team had played softball, the entire team, their wives and children would all come over and barbeque, and make homemade ice cream. All the kids learned not to touch her, but everyone fed her lettuce. One summer later we even planted a row of lettuce along the back fence. It was just for Myrtle and she loved it.
Thanksgiving came and went, and Myrtle shared her secret. She was a land tortoise, and they like to dig. When the first frosts came, Myrtle went back to her spot about two feet inside the yard from the garage wall and she started digging. She disappeared and all that was left was a pile of soft earth, just like a giant gopher hole. Myrtle spent each winter under the concrete garage floor. When she felt the temperature of the earth starting to warm in the spring, she ended her hibernation and dug her way back out, just in time for . . . you guessed it, the loquats! Each year she and the loquats appeared at almost the same time. No wonder Myrtle liked to eat them.
Several more years passed and Myrtle was about twenty-five. We built a new home about eight miles east of Clovis in the rolling hill country. We moved during the winter while Myrtle was hibernating. I also built a new office building for my real estate business on the lot next door, so one of us was going to be there and check on Myrtle every day.
That spring when the Loquats ripened we all went over to the place each day to look for Myrtle. Weeks went by and she did not ever show up. Each day we checked the soft dirt beside the garage but —NO MYRTLE!
Well it was not that she was just late, she never showed up again. Tears were shed by all of us, but we had such wonderful memories, and she actually could have been much older than twenty-five, but there was just no way for us to know.
Do you realize that if Myrtle had lived in this Internet Age, and she had her own turtle blog site, that with all of her adventures and her own private lettuce garden, she just might have been the “Most Famous Land Tortoise in the Whole World!”