It started with Dick Lewis, back in 1958, wanting to keep Mr. Turtle. Nancy, his wife, wasn’t too keen on the idea.
Maybe this turtle that just appeared in the garage of their house in Costa Mesa was a plant, dumped for reasons that they would rather not know about. In any case, Nancy wouldn’t touch it. Plus, it was ugly.
Nancy has since come around.
You get this impression right away when you visit the Lewis home, which is green, although that probably has nothing to do with turtles; but then again, when you’re talking about Nancy, you never know.
Images of turtles--the cute, fake ones--are all over the house: plates, mugs, lamps, figurines, necklaces--you name it--and on the sweat shirt that Nancy’s wearing.
So the first thing that Nancy does when I catch up with her in the back yard is sort of thrust a turtle, or maybe it was a tortoise, at me. Whatever. And let’s just say that I react. The animal is alive.
“Oh, you don’t love them?” Nancy says.
No, I don’t.
Not that I hate the things, you understand. I usually give animals the benefit of the doubt. It’s just that I have never had cause to contemplate turtles before.
I am forced to do that now. They are everywhere.
Nancy says she thinks she’s got about 100 of them at the moment, all roaming free in the yard (aside from the one in “time out” in the kitchen sink and the babies hanging out in what looks like a Pyrex mixing bowl).
Some of the others are napping in these little turtle houses, with slide-down ramps for easy exiting. The water variety, mostly red-eared sliders from the Mississippi delta, are lolling in two plastic kid pools, making terrapin breathing noises.
Yet all of this represents but a fraction of the turtles in Nancy’s life.
Right about now is the start of the rescue season, when the turtles sort of jog themselves out of hibernation. That’s when they usually get into trouble, hardly ever of their own making. Cars hit them, cretins use them for target practice, dogs gnaw on them, fishhooks lodge in their mouths.
Then you’ve got your turtle illnesses: runny noses, swollen eyes, unsightly abscesses. Doesn’t matter what it is, Nancy goes out and gets them and fixes them up, at no charge. Until, say, the end of September, Nancy’s turtle pickups average about two a week.
“I find it’s better to go get them right away,” she says. “Otherwise, if I try to get someone to drop them off here, invariably they don’t come. They just let them loose somewhere.”
Nancy, who cleans houses for a living, is registered with the state Department of Fish and Game (desert tortoises are endangered species), and all sorts of animal shelters, pet stores and assorted others give out her name to callers wanting to know what to do about a disoriented or distressed turtle in their midst.
And she has a waiting list of 150 people wanting to adopt the rescued. But forget about selecting from among the 100 on hand now.
“Well, you know, these ones are mine ,” Nancy says.
(It is worth pointing out that what with Dick and Nancy’s four children and four grandchildren living elsewhere, maybe you could have an “empty nest"-type thing at work here. But I digress . . . )
Nancy’s training for all of this turtle handling is experience, and patience, and sort of a natural nuttiness that turtles tend to relate to.
“I get called the Crazy Turtle Lady,” she says. “Except I know so many other people like me. There’s the turtle lady of Long Beach, and there’s another one in Fullerton. . . . I have a friend who watches TV with his turtle sitting in his lap.”
This Crazy Turtle Lady, however, does not own up to any particularly odd turtle-related afflictions. Aside from Mr. Turtle, for example, she hasn’t named any of these things, not like, say, that really strange class of anthropomorphists, dog owners.
“I am scared to death of dogs,” Nancy says.
She says turtles are too. The six caged chinchillas in the Lewis’ back yard are turtle friendly, however. As are the seven birds, some of them restored to health by Nancy, and the free-roaming rabbit, Bunny.
(Bunny and Barney, the neighbor’s big white cat, are pals. Barney was over for a visit when I stopped by.)
Dick, meanwhile, has long since gotten over his turtle thing. Not that he’s plotting against the residents.
“Well, we’ve had them for 30 years,” he says. “I’m used to dodging them when I mow the grass. Nothing to dodge would take the fun out of it.”
As for any insights into Nancy’s motivation for all this, Dick, a machinist, says that his wife just likes to take in lost souls.
Which, I mean I’m no shrink or anything. . . . But this could account for Nancy’s other equally consuming addiction, to which two entire bedrooms of her home, from floor to ceiling are devoted. This would be Elvis.
The King was recently moved from the public rooms--aside from the coffee mug collection--on Dick’s request.
“I don’t want to look at another guy all the time,” Dick says. “Turtles I don’t compete with.”
“Sometimes I think maybe Elvis is more special to me, then I think the turtles,” Nancy adds. “It’s really close.”
But Nancy loves Dick too. They’ve been married 37 years, been through a lot. Did I mention the cuckoo clocks? On second thought, I’d better not. . . .