Gather 'round, children - time for a story. Meet Stanley the Desert Tortoise, a beloved character from my childhood. I've asked my old friend, Kathleen Teager (she's not old, just our friendship) to compose the story of his very long life and his many near-death experiences. Enjoy!:
“Is he out yet?”
Every spring for the past four decades, I’ve asked my parents this same question. The emergence of our tortoise from his winter hibernation is an annual family event. About a month ago, Stan decided it was time to walk out of the garage into the spring sunshine. According to my mom, this year he came out, loped around for a bit, then decided no, not yet, a bit more of a winter nap was in order. You know how great it feels to be cozy in your bed on a cold winter morning? How great that must be to stay asleep as long as you want, and when your body tells you it’s time to get up, that’s when you do it. No alarm clocks, no schedules, just nature’s sweet awakening.
Stanley the Desert Tortoise, a.k.a. Stan the Man, is remarkable in that he is approximately 125 years old. About 30 years ago he was examined by a reptilian expert, known simply as the Turtle Lady, in Long Beach, CA who deemed him close to one hundred. That makes him born around 1883, when Chester A. Arthur was president (dude at right). The average tortoise lives 80-100 years. What’s even more interesting is that he has survived multiple brushes with death, making him as tough as his hard, gray shell.
Stan was brought (illegally) from the Mojave Desert by my Dad’s friend, Jack, in the early 1960s, meaning the majority of his life was spent like a normal tortoise, in the hot sun, digging sand tunnels and eating desert plants. Jack gave Stanley to my parents in 1967, which marked the beginning of his life in Long Beach, California. The weather was dramatically cooler and wetter, but Stan adapted fine. His diet changed to rose petals, hibiscus flowers, and star jasmine plants, along with his favorite, Santa Rosa plums.
My childhood memories of Stan are of him walking around our backyard, with a swipe of ripe plum across his toothless mouth. He never bit anyone, and seemed to enjoy it if someone scratched the back of his shell (although emotion never registered on his face, so I’m not sure). If you picked him up, he would surely hiss. He was a favorite show-and-tell item at my elementary school. I brought him to my second grade classroom, and he ceremoniously took a poop on the linoleum, much to the delight and squealing of my classmates.
His first brush with death was a near drowning, sometime in the 70’s. One behavior he brought with him from the desert was tunneling. Stan had dug himself quite an impressive hole, and was probably bent on settling himself for a long winter nap inside when a rainstorm began filling his hole with mud. Luckily my brother, John, and my dad, pulled a muddy - and probably pretty pissed off - Stan from the hole and put him in the garage. Gradually his tunneling behavior stopped, and the garage became his home every winter.
In the late 80’s, Stan’s peripheral vision started to diminish. He was 100 by then, so what do you expect from an old man? One of his routines was to stroll the perimeter of my parents’ swimming pool. One day, he got too close to the edge and fell in. My dad just happened to notice a dark, gray, boulder-like figure in the center of the 9-foot deep end, dove in, and pulled Stanley to the surface. I was home from college at the time and helped revive a cold, wet, foamy-mouthed tortoise back to life.
My dad and I turned him upside down, causing great amounts of pool water to come out of his body and onto the deck. He looked terrible, his eyes were glazed over and he was not moving. I actually gave him CPR, breathing my warm breath into his wrinkled, scaly mouth. Stan then spent the next ten days in an incubator, recovering from pneumonia at an exotic pet vet’s office. The vet told us that he was probably under the water for over two hours, and was able to go into hibernation mode to survive.
Stan enjoyed the Bill Clinton years unscathed. However, the 21st century brought some more scary adventures. Stan has always had a wild side, making him attracted to getting out of my parents’ backyard heading out in search of female tortoises and other delights. My dad has always been extremely vigilant about keeping the gate padlocked so that Stan wouldn’t be able to venture outside of the yard into unknown dangers.
However, a few years ago, the gate was left open and Stan escaped down the driveway and onto Tulane Avenue, a small suburban street. When we discovered that our beloved family member was missing, a frantic search took place throughout the neighborhood. Signs were posted, neighbors were interviewed, and my brother placed in ad in the paper. Several promising phone calls came from people who had found desert tortoises. One lady sent us photos of the tortoise she had, and by god, he looked exactly like Stan, with the same shell markings. My parents brought him home, set him down on the patio, and we instantly knew it wasn’t Stan. This turtle could haul ass, crawling fast and perky like a much younger boy. In fact, this young dude was probably only in his 50’s. Whereas we’ve always thought of Stan as quiet, slow, and a bit cranky, this strange tortoise was outright friendly! We gave him away to a very nice family who promptly named him T2, after the Terminator.
A few weeks later, we received a call from a young man over by Long Beach City College, who said that a tortoise had been living in his mother’s backyard for a month. Sure enough, it turned out to be our guy. Long Beach City College! Holy shit! That means that Stan walked down Tulane, probably hung a left turn onto Harvey Way, where cars go along at a pretty breezy clip, lined with plenty of storm drains for an elderly tortoise to fall into. Then here’s the amazing part: He must have walked across Clark Avenue, a busy street across from the college where cars whiz by at 40-50 mph! Stanley must’ve made his way ever so slowly across the street while cars, buses, and bicycles missed him by probably just inches.
Almost two years ago, when my parents decided to leave their Long Beach home of forty years and move out near my family in Rancho Santa Margarita, CA, Stanley had yet another near-death experience. In all of the hustle and bustle of moving, he went missing again. We tried the same methods of trying to find him, this time with no luck. My parents moved with all of their possessions and three cats, but sadly, without Stanley. We would cry when we thought about how he’d been a constant part of our lives, someone who was always there at family barbecues.
About a month after my parents had settled into their new home, they asked my husband, Gary, if he wouldn’t mind driving back to Long Beach to pick up a few things they had left behind that the new owners had found. When Gary got to the old house, the owners had the best surprise for him: they had found Stanley! Again, tremendous luck was with our reptile. The owners had decided to make some home improvements, and a worker was underneath the house. While he was under there, he heard loud hissing sounds. He thought it was a snake, and said he about peed his pants. His flashlight shone on the face of our Stan the Man, a miniature dinosaur-like creature whose life had taken place during three different centuries. Gary scooped him up, put him in a laundry basket with a big blue bow on it, and we delivered him to my teary-eyed parents like a gift.
What was truly jaw-dropping was when we realized that while Stanley was under the house, he had lived through termite fumigation. He is truly indestructible, a living legend in my family’s time, who will probably outlive my grandchildren.