One favorite tradition of the family reunion - at least for my sister, Melanie, and me - was the annual hunt for a box turtle. At that time of year, box turtles - recently out of hibernation and on the hunt for mates - were abundant along the roadways from our parents’ home to the Spiker farm. From our positions in the backseat of the car, Melanie and I battled to be the first to spot a turtle and the first to shout, ”Stop the car, Daddy! I see one!”
Dad happily obliged, idled the car in the middle of the country road, scooped up our our new “pet” and placed him on the floor beneath our feet. The turtle promptly peed. All the while, Mother’s hand was at her throat as she repeatedly chanted in fear, “Oh, my. Oh, my,” glancing from Daddy to the steep embankment, to the curve in the road behind us, back to the embankment. She was terrified of heights and the thought of another car coming along at that moment may have caused her to, uhhhh, pee a little bit, too??? (Sorry, Mom. You did always say we’d be sorry after you were dead and gone for making such fun of your fears. Here’s to you & all of your wonderful & entertaining phobias. Love ya.)
After showing off our turtle at the reunion to Jeana Kay and Jane Ellen Hayes (they were closest to us in age, and probably the only ones who would share our excitement) Melanie eventually moved on to other adventures. But the turtle became my personal companion for the next month or two. (Don’t worry. Daddy always returned all my turtles to the spots where he found them.) I kept the little guy in a cardboard box in my bedroom. I fed him strawberries and tomatoes and lettuce. I took him outside for exercise every day, corralling him under a metal basket whenever I had to take a quick break. Sometimes I’d return to find he had managed to drag that basket with him for quite a distance across the yard.
To my mother’s chagrin, I frequently let him loose to explore inside the house. Did you know turtles are difficult to pick up when they dig their claws into the carpet under the couch? Or that mothers yell at children when they find a teeny, tiny snag in the carpet - even one you thought was hidden by the couch? True story. Then there was the one and only time I was bitten by a box turtle. And it was all Melanie’s fault.
It was the 70’s and I was wearing my favorite pink bell-bottom pants. I’d fallen asleep on the floor while Mr. Tommy Tomato Turtle and I were watching TV. Melanie attempted to change the channel, which startled me awake. As I jumped to my feet, screaming “Hey, I was watching that,” I felt something grab my leg. Apparently, the turtle had decided the inside of my wide pant leg was a good place to join me for a nap. I shook. I wiggled. I jumped up and down. Nothing I did could convince the little fellow to drop out. So Melanie decided she’d “help.”
As I balanced on one leg, Melanie yanked my other leg upward and outward until it was at her eye level and she could peek inside. Without hesitation, she shoved her arm into the wide pant leg and latched on to the turtle’s back side. And that is the precise moment the turtle dug all his toenails into my leg and clamped his jaws shut on my thigh. I screamed. Melanie screamed. We screamed at each other. We screamed as we ran upstairs to our mom for help, that turtle still holding on for dear life.
Mother, quite used to hearing us scream “for no good reason” wasn’t worried about the commotion we caused while stumbling/hopping into the room. In fact, while we screamed…she laughed. (She would have been sorry she did that had I died before her. Just sayin’.) Once somewhat recovered from her fit, she laid me down on the floor, spoke softly and soothingly, and somehow managed to get that thing to loosen his grip. She wiped my tears, gave me a hug…then swatted me on the rear and said, “Now get that animal out of my house.” (But I’m pretty sure she winked at Melanie right then.)
Over the years, Daddy encouraged my obsession with turtles. In 1973, he brought down from the hill one of the smallest box turtles I’d ever seen. Pulling out his pocketknife, he inscribed my initials “BJS” and the year on its shell. He told me his father had done the same for him when he was a boy.
A few years later, Daddy came down from the hill with the same turtle!!! Although a bit scuffed, my initials and the date were clearly visible. He inscribed the year “1977” beneath the first date. Fast forward to 1983. I was an adult, living in a college dorm when I received a long distance telephone call from my father. Yep. He was calling to say he’d found MY turtle in the back yard. Again.
I’ve recently learned that my father and grandfather weren’t the first of our family to carve their names on a tortoise shell. According to a newspaper article that John Jackson transcribed from The Ritchie Standard, the idea may have started way back in 1866 with a box turtle found on the Spiker farm by our cousin William Buckner Zinn.
The Ritchie Standard (Harrisville, W. Va.), May 12, 1915
An Ancient Tortoise
In the spring of 1866, Buckner Zinn, of Holbrook, found a land tortoise on his farm and cut his name and date on it. At that time it was full grown and appeared to be an old one. It was not seen until eleven years later when J.F. Flesher found it and cut his name and the date 1877. Two years later, in 1879, M.B. Zinn found it and carved his name and date. It was not observed again until 1886, when Buckner Zinn found it the second time and recorded name and date.
It now Rip Van Winkled until 1903 when Courty Zinn registered its reappearance on its venerable shell. It then went into seclusion for eleven years, 1914 [,] when Jake Spiker found it and noted the fact by name and date. Finally to bring the record of his tortoiseship up-to-date [,] Haley Hodge the past week found it and added his name to the already long list. It has always been found in a radius of about one acre of ground in the forty-nine years of its wanderings since first observed until the past week when Mr. Zinn punctuated its hermit experience by bringing it to Berea and exhibiting to his friends, but took it back to its native habitat.
Citation: Jackson, John M.
Now how cool is THAT?
Our 3rd great-grandparents, John W. & Ruth (Gandy) Zinn had twin sons…
Twin John Wesley had a son named...
1. William Buckner (aka Buckner Zinn - our 1st cousin 3x removed)
Twin Quilly Manley had sons named...
1. Marion Bukey (aka M.B. Zinn - our great-grandfather) who had a daughter named...
Gay Zinn (our grandmother) who married Jake Spiker (our grandfather)
2. and Cortez Lafayette (aka Courty Zinn - our 2nd great-uncle)
To my knowledge, J.F. Flesher and Haley Hodge aren’t related but were close friends in the neighborhood.
By Bobbi Spiker-Conley
I did not have any photos to accompany this story, so I decided to see if I could find stock images of a box turtle. A Google Image search led me to an article posted on KDKA-TV Pittsburgh’s CBS Channel 2, website. I smiled as I read the 2012 story titled “Turtle with Boy’s Initials Turns up Alive 47 Years Later.”
It tells of a 13-year-old boy from Washington County, PA who had carved his initials and date onto a box turtle then released it into the wild. That was in 1965. His father found that same turtle 47 years later. The son’s name is Jeff Cokeley. His father’s name is Holland Cokeley.
Is it a mere coincidence? The Cokeley name is very common in Ritchie County, WV.
Continuing the hunt, another Google search led me to the 2014 Obituary of Mr. Holland Ross Cokeley of Washington, Pennsylvania, who was born 15 April 1927 … in … Cairo, West Virginia! Now that we can confirm a local connection of the Cokeley story to the Zinn and Spiker stories, I must wonder how 13-year-old Jeff Cokeley got the idea to carve his initials and date on his box turtle?
Wouldn’t that be something???? (I think I’ll go ask him. I believe he is a member of the Ritchie County, West Virginia History and Genealogy Group on Facebook. BRB. )
J.C.’s initials & date.
Photo credit: Daily Mail.
Update July 2020 – I’ve heard back from Jeff Cokeley. He confirmed he was the boy in the article and replied, “My father always told me stories about people putting initials on turtles and finding them again years later. Maybe he heard the stories from his father while growing up in Ritchie Co. Maybe [it was from] the story that was passed down from your family’s turtle story. Back in ‘72 I took a walk from Georgia to Maine and found quite a few box turtles along the way. I always turned them over to see if they had initials.”