It was in the summer school holidays 1978 when I made a very special friend. Yes, I remember it as distinctly as if it was yesterday. I would have been thirteen years old then.
One particularly sunny morning I awoke and over my bowl of cereal I got an idea. I decided to go to the zoo. I had always liked zoos, never ending in the delights and beauty of all the creatures. Now living as I did in Birmingham, England, we were most fortunate to have an excellent zoo, Dudley, located a mere eight miles from the house.
I recall it was about nine when I set off on my trusted old bicycle. On my back hung my tattered back pack, which contained my favorite sandwich, (cheese and onion,) and a flask of hot tea. This was going to be an adventure I thought, but little do i know as I pedaled along how right I was going to be.
About ninety minutes later, I dutifully arrived at my destination. Now the circumstances were I did not have any money (I rarely did back then…). However I had formulated a nifty plan; I was after all an exceedingly determined thirteen years old.
I along the sides of the park seeking an alternate entrance and it wasn’t very long until I spied it; a climbable fence on top of a hill. I chained my bike to a lamp post, and effortlessly clambered up the embankment. A few moments later I had scaled the eight foot railing, and hanging myself down, dropped safely to the ground. I had made it!
However my cheery disposition quickly evaporated as I noted where I had actually landed. I was still at a top of a hill and at the bottom was a pen where the llamas were kept. A second problem was that between me, the llamas and my entrance into the park laid a steep descent covered in stinging nettles.
Yet, I had persevered this far what were the odd llama and a few stings to stop me now… I began carefully climbing down the hill. It did not take me long before I caught my foot on something resulting in me slipping and falling. I suddenly regretted wearing short trousers and a t-shirt as I rolled and rolled through the bushes, ripping my skin and stinging myself from top to bottom. About an hour later, well perhaps a minute or two, I landed at the bottom with a resounding thump.
As I lay there feeling sorry for myself, I felt a strange sensation and quickly opened my eyes to discover a llama was affectionately licking my cheek. Alarmed I quickly stood up, raced away from my new acquaintance(Who frankly looking disappointed at my exit,) and leaped with surprising new found vigor out of the pen to safety- I had ripped my shirt, was bruised, and was itching all over…But I was in!
I cleaned myself up in a toilet stall and eagerly began to explore the zoo. I marveled with delight the vast assortment of animals. However being of that age where I was sprouting up almost daily I soon felt a little hungry, and searched for a comfortable shaded spot to relax and eat. Before long I came across the ideal place, a little wall surrounding a shallow body of water, where to my delight I quickly discovered that a giant tortoise lived. As I perched myself down and began my little feast, the tortoise, hurried away as quickly as he could (which admittedly wasn’t very fast at all!). I watched on strangely fascinated, in fact I was so intrigued I decided to stay there. The sad thing I observed is that very few people actually gave this magnificent ancient fellow much more than a quick glance. They were far to interested in the monkeys, the perennial favorite, or the Lions and tigers. Yet here was the oldest (and perhaps wisest?) animal in the entire zoo. I in fact discovered he was already almost a hundred years old, and still in very much still in his prime.
After I sat there reading, on the enclosing wall for about two hours, a peculiar thing happened. He carefully walked on over to me pausing periodically and extending his wrinkle neck towards me. I was taken aback, and I might add, a little flattered. It appeared this fellow was enjoying my company as well. I cautiously and nervously reached out my fingers and scratched his head. My new friend seemed a little unsure at first, as he quickly sunk back deep into the safety of the shell. But, a few moments later, his head re-emerged, and I went back into scratching mode. He seemed to stretch out his neck as far as he could. I could have sworn that he was actually smiling at me.
Eventually the park closed, and I was forced to leave. As I got up to go, the tortoise tried to follow me, I remember him trying to lift himself over his enclosure. He could not make it, and seemed to be a little frustrated with himself.
On my bike ride home, I could not forget him. The next day found me at my local library discovering all I could about these creatures with prehistoric ancestry.
Over the next few weeks, I went back quite often; I soon discovered a much easier approach to sneaking in the zoo. I even got friendly with some of the zoo keepers. They obviously knew I wasn’t paying to get in, yet seemed to turn a gracious blind eye. I always found myself back at the magic place, it became my sanctuary. My old friend seemed, in my imagination, to be looking for me eagerly anticipating my arrival. As I walked up I would watch him plod with excitement in my direction. I began to bring along a few radishes or pieces of lettuce, and he would eat them from my hand.
I can’t remember exactly why I stopped going to visit him, summer was over, and I was forced back to school. I was also turning into a mature teenager; I regret to say that I perhaps had other things on my mind than that magical friendship I had developed over the summer.
As I have gotten older, my life went on and I ended up moving to California, however whenever I go to the zoo, I always immediately check out if they have a giant tortoise. Whenever I do see one, my mind and heart races straight back to that lovely summer of 1978.
I suspect he is alive to this very day, back in Dudley. Part of me still wonders if he is still there waiting and looking. The next time I am back in England I think I shall go and find out, only this time I shall pay to enter!