BND Magazine

August 10, 2014

Down in the basement with Myrtle: Highland man has quite a turtle story

Lee Dressel has a 60-odd-year-old hand-me-down turtle in his basement.

And he's proud of it.

If you visit Lee and his wife Patricia's neat-as-a-pin Highland house, sooner or later, you'll wind up in the basement with Myrtle.

"There she is, under the clothes rack," said Lee, bounding down the steps in his cycling shirt and shorts. Myrtle was up on all fours, poking her head up and out to see what all the commotion was about.

"She has the run of the basement," Lee said. "Or should I say the crawl of the place. She's slowed down a lot over the last couple of years. But when she's hungry and you come down, she high-tails it for the food."

Lee placed three blueberries on a plastic tray and plopped Myrtle in front of them. Myrtle stared at them for a moment, pushed them around with her feet, then gobbled them up -- except for the piece that got stuck on her long beak.

Lee called me after I wrote a column about my turtle, Amos, who we kept in our basement to eat bugs and amaze friends. Everyone you meet has a turtle story, I said.

Lee had to tell me his.

"Best I can remember, a farmer friend of Dad's came by our house and said, 'I have a present for you.' I'm not sure if Dad said he wanted a turtle or what. He worked outside all his life and could have picked up one any time. But since it was a gift, he took it.

"I was 5 at the time. I'm 67 now, so the turtle is at least 62."

Lee didn't have much to do with the turtle ... until company came. "Dad talked about the turtle in the basement and people always wanted to see it. My friends thought it was pretty neat. If I would have charged a nickel every time, I'd be rich."

Lee remembers his mom telling stories about the turtle.

"She said when she was ironing, the turtle would crawl over and watch. It wanted to see what she was doing. It followed her around. And it would tap its shell on the floor to let you know it's hungry."

Yeah, right, Mom.

"I didn't believe it then. But now she does the same things to me. Wants to see what I'm up to."

Mom died in 2010.

"I inherited the turtle," Lee said. "My wife is from Chicago, and I don't think she ever even touched a turtle. But she took over caring for it. She kids me, 'It's your turtle and you've never done anything for it.'"

"Oh, yes," Patricia said. "I feed it and give it baths but I draw the line at picking up its messes. That's when I get Lee's attention."

Lee does like to spoil her with treats.

"When you go down in the morning, she's right there looking at you like, 'I'm hungry.' I'm a joker. I do like to put words in her mouth. She really likes eggs, blueberries and canteloupe. If i give her lettuce, she says, 'ehhh ... is that the best food you have for me?'"

Myrtle is black with faded yellow markings on her shell. At 5 inches long and 4 inches wide, she stands about 3 1/3 inches tall on he tiptoes.

How do you know Myrtle is a girl?

"When we first got her, she laid eggs," Lee said. "She's never seen another turtle. We thought she might like a playmate but didn't want her to pick up some turtle disease.

Lee sought turtle advice from a couple of vets and the St. Louis Zoo. "But they don't seem to know about turtles. They told me turtles can live to be 100. When I tell them I have one over 65 in my basement, they say, 'Really?!!'"

Myrtle has a few problems in her old age. Her beak, which never stops growing, is elongated. When she pokes her head out, it makes a clicking noise on the shell. And her toenails are very long. A vet told him as long as she's eating, don't mess with those.

Myrtle has her favorite hangouts. One is in middle of Patricia's ironing cord that loops onto the floor.

"She likes to get close to the freezer. She looks at it like, 'Could I crawl on that?'

"Oh, and she hibernates in winter. She shuts down in September or October and doesn't come back out until spirng.

"In the spring, I used to go outside to get her worms, which she absolutely loves. Not this spring. They're too messy."

After giving Myrtle a quick bath in the sink (She let out a little 'ehh' but it as difficult to tell it was joy or a complaint.), Lee agreed to take Myrtle outside for photographs. As soon as Lee set her down on the patio, she was off to the races. She charged her visitor -- "She thinks your black shoes might be another turtle," Lee said. Then she headed over the rocks and behind a wagon wheel.

If we hadn't stopped her, she'd be in Grantfork by now.

"My son Jeff remembers going to Grandma's house and everyone going down to see the turtle. 'Now it's at your house,' Jeff told his dad. 'And every time I see it, it reminds me of Grandma."

And that's why Lee Dressel keeps a hand-me-down turtle in his basement.

Meet Lee Dressel

Name: Leroy Dressel. "I never liked that name, Leroy. When I got into the service I said, 'Aha! I can change it.' I've been Lee ever since."

Family: Wife is Patricia; they have two sons, Dave, 44, and Jeff, 36.

Occupation: Retired 12 years ago after working 35 years for the Illinois Health Department.

Hometown: Born in Caseyville. Moved to Highland in 1972.

Lee's other interests: Cycling, woodworking, traveling, going out to eat with friends

One Dad story: "My Dad (Jacob) was a hard worker. He did everything around the house. When we were going to replace a wall upstairs, he decided to get 4-by-12 sheets of drywall instead of 4-by-8s. But they wouldn't fit up the stairs.

"He was a little guy but strong as an ox. He devised a plan that Mom (Leona) and I were on separate ladders, pushing up these big old sheets of wallboard and he got up on the steep roof and pulled them up. Somehow, we did it. In those days, you didn't call a professional. You just did it. I'm just surprised it didn't kill all of us."

A little turtle humor

1. How do turtles communicate?

2. Why is Turtle Wax so expensive?

3. Why did the turtle cross the road?

4. Two turtles collided at an intersection. What did one turtle say when the cop asked what caused it?


1. Shellphones.

2. Turtles have such little ears.

3. To get to the shell station.

4. "I don't know. It happened so fast."

I hope you're not too slow to get them.

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