A couple months ago, I was in a meeting at work to view some upcoming TV pilots. One of the network sales women said something (I’m still not sure what it was) and caused our media manager to immediately turn to her and demand “Are you a TURTLE??”
“Uh… no…?” the woman stammered back, clearly confused by this sudden query.
“Oh. Never mind. It’s a drinking thing,” replied the media manager, which naturally caused MY ears to perk up and put the booze-sodden brain on alert mode.
Later that day, I popped into the media manager’s office to ask her what that whole turtle/ drinking thing was about. This is the woman who keeps magnum-sized bottles of vodka in her office, received as gifts from various clients. She’s horribly sarcastic and incredibly amusing, especially in drab meetings, and seems to know most people worth knowing in Boston. She said the turtle question was part of a drinking club from back in the day, and dug through her purse until she found a battered and folded index card. “Would you like to be a turtle?”
“Sure,” I replied.
“Ok then,” and she proceeded to read the speech printed on the card:
We assume all prospective Turtles own a Jack Ass. This assumption is the reason for the password. [UPDATE: This refers to the donkey of a sweet and kindly disposition that all Turtles are rumored to possess.]
This password must be given if you are ever asked by a fellow member, “Are you a Turtle?” You MUST then reply “You bet your sweet ass I am.” If you do not give the password in full because of embarrassment or some other reason, you forfeit a beverage of his choice. So always remember the password. [UPDATE: According to the official rules by Supreme Imperial Turtle Denis P. McGowan, “the negligent Turtle to forfeit an adult beverage to all Turtles present and/or within earshot.”]
As all members are of clean mind to become an official Turtle the person must solve the following riddles with clean-minded correct answers [UPDATE: Called the Sublime Test of the Four Questions]:
1. What is it a man can do standing up, a woman sitting down, and a dog on three legs?
2. What is it that a cow has four of and woman has only two of?
[UPDATE: An alternative official question is: What goes into a woman’s mouth hard and comes out soft and sticky?]
3. What is a four letter word ending in ‘k’ that means the same as intercourse?
4. What is it on a man that is round, hard, and sticks so far out of his pajamas that you can hang a hat on it?
After some prompting, I managed to come up with the four answers, and she proclaimed me a member of The Order of the Turtles. Now that I was officially in the club, I was even more intrigued. An old school drinking club? AWESOME. Was this a local thing, or well-known? When did it start? As near as I can piece together from various interweb sources, the story begins back in WWII, when Captain Hugh P. McGowan of the U.S. Army Air Corps 8th Air Force was a bomber pilot stationed in England. In his words:
We had seen a sign showing that the ‘Ancient Order of Foresters’ and the ‘Royal Antedeluvian Order of Buffalos’ would meet in the local pub, and so I asked the governor of the pub what was that all about? The pub’s governor told us that the clubs’ local branches would meet in the pub’s back room, and that he would give them reduced prices for their pints and drinks for holding their meetings at his pub.
I asked him if our club could meet there, and he agreed, and asked for the name of our club.
I told him that we were the ‘Ancient and Honorable Order of Turtles,’ and it stuck.
I devised the name ‘Ancient and Honorable Order of Turtles’ for the fun of it. It soon spread throughout the bomber pilots, then the fighter pilots, and soon to other bombing groups and squadrons, and to other air bases. We even initiated members of the other Services, and soon,
even Allied pilots were being initiated as Turtles in the backrooms of pubs across England.
The Order was not meant to be serious, as it had no constitution or by-laws, no formal applications for membership, no dues or fees, and a simple initiation ritual. It was a relief from the horrors and dangers we saw every day on our missions. It spread after the War through the VFW and American Legion posts, and eventually, to colleges and even to the high schools of the U.S.A.
Now you’re talking my language. They were in a pub, and noticed that groups and clubs got discounted drinks, so they made up their own. When they got home, it spread throughout the country, and was apparently quite well known in the 1950s and 60s. There were “Turtle Parties” to recruit new members, complete with rituals, membership cards and little turtle lapel pins. Anyone else feel like drinking was a lot more fun back then? There’s even a Turtle Creed which states:
They think clean, have fun a lot, and recognize the fact that
you never get any place worthwhile in life unless you stick your neck out.
[UPDATE: There’s also a secret grip, and hailing sign. The grip involves the phrase “Behold, my Brother! The secret grip of the Turtles! Feel the alcohol pulsing through each other’s veins!” The hailing sign requires the statement “Behold, my Brother! The hailing sign of the Turtles! See the noble Turtle sticking his head out of his shell, seeking his next drink to imbibe!” AWESOME]
When I said it was quite well known in the ’60s, I wasn’t joking. Freaking astronauts were doing it. I guess that makes sense, since a lot of them started off as military pilots. From Wikipedia:
[UPDATE: I wrote to Supreme Imperial Turtle Denis McGowan for some further details on the club and he included this in his reply:
“Brother Schirra, a U.S. Navy Captain and Naval Aviator who flew 90 combat missions during the Korean War, was asked the famous question if he was a Turtle during Brother Schirra’s Mercury flight, when a fellow astronaut and Turtle, Brother Donald Kent “Deke” Slayton (March 1, 1924 – June 13, 1993), a U.S. Air Force Captain who had flown 56 combat missions during World War II, had radioed up to Brother Schirra asking Brother Schirra if he was a Turtle. The entire world would have heard Brother Schirra’s response, so he switched off the radio speaker when he replied, in order to avoid the penalty of having to purchase a drink for all Turtles within earshot, and to avoid providing what might have been interpreted as a crude answer.
Brother Schirra got even with Brother Slayton during Apollo 7’s flight, when he wrote “Deke Slayton, are you a Turtle?” on a large object in front of the cameras for the NASA Public Affairs Officer, Brother Paul P. Haney, the “Voice of Mission Control,” and Brother Slayton to reply.
Brother Deke Slayton’s Turtle membership card and pin were auctioned off for $290.00 on April 22, 2006.”]
Dude, even the President was in on the joke. Again, from Wiki:
Ball-busting with JFK. Awesome.
So, how does this work? Well, once you become a member, you ask other members “Are you a turtle?” If they don’t respond with the proper password, they have to buy you a drink. That’s half the fun… you ask someone if they’re a turtle at a time when they’re caught off guard (the media manager does this all the time with her husband, and then demands champagne for her free drinks. I like her style) or when they can’t really reply with the proper password due to the word “ass.” Like an astronaut broadcasting worldwide from space, or a President at a press conference.
Yeah, now I’m betting you want to know how to become a turtle. Well, from other sites I’ve read, the initiation process can be very simple or very complicated, depending on the local chapter rules. Some make a game of it and place four drinks in front of the candidate before they answer the questions. Any vulgar or incorrect answer means the candidate takes a drink. A correct answer means everyone present takes a drink (including the candidate). Some chapters have different questions, but with the same basic theme: the obvious answer is vulgar, but the correct one is perfectly innocuous, though leading towards innuendo. Most of the information I found was on horrible Geocities, Tripod, and other free, terribly antique web servers. This makes sense given the advancing age of most original Turtles. However, I think it’s hilarious, and have jumped in and recruited several friends including the Lady Friend and Wifey, though I don’t think the Irish Lad has taken the plunge.
If anyone else has further knowledge of the Turtles, I’d love to hear about it. I am currently the self-proclaimed President of the Portland Maine chapter, until someone can prove otherwise. If you’d like to be initiated into the Ancient and Honorable Order of Turtles, feel free to comment and I’ll “officially” induct you. I’d really like to see if this thing is still going out there, or if we can bring it back, though I doubt we’ll get Obama into it; I don’t think he drinks as much as JFK did.
Also, this post was updated in several places after receiving a very informative email from Denis McGowan, the son of founder Cpt. Hugh McGowan. He currently holds the rank of Supreme Imperial Turtle, a title held by the successor to the founder. He very helpfully gave me a ton of “official” info on the Order, and I’ve tried to include it in the original post where possible.
Some other helpful links about the Order:
– A pretty detailed history
– The Wiki entry
– Another helpful turtle site
– Possibly the “official” site, since they own the domain name
– Another “official” and extensive page, with a fictionalized history of the Order