A boomer remembers the Secret Language of Turtles

It makes sense, if you’ve written a book called Life’s Big Zoo, that you’d be a fan of turtles. More specifically, of the Secret Language of Turtles and yes, you read that right! Well, Seattle’s Ron Gompertz wrote that book and he’s the guy who writes today for BoomerCafé about his childhood years using the Secret Language of Turtles.

Secret languages were an important part of my Sixties childhood on the West Coast. This excluded real languages like Spanish, Polish, Dutch, Japanese, Chinese, and German, all of which were spoken by my friends’ immigrant parents. A key point of having a secret language was to confound parents and siblings alike.

Pig Latin, for example, was the easiest to learn though not terribly useful, since many of our parents used it at home, thinking we didn’t know what they were saying. My sister and friends had an impenetrable language called “Ibe” that I never decoded. She and her friends would chatter for hours in phrases that sounded like, “Ibe ibe ibe ibe ibe,” maintaining CIA levels of secrecy and driving listeners crazy because it sounded so annoying.

Ron Gompertz

My Midwestern cousins, intellectuals all, had a language they called “Turkey Irish,” which translated directly to “Tabakabey Abarabish” in that inscrutable tongue. Turkey Irish had a rhythmic, ancient sound to it. Trying to decipher what they were talking about would have required the machine that cracked the Enigma code. To this day, I’m still not sure if they were really saying anything.

Secret languages required secret clubs and the most venerable was the Ancient and Honorable Order of Turtles. I hadn’t thought for many years about the Turtle Club until recently, when an intact old neuron fired upon hearing someone say, “You bet your sweet ass I am.”

“YBYSAIA” was the officially required reply for all members in good standing whenever asked if they were a Turtle. Failure to answer correctly meant buying a drink, a Root Beer in our case, for your interrogator.

Johnny Carson was rumored to be the secret president of this most secret turtle society. Some kids claimed to have heard his bleeped answer to the Turtle question on TV, though none of us was allowed to stay up late enough to watch. My father, who worked at NBC in Burbank and had some indirect access to Johnny, refused to help us investigate this important question. I don’t think my dad was a Turtle, but I never had the nerve to ask.

There were also stories about astronauts being asked about their Turtle-hood by pranksters at Mission Control. Research for this article proved these rumors true. I also learned that when JFK was asked if he was a turtle during a press conference, his response was, “I’ll buy you your drink later. “

We young Turtles were in good company, though we didn’t actually know why.

My quick research reveals that the Ancient and Honorable Order of Turtles started as a drinking club among American pilots stationed in the U.K. during WWII. The mandatory “sweet ass” response was a reference to the membership requirement of owning a friendly donkey. There were other similar questions and answers that sounded naughty but were completely innocent.

I have no idea how this tradition took root among a group of San Fernando Valley boys like me who spent their summer days gathered around a transistor radio, and turning Sting Ray bicycles into makeshift choppers. Somebody’s dad might have been stationed overseas or, like WWII’s “Kilroy” character, the turtle meme just floated in and laid an egg.

Just as AM turned to FM, our turtle fascination faded as we moved on to greater corruption once the word “ass” stopped being so giggle-worthy. Here and gone like Kilroy himself.

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2 Comments

  1. When I was really young (5 or so), my sister and her friends used to confound me with their long conversations in Pig Latin. Whenever I approached their sacred space, a string of secret utterances always resulted in tears (mine), and the classic, drawn out, “Muuuuummm”! I never did learn it, and to this day, can be fooled by whoever wishes to use it. Fortunately, I haven’t come across many senior citizens with a penchant for that type of verbal trickery!

    1. So sorry you were on the receiving end, though it does confirm that “…A key point of having a secret language was to confound parents and siblings alike.” I’ll bet you had a good way to confound them, too!

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