LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
At any point in my life, up to and including Saturday morning, I would have told you I would not wait in line to watch a man catch a turtle. Now, not only did I wait, but I waited in the pouring rain.
One employee of Paul’s Discount in Somerset said the crowd estimates reached as high as 10,000. A fine Pentecostal lady was overheard to say,” We can’t get anyone to show up for a tent meeting, but look at all the people that show up for the Turtle Man.”
The Turtle Man, Ernie Brown Jr., was taught to catch turtles when he was 7-years-old by his dad and uncle. He still lives in a small backwoods cabin in Lebanon with no running water and no phone. He calls himself the poorest famous guy around. And he is famous.
The first clue came when parked cars were lining both sides of the road for more than a mile on each side of Paul’s Discount. The line of fans to meet Turtle Man stretched past the building, past the parking lot, and well beyond logic. If the coils were straightened it would have been longer than the length of the World Chicken Festival. Turtle Man looks more comfortable in a pond than being pulled every direction by kids and parents trying to get a picture. He patiently waited until everyone was seen. Then he went to work.
After getting a photo or autograph, fans would surround the sides on the shallow, murky pond behind the store. Turtle Man was going to catch a turtle. “Live action,” as he calls it.
It’s really not a big task for someone that averages more than 300 turtles caught per year. He estimates he has bagged over 12,000 in his life. A few were used for food, including Thanksgiving dinner. Most were turned loose in other ponds where they would not be considered a nuisance.
It took about 30 minutes for Turtle Man to find a turtle. Few people seemed to get restless. He often left the water for fans to get a photo. When he dove in again he would crouch low in the water and extend his arm in what looks like martial arts. This is actually how Turtle Man gets a bead on bubbles that could mean there is a turtle. Saturday he pulled a monster from the pond, an estimated 60-pounder he named Paul. He thrilled the fans with his trademark “Ya ya ya,” call that he says is a cross between a rebel and Indian yell. In one online video clip he claims his ancestry is broken into equal parts Shawnee, Cherokee, Yankee, and Confederate.
The earliest footage I can find on Turtle Man was a Feb. 4, 2008 episode of Kentucky Afield. He explained on that episode his toothless smile.
“I try not to smile because I got my teeth knocked out by a chainsaw.”
But it is hard not to smile when you are rich and famous, doing what you love to do. The old saying to find something you love to do and the money will follow, just gained some credibility. Some are offended by Turtle Man’s backwoods manner and the image he portrays of Kentuckians. The thing is I know several people that do the same thing without the money or fame. And if you add up the T-shirts, appearance fees, and TV contracts there aren’t many of us wouldn’t strip off our shirt and jump in a pond.
To again quote Turtle Man, “Crazy baby.”