The Ancient and Honorable Order of Turtles
The Ancient and Honorable Order of Turtles (“Worldwide Fraternity of Turtles”, “International Turtles Association,” “Turtle Club,” or similar title) started as an informal “drinking club” between World War II pilots, self-described as “an honorable drinking fraternity composed of ladies and gentlemen of the highest morals and good character, who are never vulgar.
To gain admission, one must answer four from a list of about twenty-five qualifying questions. Each question suggests a vulgar, lewd, or salacious answer, but the actual correct answer is rather innocuous. Once inducted, a member must reply to the question, “Are you a turtle?” with, “You bet your sweet ass I am.” (It is assumed that all prospective turtles own a diabetic donkey, or one of a sweet and kindly disposition, which is the reason for this password.) If the member is unable or unwilling (perhaps because of the restriction on vulgarity) to provide the correct answer, he or she owes to each other turtle present a drink of the recipient’s choice.
History of the Order
The Supreme Imperial Turtle (Emeritus) of the “Ancient and Honorable Order of Turtles”, Denis P. McGowan, says that his father was one of the originators of the tradition. Other groups claim an earlier origin, but none have provided believable documentation.
According to McGowan, the Order of Turtles began among World War II pilots as a way to amuse themselves while relaxing with a cool drink between missions. His father, the late Captain Hugh P. McGowan, U.S. Army Air Corps/U.S. Air Force Reserve (Ret.) and several pilots of the U.S. Army Air Corps 8th Air Force founded the Ancient and Honorable Order of Turtles in an officers’ club while stationed in England during the Second World War: “We were flying daytime bombing missions over Hitler’s Third Reich. We just wanted a little fun. 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, so I devised the name ‘Ancient and Honorable Order of Turtles’ for the fun of it. It was not meant to be serious, it had no constitution or by-laws, and 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 Masonic groups, colleges and even to the high schools of the U.S.A.”
Turtles are bright eyed, bushy tailed, fearless and unafraid folk with a fighter pilot attitude. They think clean, have fun a lot, and recognize the fact that you never get anyplace in life worthwhile unless you stick your neck out.
Various offshoots of the original club may vary but the founder established the following:
- Candidate Someone wishing to become a member of the Order.
- Turtle Any Brother or Sister Turtle initiated into the Order through the initiation and interrogation ceremony.
- Snapping Turtle A Brother or Sister who has initiated at least 25 new Turtles into the Order.
- Grand Snapping Turtle A Brother or Sister who has initiated at least 50 new Turtles into the Order
- Imperial Turtle A Brother or Sister who has initiated at least 100 new Turtles into the Order.
- Past Imperial Turtle A Brother or Sister who has initiated at least 150 new Turtles into the Order.
- Master Imperial Turtle A Brother or Sister who has initiated at least 500 new Turtles into the Order.
- Supreme Imperial Turtle Emeritus This title is held by the successor to the founder (currently held by Bro. Denis P. McGowan, son of founder Hugh P. McGowan.)
A large part of the tradition of the order involves the qualifying questions that prospective members have to answer. These fun questions are actually small riddles: Each of them suggests a vulgar or lewd answer, however the candidate has to provide a completely innocuous answer to the same question.
A popular example would be the question: “What does a woman do sitting down, that a dog does on three legs, and a man does standing up?” The obvious answer to this question would be “pee” or “urinate”, but the correct answer is to “shake hands” (as western etiquette demands that a man needs to rise from his seat to shake hands, while a woman needs not).
A candidate must answer four from a list of twenty-five of such questions. While there is a traditional set of questions, some modern clubs also make a up new initiation questions along the same lines.
During the Mercury-Atlas 8 mission (part of the United States space program), astronaut Wally Schirra was asked by a ground controller whether he was a turtle. Not wanting to use vulgar language while his communications were being broadcast worldwide, he temporarily stopped transmitting while he gave the required response.
Deke Slayton, a mere 3 minutes into Sigma 7’s flight, came on the radio, which was open for everyone to hear, and asked, “Hey, Wally, are you a turtle?”. Schirra switched his mike from live to record and uttered the appropriate response. On the open line, he said, “Rog.”
Later, onboard the USS Kearsarge (CV-33), in front of Slayton, Walt Williams and the other astronauts, Walt Williams demanded to know how Schirra replied to Deke’s question. Shirra played the recorder. “Hey, Wally, are you a turtle?” followed by the proper response. This incident is also recounted in Tom Wolfe’s book “The Right Stuff.”
Wally Shirra’s membership in the Ancient Order of Turtles came up again during Apollo 7, which was captured by the in-flight recorder). CAPCOM radioed, “Just a minute, Wally. Let’s see. Oh, it’s a little message to Deke Slayton. A little bit closer Wally. Kind of looks like something about – ‘Are you a, are you a—” Schirra acknowledged, “That’s right.” CAPCOM continued, “Looks like it says, ‘Are you a turtle, Deke Slayton?” Schirra confirmed, “That’s right.” Eisele added, “You get an A for reading today Jack.” Swigert continued, “Here comes another one. Walt, oh, that-a-way, that’s the way to turn it. It says, ‘Paul Haney, are you a turtle?'” Cunningham radioed, “You’ll get a gold star. Perfect score!” Swigert reported, “And there is no reply from Paul Haney there.” Cunningham asked, “You mean he’s speechless?” A short while later, CAPCOM Cernan informed Schirra, “Wally, this is Gene. Deke just called in, and we’ve got your answer, and we’ve got it recorded for you return.” Schirra acknowledged, “Roger. Real fine.” Shortly thereafter, Schirra asked CAPCOM Swigert, “Have you got Haney’s answer yet?” Swigert replied, “No, Haney isn’t talking, Wally.” Swigert then added, “Somebody tells me he isn’t talking, but just buying.” A pleased Schirra responded, “He is buying. Thank you very much. Very good.” This exchange about turtles was a reference to the notorious Turtle’s Club drinking club of which Wally Schirra held the title of a Grand Potentate. During Schirra’s Mercury flight Deke Slayton had radioed up to Schirra asking Schirra if he was a turtle.
President Kennedy was allegedly asked if he was a Turtle at a press conference, to which he replied, “I’ll buy you your drink later”.
References in Pop Culture
In the movie “Master of Disguise” starring Dana Carvey, he says in a scene, “Am I not turtley enough for the turtle club?”
In 1969, Dial Records released the 45 single “Are You A Turtle” by a rock/soul group fronted by Ben Thayer named The Brotherhood, which became a regional hit in the southeast. (Dial label number 4092.)
In “Timequake”, Kurt Vonnegut tells John Hickenlooper (son of one of Vonnegut’s fraternity brothers) of their asking for the password during “solumn and sacred occasion[s], such as the swearing in of new fraternity brothers.
Modern-Day Turtle Clubs
There are several groups that claim to be the “original” or “authentic” Turtles. Organization (or lack thereof) varies, but all demand the same answer to the question “Are you a Turtle?”, and share at least four “initiation questions” (with innocent answers). Some groups make a pastime of thinking up additional double-entendre questions. On college campuses, especially, being a Turtle is more of a tongue-in-cheek tradition than a serious organization
Some local and university turtle clubs have become active community service organizations that raise money to help children’s charities and other community groups.
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