Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Dad and the Duck

Not everything that happens during the course of a loved one’s passing is bad. For the last few weeks I have enjoyed time I have been able to spend with my brother and mother talking about my father and his life. It may be the first time that the three of us have spent a lot of time alone together in many years. I got to hear  stories about my dad that I had either forgotten or never heard. One involved the final days that Huey the Duck spent in our household.


Like other suburban families of the 1950s and 60s, our house had a continuous stream of pets. From my third birthday on there were dogs, cats, fish, birds a rabbit (briefly), and an occasional horned toad brought home from the Texas Panhandle in a match box. The most colorful of all of our pets was my brother’s duck Huey. My father was ambivalent about pets. Generally, he would argue to keep us from acquiring them. I found out later that the reason he did not particularly like them around is that he was so sentimental that he hated to see them go when their time came. Two of the three dogs that he brought home were dogs he had rescued from abandonment. One of them ( a Welsh Terrier named Skippy) was pulled off of a freeway where it had been dodging cars going 65 mph.My first dog was an oddly hairless black dauchsand named Dutch (who looked for all the world like a baby seal) presented to my when I was three. It was the only time that I ever saw Dutch on a leash. He spent the next 12 years following my father up and down the block to talk to neighbors (dad, not Dutch) or with his head out the window of the front seat of our 1956 Chevy station wagon, accompanying my father to the 7/11.


Skippy was more of my mother’s dog. Well groomed and well behaved (unless given a brief opening of a gate or door in which case he would run away, like the wind, for many miles). Skippy was eventually bred to a Welsh Terrier around the block owned by the wife of a local football coach. The offspring of that union (or at least the pick of the litter) was my brother’s dog Tigger. Tigger was the miscreant of our animal menagerie, distinguishing himself by spreading partially eaten tubes of my mother’s oil paint all around the house, as well coating  his own mouth in a bright red. He was just an all around screw up. My father, who favored the argument of nature over nurture, used to sigh and look at me after any particular Trigger issue arose and exclaim “his mother was trash”.


My brother had a series of three cats, one alley cat and two Siamese. My father argued hotly against admitting the last Siamese (purchased during the Viet Nam war and dubbed Mei Kong) because the previous one had died young of a kidney infection. After Clay and I left home, my dad developed a closeness with Mei Kong and my mother recently related that Dad “balled like a baby” when Mei Kong died. Clay’s first cat, Frisky, actually killed Clay’s Jack Rabbit (Jackie) one night during a rare business trip my father had taken to Chicago. The rest of the family had dined at El Patio Mexican restaurant that evening and came home to discover the partially eaten Jackie under one of the beds, Frisky having succeeded in knocking him out of his cage. My father had chosen that time to call home and found the house in an absolute uproar of tears, as well as indignation against the cat.


My father also built a small aviary and kept doves for a number of years, he was fascinated with birds. He always looked forward to the annual return of his Purple Martins. He also spent a good deal of his time feeding the neglected fish and parakeet that Clay and I had imposed on the family at different junctures.


As mentioned above, it was our Duck which was the most unusual pet we ever had. In those days, the local five and dime, improbably named Wackers, would put eggs in their window before Easter, under a sun lamp.. The eggs would hatch and Wackers would sell baby chicks and ducks to the neighborhood children. The chicks were painted unnatural colors and for weeks after Easter you would come upon mauled purple chickens in vacant lots. The life expectancy of one of these chickens, which from a distance resembled a bright feathered cotton candy, was not more than three weeks to a month. One family, the Beans, were alleged to buy several chicks and ducks every Easter only to have the youngest of the five Bean brothers (“”Boo” Bean) put the animals to death by decapitation or dropping them down a garbage disposal. These stories were never confirmed and since I was friend with Gary, one of the Bean twins, a gentle soul, I had a hard time believing them. Whether Boo went on to a career as a serial killer is quite doubtful as the neighborhood would have heard about it.


I have never understood how the Duck, christened as Huey after Donald’s nephew and a contemporary cartoon figure “Baby Huey” was able to get into the house. I have some dim memory of my mother and her buddy Martha Ogden succumbing to the pleas of Clay and Guy and making the purchases of two Easter fowl. Whatever the method, Huey came into our house a cute duckling and after a time emerged as a mature duck. The fastest and meanest duck God ever put on this earth.


As you might imagine, Birdwood Street was not the best place to raise a duck. Huey lived in the backyard behind a strand of chicken wire which he would regularly jump over if agitated by the site of a human being who found himself back  there. He spent a good deal of his time in a large silver metal tub which my father used on the Fourth of July to store iced beer. Huey would float around in the tub for part of the day, when he was not chasing humans.


No one ever knew what turned Huey so aggressive. Perhaps it was being born in a Wackers five and dime store, or being raised haphazardly by a six year old boy. Whichever it was, Huey became the best known “guard duck” anyone had ever seen. Huey’s success was related to two things, his speed and his bite. Huey was faster than most dogs. He would leap over the chicken wire and run his victims down in a matter of seconds. He would then proceed to bite his victims on whatever body part was available. During the summer, he was particularly adept at biting (pinching actually) the bare feet of children who strayed back to his lair. Since no child wore shoes in the summer, his targets of opportunity were endless. For some reason it never struck anyone to use their superior strength in Huey to shoe him away (or kill him for that matter). People just turned tail and ran. In one famous incident, Our neighbor from down the block, 40 something year old Elna Woodum was chased all the way home by Huey as she screamed and pled for assistance which never came.


I don’t know how long we had Huey, it seems to me two or three years. Unknown to my brother and I, after a couple of years, our parents were becoming less and less happy with being known as the owners of a particular neighborhood nuisance, and they conspired to get rid of him My father elected to be the trigger man of this escapade, during the annual trip to visit my Grandfather, which Dad always managed to miss.


In those days, Miller Pond in Herman Park was one of the bigger bodies of water any of us had seen around Houston. It was a large pond where many a child got his first fishing experience of standing in the Texas sun and not catching any fish. Miller Pond was also home to about a million ducks, wild and domestic, many of the white ones  which had been taken to the pond and unceremoniously dumped after Easter. This was where my parents resolved to leave Huey. It was the perfect plan. Clay and I secretly hated the damn duck anyway and wanted to reclaim our back yard, and the friends who would not go back there. As for Huey, he would finally get a real body of water to swim in, and possibly make friends. At any rate, he would not be biting us anymore.


As my mother later pieced together, and only recently told me, there was one hitch in the plan. My father’s sentimentality. I am told that he arose early one day and drove out to Herman Park where he turned the duck loose on the pond. He then drove to work, with his conscience starting to nag at him. By the end of the day, my father had decided that he had done the wrong thing. How could he have ditched the family duck ,whom we had raised since a duckling and which, for all his faults, had kept burglars out of the house and provided amusement as we watched it chase hapless children around our yard from safely behind our sliding glass door ? So as the sun began to set over Herman Park, my dad drove back to the Duck Pond.


Now on a pond,  One white duck looks quite a bit like any other white duck. Dad saw immediately that with darkness falling, his chances of spotting Huey were slim indeed. But he did not give up. He began walking around the pond crying HUEEEEY, HUEEEY, in hopes that the Duck would respond to his name, recognize dad and come running up for a ride home after his day at the park. The fact that Huey had never before responded to his name, and the fact that every duck acquired by a child in those days was named Huey, did not  cross my dad’s mind. He stayed out there until dark, crying HUEEEY, HUEEY and hoping for a miracle. Alas, it was not to be. Huey never returned and our family Homeowners Insurance Policy Premiums fell in half as we no longer had to report that we lived with a killer duck.


I have thought of this now many times since my dad began his final weeks. What must people have thought of this six foot three guy, wearing a suit and hat, walking through the mud at Miller’s Pond, in the dark, calling for his duck ? It was a side of himself that he seldom showed to anyone outside our family. But we saw it, and we remember it, and it will always be one of my favorite memories of my father.




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