Readers: Part Two of "God Won't Let You Starve" will be posted soon. In the meantime, I'm sharing a piece written shortly after I returned to the small community where I was raised, after an absence of almost forty years.
In preface to this piece, I am obligated to let you know I am an animal lover. At one time, we had two dogs, two cats, a pond full of fish and two hamsters named Thelma and Louise. The cats preferred to remain in the bedrooms while the dogs enjoyed lolling by the fireplace after long walks in the park or chasing squirrels, rabbits and deer in the woods behind our house.
After Thelma and Louise surprised us with a litter of baby hamsters, Thelma was renamed Elmer and I realized I'd become the old woman who lived in a shoe. Once the babies were weaned, they were quickly spoken for. Elmer and Louise, cages and all, went to new homes and I was spared the guilt of making my daughter give up her pets when she assured me she was grateful to cross "clean hamster cages" off her job chart, forever.
I hope you will enjoy this account of my first . . . and last . . . duck-wrangling experience.
"Box o' Ducks"
My friend hurt her back at the beginning of "haying season." After chiropractic manipulation and a variety of prescription medications failed, she relented and permitted me to take over her household chores to give her injury time to heal.
She handed me a book as she left for work. "We're having ducks delivered today. Could you handle this?" I assured her I was a quick study and not to worry. She thanked me and hobbled to her car.
The book she'd provided was approximately 250 pages long and contained considerable valuable information, such as "ducks are short, so your fence does not need to be more than 5' high." I eyeballed the fence behind her house and noted it was the appropriate height. I used the index to find the section entitled, "Caring for Ducks."
She called later that morning to ask if the ducks had arrived. I wanted her to believe I had the situation completely under control and said confidently. "They're not here, yet," adding, "I assume they're ducklings, rather than adult ducks."
"Yep, cute little baby ducks," she giggled, before hanging up to attend to a customer.
When her husband rumbled up the drive and emerged from the cab of his truck with a 12"x12"x6" box, I thought I was prepared. I followed him into the duck house, where he opened the box and began placing the ducklings on the floor. As the tiny, tiny ducklings swarmed around our feet, I asked, "How many did she order?"
"I think there are 12," he said.
"I counted 16 ducks," I replied, uncertainly, because counting tiny moving bodies clumped together in a ball of fluff is practically impossible. "I guess that means we can lose four before your wife gets home," I joked. " I won't tell if you don't." He laughed and went back to the fields.
I went in the house, where I rummaged in the kitchen cabinets for anything large and flat that would serve as containers for food and water. I fished a gallon milk jug from the garbage, rinsed off the coffee grounds, poured in the contents of the envelopes that had been included in the "do-it-yourself duck kit" and filled it with water. A small fountain appeared one-third of the way from the bottom of the jug, which I placed in the sink while I opened more cupboards in search of a roll of duct tape.
Since the plastic envelopes labeled "Quick Chick" and "Broiler Booster" indicated they only lasted 24 hours, I decided the slow leak beneath the duct tape patch was no big deal. I caught myself before I ripped open the envelopes with my teeth, remembering the ducks had been on top of the envelopes in the box, and the damp sawdust clinging to them was mixed with baby duck poop.
As I returned to the duck house, I noticed a cascade of bodies falling from a gaping hole in the screen door. A small clump of ducks headed for the fence and ran right through the 4" x 2" openings, their heads clearing the wire by half an inch.
I called my friend at work, trying to sound calm. I asked politely, "Could you have your husband come home, or send someone else to help me fix the shed?" Meanwhile, I began chasing a mass of peeping ducklings through the tall grass back into the enclosure. Once they were corralled, they huddled together, peeping plaintively.
When my friend's husband returned, I handed him the roll of duct tape. "Fix that hole, please," I directed, indicating the torn screen in the duck house door. I also removed several hickory nutshells and a whiffle golf ball wedged between the floor of the shed and walls, so he could bang the walls back into the floorboards, closing the duckling-sized openings on either side.
While he was working on "securing the building," I went in to shower. 'Now I remember why I left Dowagiac in the first place,' I mused.
When I returned, my friend's husband was nowhere in sight. There were, however, four loose ducklings barely visible in the tall weeds behind the duck house. I managed to grab two and put them back in the house, careful to avoid squashing them when I closed the door. The other two ran through the fence. I ran outside the pen, herding them back in.
They ran right back out.
We repeated this exercise for about 5 minutes, until I decided this wasn't going anywhere. I used my cell phone to send my only other friend in town a text message. "What R U doing?" I asked, trying to sound casual.
"Can you come help me with some cute baby ducks?"
A few minutes went by.
"It's a really easy job," I typed with my thumbs. "All you have to do is sit and watch."
Catching one duck is not a problem, but trying to catch two at a time is impossible. Just as you are ready to make the grab, one takes off in one direction and the other makes a break for it in another.
At one point, the two remaining escapees ran through a hole in the siding of the barn behind the duck house. When I got to the front and saw that the heaps and piles of stuff people need to run a farm formed an impenetrable barrier, I realized I'd have to wait until they emerged on their own, silently praying my friends didn't own a barn cat.
Finally, the truants waddled out. I kept my distance. When they got far enough away they couldn't make a run for it back into the barn, I grabbed the closest one, depositing it safely back in the shed. I turned back to the lone duckling, which was standing in the center of the pen, looking bewildered and peeping loudly.
I took a tentative step forward. It began waddling toward me. In a second, it registered. It was "imprinting." In relief and triumph, I bent down and picked up the little guy, who gave no resistance whatsoever.
An hour or so later, I went out to check on my brood. As I gently opened the door, I saw one of the ducklings stuck to the duct tape my friend's husband had used to cover the hole in the screen. (No jokes about duck tape, please.) It was flailing and struggling so hard I knew I couldn't leave it in the short time it would take to get a pair of scissors, because it would have gotten all wrapped up. I gently cupped my hand around it, teased away as much of its down as I could, squeezed my eyes shut, and pulled.
I called a handyman to replace the screen in the duck house door, reasoning my friends could swallow the handyman's bill more easily than paying for the psychotherapy I'd need if that little duck went through life with a disfiguring bald patch on its back. Fortunately, all the ducklings survived and the one that was stuck to the door is indistinguishable from the rest. I'd counted correctly. There were 16.
My friends' grandchildren came up with names for each of them. The littlest duck, which we used to test whether the ducks had grown large enough to wander around the enclosure, acquired the name "Crash Dummy."
There will be no sequel to this story . . . ever.