Talk of the Town - The duck stops here July 08 2004

Hit the road, quack

Aging takes many forms, unless you're Dick Clark.

The perverse redistribution of hair follicles. A growing inability to recall names of B-movie actors. But no one told me it would come to this.

Now I am feeding ducks.

My life cycle is out of sync. Because there are only two stages in human existence when you're supposed to feed ducks. The first is early childhood. I went through that phase when I was 3. That time the ducks mobbed me, yanked the bread out of my hands and caused me to flee in panic. I haven't been the same since.

Then there's a 70-year interregnum, during which people go to school, fall in love, reproduce — particularly in the case of Evander Holyfield — have a boring career and retire, hopefully before Social Security goes bust.

The second stage occurs when you get old, and those ungrateful kids don't even bother to visit on a Sunday afternoon. So you go out and feed the ducks again.

But that's as a tottering geezer. I am still in my virile prime. Unless you're one of those language snobs — like that damn Webster — who insist on defining virile as "masterful and forceful." Sheesh.

The trouble started when I moved near a lake. Or a pond. I'm not sure which.

If anyone in America can tell the difference, they should host a National Geographic special. Anyway, it's a body of water too big to fit into a back yard, but too small to swallow the iron ore freighter in a Gordon Lightfoot song.

On summer days when it's not raining, blisteringly hot and/or the humidity level is below 17,000 percent — surely there will one before Labor Day — I enjoy a brisk totter around the old fishin' hole.

That's when you meet the ducks. The Magnificent Seven. No one is quite sure how they got there, but they paddle around in a flotilla whose movements are largely governed by the Curly Howard principle: "Mmmm, free food!" From the many bread-bearing tourists.

This navy, of course, has an admiral, name of Aflac, as in the insurance company spokesduck. He is so dubbed by the entire neighborhood, owing to his white feathers and bumptious Type A personality. (Editor's note: For purposes of this article, the duck in question will be referred to as male. The author has no idea how to determine a duck's gender, nor does he wish to start now.)

When locals bring edible offerings waterside, Aflac quacks his squadron into formation. As they waddle into port, Aflac guards the flank. Because a gaggle of geese is not far behind.

I don't know who coined the phrase "silly goose," because these birds are about as silly as a gaggle of Corleone family button men. The geese hiss, snap and lunge. They are bigger, meaner and more numerous than the ducks, but slower.

When free eats hove into view, the ducks get there first. The geese follow, crowding Aflac and his buddies with superior force.

Aflac is then at his finest. He never undertakes offensive maneuvers against a goose, and always turns the other beak — because it would get broken in a brawl. But when it comes to darting among the enemy to seize a bread pellet, he's Lord Nelson with webbed feet. The pond is Aflacked with feathers when he gets within gooseneck range.

Bold yet prudent. Fearless yet practical. If Aflac could sit behind a desk without getting duck crap all over the place, I'd nominate him for president. That duck is a born leader.

We can ascribe human traits to another species, but we cannot fully fathom its interior life. The ducks do strange things. After we feed them, they stick their beaks into the pond muck and their feathered bottoms in the air. Maybe they're having an algae intermezzo. Maybe they're mooning the geese. It's all a mystery.

But I don't worry about Aflac & Co. They can take care of themselves. The one I'm concerned about is my wife. She's spending a little too much time with the ducks.

If I have her committed, Exhibit A would be video of her driving by the pond, stopping the car, sticking her head out the window and quacking. This causes the ducks to quack back.

Then she laughs and laughs, and I wonder if her parents neglected to tell me about some streak of latent insanity in the family. Sort of like the first Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre. The one kept in a locked room for 10 years.

On the other hand, I've just written 800 words about a duck. Maybe we're both quacking up.

If you have us put away somewhere, make sure there's a pond.


Glen Slattery is on the web in Alpharetta.