Dad had the dock replaced a couple summers back. It’s much straighter and sturdier now, the boards don’t sag, and there are fewer splinters sticking up at the ready to take aim at your soft, fleshy bare foot. All-in-all, it’s a big improvement from the last model that graced these waters for so long.
Despite its newness, today’s walk on the dock brings back a flood of fond memories. I remember Dad and the neighbors spending countless weekend hours tediously working to build a new one over the old, sagging structure that existed when we bought the place. I was in the first years of grade school at the time and couldn’t keep up with the men working in their waders to drive ninety-pound cedar posts down into the muck and rip out the old boards with crowbars and sledgehammers. Dad made sure to make me feel like I was an important part of the process, though, giving me a box of galvanized nails and a hammer to pound in the new boards as the men grew the frame further over the river.
When the dock was finished, we’d sit dangling our toes over the water and stare down into the water to look for fish or painted turtles. Back then, bullfrog tadpoles the size of tennis balls were everywhere you looked. My sister and I would take turns using the dip net to dig down deep into the black, mysterious, mucky bottom to see what we could catch. Over the course of a few hours, we’d have a full bucket of frogs, leeches, minnows, bullheads, dragonfly nymphs, wigglers, and an occasional turtle.
We’d throw in our minnow trap with an open can of cat food or tuna fish and let it do its magic overnight. The next morning, we’d race down to the dock to pull in our catch and would revel in how many crayfish were inside, many of them clinging to the tops and sides of the trap with their pincers and legs. After inspecting each one and trying to get it to clamp down on a cattail or stray piece of wood, we’d fling most of them back into the water and watching them scurry for cover. My sister and I would deem some of the crayfish winners and put them in a separate bucket. Later in the day, these unfortunate few would end up with their abdomens pierced by a hook and hanging over the side of our boat waiting for a smallmouth in 35 feet of water.
My friend, Nick, and I had fun taping lead weights to M-80 firecrackers, lighting their waterproof fuses, throwing them from the dock like a grenade into the water, and watching as the minnows drew in close to check out the new potential food source. Loud on land, those firecrackers sounded like a muffled wet fart as they went off underwater, but you could see the explosion. And the minnows would give away that we had been there recently, a few going belly up and several more swimming in circles endlessly.
One of my favorite memories about the dock involves ducks. When I was a youngster, Mom and Dad took me for a trip to the local farm supply store to pick up something for the backyard. It was near Easter and spring was starting to peek through the cold, gray clouds that accompanied a long Michigan winter. It was only fifty degrees outside, but the sunshine beckoned the area youth out of their burrows. I glanced at a few wearing shorts and playing football in the nearby yards as we made our way inside.
This would be a quick mission. Dad approached the counter to ask where the such-and-such was located, and the employee kindly pointed us in a certain direction. I was right on Dad’s heels as we turned along the back wall, but then I heard a commotion of all sorts of peeps and squeaks. It sounded like one of those old windup barnyard toys got stuck on repeat. I looked over and saw cages lined against the back, their occupants climbing over each other fervently in search of something. As soon as one made its way to the front, another one would pull it back down into the mayhem.
We had stumbled upon chicks and baby ducks.
Dad kept moving down the aisle, but I stopped in my tracks. After a few seconds, I eagerly headed over to the cages and stuck my fingers inside, quickly learning that duck bites are favorable to chicken pecks. These little creatures were covered in a soft yellow and black fuzz and were about the cutest things I had ever seen.
I was smitten.
Dad came back several minutes later carrying a bag over his shoulder and looked at me playing with the baby ducks.
“Oh boy, you found some chicks,” he said. “We used to have those on the farm.”
“Yeah, and they even have these baby ducks!” I exclaimed.
“Pretty neat. Now why don’t we get going so we can pay for this and get back?” he nudged.
“Why don’t we get some? They’re only $2 each! I can pay for them!”
“What do you know about raising ducks?” Dad inquired.
“Do you know what they eat?”
“Where would you keep them?”
“In the backyard!” I confidently offered.
“Ha! You can’t keep ducks out in a backyard. They need a pen, someplace to keep them warm and protected from animals. They need food and water every day and they’re messy. Their pens need cleaned a few times a week.”
“So how many can we get?” I asked.
“Come on, let’s go,” Dad replied, clearly unmoved.
Dejectedly, I followed Dad up to the counter. While he paid, I told him I’d be right back and quickly walked/ran back to the ducklings. I pet them a few more times as I took note of their cages and how they were set up. I also glanced at items on display next to their pens.
I met Dad back at the front of the store and we went out to the car. My mouth was running like a whippoorwill’s ass before I shut the door behind me.
“Mom, they’ve got baby ducks in there. You’ve gotta go see ‘em! They’re only a couple bucks each and I’ve got enough for five of them. I just need a cage and some cedar shavings for the bottom and a water bottle. They’ve got bags of food for a dollar each. I’ve got enough saved up and I can buy more food with my allowance. This will be great! Let’s go back in there and pick some out! Come on, Mom! You’ve gotta see! I’ll let you pick one out!”
Mom shot Dad a perplexed look.
“They had some ducks and chickens in there,” Dad said. “I already told him we’re not getting any. We don’t have the space to take care of them.”
“Come on guys! I can take care of them! Just come in and see them with me, Mom!”
“Okay, I’ll go,” Mom relented. “But we’re not getting one under any circumstances. Is that clear?”
I nodded my head in agreement, fully aware that I had already won the battle.
The three of us walked back out 45 minutes later with a cardboard box lined with paper towels, a water bottle, small bag of food, and two ducklings.
I was absolutely ecstatic. I sat in the backseat holding my new feathered friends and peppering my parents with questions and ideas.
“We can keep them inside until they’re bigger. Can they stay in my bedroom? Can they sleep in my bed?”
“Can we buy a cage for them? Or can we build a barn in the backyard?”
“How do you teach ducks to fly?”
“How long do ducks live? What’s the world record? I bet mine will live longer.”
“What’s inside this food they sent us home with? What else do they eat? I’m going to give them some marshmallows when we get home.”
I also decided to name them in the Buick. It didn’t take long. A diehard Detroit Pistons fan, I of course opted to name them after my favorite players. I named the smaller duckling Joe (for Dumars) and the other one Dennis (for Rodman).
We got home and I ran inside to play with the ducklings. I filled the tub with warm water and watched them swim around for a bit. They both pooped in the water. After the bath, I got dried them in some towels. Dennis crapped on my shirt. I let them run in my room for 30 seconds and Joe left a watery turd on my carpet. Fifteen minutes in, I could see this was going to be the theme of our relationship.
After a while, Dad called me out back to help him. His experience had taught him that ducks were horrible house pets and he had already gone to work fixing up a makeshift pen in the yard. He was building a small extension onto an old aluminum shed that we used to house the lawn sweeper we attached to the back of the John Deere to pick up grass clippings. It was a cheap, flimsy structure that left a powdery grayish dust on you every time you touched or leaned against it.
Dad had already shaped a frame for the pen out of some two by fours and he had me help nail boards to it. We ended up building it about five feet high. Dad grabbed a couple pieces of plywood, using one for the door and the other for the ceiling. We laid some hay down on the dirt floor, put in a water bottle and food bowl, and stepped back to marvel at our work.
“They don’t have to go in here tonight, do they?” I asked.
“Maybe not tonight, but they’ll have to come out here soon,” Dad explained. “Ducks are good animals, but they’re messy as hell. They poop nonstop.”
“Oh? I didn’t know that!” I lied.
“Yup, they’re not clean. We’ll let them stay inside a few nights and then you’ll have to move them out here. And then you’ll have to come out here every day before and after school to care for them. And when they get big enough, you’re going to have to let them go Up North. That way, you can still see them when we visit,” he said, leaving no room for negotiation.
The ether began to wear off. What the heck did I sign up for?
In the months that followed, my ducklings grew rapidly, their soft yellow fuzz giving way to dark brown feathers with touches of blue and green. Joe and Dennis settled into their wooden enclosure and ate voraciously, keeping me busy before and after school. I’d let them out to graze in the backyard. They were like walking vacuum cleaners, trying to eat all the grass, dandelions, and insects they could find. They weren’t picky; they’d even try to chow down on pieces of trash or their own feces. And they treated nightcrawlers like caviar. They liked them so much I bought them a dozen every time we went to the bait shop.
I waited with anxious anticipation for them to take flight. They were getting older and stronger and I knew it was just a matter of time. When I’d take them out of their enclosure, I’d be nervous that they’d fly over the fence and off to greener pastures, never to be seen again. My fears soon abated, as I started to realize that my ducks weren’t the flying kind. Domesticated — and with a steady supply of food — their bodies grew larger by the minute, with expanding chests and underbellies. By the middle of summer, my ducks looked different than the mallards I grew up with; in fact, they looked rather deformed with giant, hulking bodies on top of their tiny legs and webbed feet. Joe and Dennis waddled funny. And Dennis probably could’ve used blood pressure medication. I was afraid I had done something wrong to ruin my ducks’ livelihood.
“Don’t worry about it, Splitshot. Some ducks just don’t fly,” Dad consoled me. “They can still have good lives. You can bet wild ducks aren’t eating this good!”
“But how will they survive Up North?” I asked concernedly.
“They’ll be fine. Animals know how to adapt,” Dad reassured me. “They’ll live a good life up on the river. We should get them up there before it gets too cold.”
In the weeks that followed, I did my best to get those ducks to fly. I’d chase them around the yard, spray them with the hose, and try to manually flap their wings for them. I’d toss them a few feet in the air and watch as their fat bodies came crashing to the ground gracelessly. Time after time, they’d fall. By the time we were done with our session, they didn’t even bother flapping any more. My ducks wouldn’t fly.
We took them up to the river before summer ended. They were transported in a metal cage we had used for a pet rabbit at one time and Dad thought it would be a good idea to keep them down by the dock overnight so they could acclimate to their surroundings.
“When we let them go in the morning, they’ll have a better chance of making it,” he explained. “They may even make some friends!”
I quickly signed on to the idea and, after some swimming lessons, left them in the metal cage at the water’s edge.
Dad beat me out of bed the next morning and had gone down to check on the ducks. When he got back to the trailer, I pounced on him.
“You didn’t let them go without me, did you? Tell me you didn’t let them go already!” I pleaded.
When I looked at Dad’s face for an answer, I immediately knew something was wrong.
“There’s been a little bit of a problem, Splitshot.”
My mind started racing. Did they get out on their own? Did someone steal them? Did they hurt themselves on the cage?
“Something got into the cage,” Dad continued. “Whatever it was killed your ducks. I’m sorry.”
My young heart was broken on the spot. All the big plans I had for Joe and Dennis evaporated instantaneously. They’d never greet me down at the dock, hop up on the banks to eat nightcrawlers out of my hands, or make their obnoxious quacks. They’d never follow me behind the canoe, learning how to navigate the river. And they’d never bring their ducklings by for visits.
I couldn’t accept it.
“They can’t be dead! Are you sure! Did you see if you could wake them up?”
Dad put his hand on my shoulder and let the silence do the talking.
After I was done crying, we went down to the river together and gathered what was left of Joe and Dennis. Whatever got them was downright evil. Feathers and blood were strewn about everywhere and my ducks laid lifeless at the bottom of the cage. Surprisingly, they were mostly intact, save for their necks.
“Weasels will do that,” Dad explained. “They eat the neck meat and leave the rest of the body. Mink might do it, too.”
I immediately put weasels and mink on my Shit List.
“Why would they kill them just for their necks? Why’d they have to kill my ducks?” I wondered aloud. “How’d they even get in?”
“They’re different animals. A weasel will just eat the neck and then drink the duck’s blood. I guess that’s what happened here.” He paused. “I shouldn’t have put them down here in the cage last night. I knew better,” Dad offered, shouldering some of the blame.
We buried the ducks under an old, towering white pine near the cabin. As the final shovelfuls of sandy dirt hit the pile, I wondered how I could improve my duck raising enterprise and be more successful next time.
“Can we get some more ducklings when we get home, Dad?”
“We can get more ducklings and try again, but you’ll have to wait until next spring when they’re back at the supply store. They only have them around at Easter time,” he stated.
“Okay,” I agreed. “Next time we won’t put them by the river the night before.”