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Duck – Duck

One day while cruising Lake Whitehurst in my “Molly B” kit-built canvas canoe, I discovered an errant duck egg sitting in an abandoned nest on a weedy shoreline. There were perhaps six or seven broken and hatched eggshells scattered about. Later, library research revealed that a ninety-six degree incubation temperature was a great start for wannabe ducking hatchlings. Eventually a tiny duckbill poked out from the carefully manipulated and temperature-regulated heating-pad-environment egg. Two hours later a fuzzy “Duck-Duck” emerged — a bizarre chromosomal mixture of wild Mallard and white domestic genetics, no doubt the end product of confused parents. Duck-Duck immediately “imprinted” on my physical characteristics and in no time at all I was a — Mom!

“Peep, peep!”

Duck-Duck’s education included long swimming sessions paddling within Molly B’s wake. But no matter how hard I tried to ditch the duck in the months to come, no matter how fast I paddled, Duck-Duck managed to keep up.

Mom became quite fond of Duck-Duck; even our dog, Yankee, accepted this innocuous, feathered sibling as an equal at the dinner bowl. For nearly a year Duck-Duck protected our back yard from whatever encroachments and obtrusions Yankee — in her old age — neglected. Then one day I waddled Duck-Duck over to the Norfolk Botanical Gardens Petting Zoo (less than 1/2 mile away), where he was an immediate hit with the clamoring kiddies. Cleverly, and unnoticed by the petting zoo’s curators, I gently placed the too-overweight-to-fly Duck-Duck inside the duck pen and walked home. As his panicked quack attacks succumbed to distance, I knew I had moved through another important part of childhood: it was time to leave the duck behind.

That night Yankee waited patiently beside her dog bowl for her friend, but after a while she made the dog food disappear.

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Update: Five decades later when eyeballing multitudes of ducks as they swim past my dock, I often catch myself wondering about Duck-Duck. Could it be that one over there with the weird mixed coloring is a descendent of a Norfolk Botanical Gardens Petting Zoo escapee?

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This is a tribute of sorts to “Uncle Ray Hall”, who wasn’t really my uncle, but a good friend of Dad, both of whom came from a tiny area in corn and oil field country, Indiana. Uncle Ray went on to become a Naval aircraft carrier aviator, while Dad became an officer in the Army, retiring as a full colonel, which, I can tell you, gave a whole new meaning to the yearly Army-Navy football games. That’s right. My sister, Pat, and I were Army Brats, but that’s not what this story is all about. Instead, this story is about how important people in one’s life have a way of slipping away from you in bits and pieces that are years until it is too late to tell them how important they really were.

Uncle Ray should have become a cartoonist — he was that good, but I can appreciate that the thrill of being a 40s, 50s, and 60s pilot who launches his aircraft into a stiff headwind off the end of a carrier was much more exciting; Uncle Ray could  have easily become an Indy race car driver, too. He loved the Indy 500. And he loved fast cars, because that’s the way most aviators are. Uncle Ray was the quintessential bachelor. I remember his fancy Alpha Romero sports cars, his sleek Jaguars, and other European screamers.

A few weeks ago I received a letter from a close friend of Uncle Ray. In it were several snapshots of my family, many of which I had never seen. The fact that Uncle Ray had held on to them all these years warmed my heart: maybe he got caught up in letting important people in his life slip away, too.

Dad. The only photograph I've ever seen of Dad being relaxed.

Dad.

One of only two photographs I’ve seen of Dad being truly relaxed. Most likely snapped during a commercial by Uncle Ray while watching an ARMY-NAVY game.

Probably taken around 1965, because I recognize our Norfolk, Virginia “TV” room and the comfortable, half-eggshell padded chairs you could get lost in. This is the same room I watched every Twilight Zone, Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Avengers episode. I — like every TV-watching male teenager in the world — was in love with “Emma Peel“. Maybe it was the tight leather outfit she wore. The one with the ZIPPER running seductively down the front, the same zipper that had a KA-zillion teenage virtual fingerprints embedded all over it. Maybe.

Me, circa 1962.

Me. Circa 1962, standing beside the Greek mini-villa my family lived in during Dad’s 3 years in Athens, Greece. This was probably taken by Uncle Ray. He had a way of suddenly appearing out of nowhere: “I happened to be in the neighborhood and decided to drop by.”

I can see Uncle Ray saying to me: “A little left. A little right. Put your right hand in your pocket. The other one on your hip…”

How about those rolled up Jeans legs? Can’t remember if that was STYLE or just Mom being frugal. White socks. Black shoes. An overcoat from hell. I actually WORE that stuff??!!

Yeah.

A typical Thanksgiving Dinner, with Dad carving the turkey. (The SECOND only picture of Dad I’ve seen with him looking relaxed.) That goofy kid front left is me. Still had red hair, but not as red as my sister, Pat, front right. Mom is behind Pat. She is now 93 years old. To the left of Dad is Claire. Uncle Ray’s lifelong “girlfriend”. Like Emma Peel, I had a crush on Claire back then. Back then I had a crush on almost every great-looking female I met.

This Thanksgiving Day photograph intrigues me: the wine bottle label I can’t read, and the empty place setting where Uncle Ray was sitting moments before standing up and taking this picture. Thank you, Uncle Ray. I will miss you.

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Feeling a lot more better now. Man, that flu or cold or whatever it was I caught a couple of weeks ago is a real terror. I think I may have gotten out and about a tad bit too early last week, though, when I managed a trip to South Hill to fetch a new set of tires. What was I thinking?

South Hill, Virginia

I gotta tell you, while I was waiting for my tires, I was introduced to the “Horseshoe Restaurant” by my Lake Gaston friend, Al Hartley. Turns out The Horseshoe Restaurant makes absolutely the best hamburger I’ve ever eaten. Evidently, most of the meat on their menu (as well as the vegetables!)  are locally-grown and — whenever possible — of the “free range” variety. Meaning, no chemicals and just about as organic as you can get. The out-of-season tomato slice topping my burger tasted like I had just plucked it from a summertime garden; same with the leafy lettuce.

Bison burgers and elk burgers are also available, a treat to look forward to during my next South Hill visit.

Maybe I’ll even take my camera along and snap some decent pictures so you can see a little bit more of that delicious burger!

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“Hello, I’m Tim— your friendly pots and pan salesman!”

One of my first jobs was as a salesman for a fly-by-night company whose ad I answered from a Norfolk, Virginia newspaper. After two weeks of pumped up sales training (and a non-refundable entry fee of fifty dollars), I was cast out into a cold world not particularly fond of door-to-door salesmen. For two more weeks I honed my selling expertise at the expense of unsuspecting housewives who actually opened the door, which eventually led to my first sale!

Unfortunately, the woman was not interested in my expensive “waterless cookware” package at all. Instead, all she wanted to buy was the electric skillet we gave away as a “free” gift upon purchasing the complete kitchenware system. After placing a call to the office to determine a fair price, I sold her the skillet for nineteen dollars and ninety-five cents, plus $hipping and handling. A steal at any price.

I received my $.97 (five percent) sales commission check one week later!

Two weeks after that, the woman called me back after receiving her free $19.95 “gift”. She was irate at the inferior quality of the electric skillet, and demand her money back. Not only did I have to repay my company the shipping and handling charges, but I also had to give them back their ninety-seven cent commission check, which, I had not yet bothered to cash.

Thus ended my first professional career. And everywhere across the city, housewives sighed in relief.

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Visit any household that has kids and chances are there’s a measuring door somewhere near the kitchen. Measuring doors can be identified easily by the progression of fingerprints and pencil marks measuring the growth rate of sprouting children. For me, seeing the miniscule gradations from week to week, month to month, year to year was probably my first realization that change happens, that — despite the seeming sameness of day-to-day comings and goings — we do in fact move through time and space towards a terrible and undefined vanishing point.

UN-philosophically speaking, however, what REALLY mattered to me about my family’s measuring door was the steadily diminishing distance between my sister, Pat’s growth rate and my own. And in particular, that very special day when MY pencil mark finally nestled one-sixteenth of an inch further from the kitchen baseboard than hers did.

I knocked on Pat’s bedroom door politely because she had her mocking DO NOT DISTURB sign displayed.

“Can’t you READ? she howled. The “Rubber Soul” Beatles album played in the background, its groves worn nearly smooth from continuous use.

“Yeah. . . BUT this is really IMPORTANT!

The door flew open. “What do you WANT?

“Nah, nah-na, NAH-na!” I hooted. I’M taller than YOU are!”

“Big, deal!” She slammed the door.

So much for diminishing vanishing points.

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The feeling is like a bad taste or an unpleasant odor in a confined space. A crowded elevator. A rancid memory, refusing to rise in order to purify itself, instead choosing to fester just below the blister of consciousness. Transparent, like a stealth weapon ninety-nine percent ghost. A vaporous déjà vu that will not leave me alone. This feeling I have is like all of that, this dread that will not go away. This thing called — Irene.

Hurricane Irene — whose name means “peaceful” (I bet some higher-up got a chuckle out of that) — plows a belligerent path northward toward a steamy rendezvous with inevitable landfall. A juggernaut on a mission: a collision with North Carolina and everywhere else.

No. Collision is not a good word to describe this terrible meeting of wind and land mass. The real word should be more subtle. Something akin to convergence or assimilation, or — confluence. Yes. A confluence with North Carolina. I like that. But I still have a very bad feeling about this Hurricane-Irene-whose-name-means-peaceful.

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The Molly B

When I was a kid I mowed yards to supplement my allowance. Actually, I did quite well mowing yards. After the first year my client list had risen to nearly twenty-five yards. The end result was a surplus of funds, which I spent on whatever struck my fancy (including a riding lawn mower). Mom was only somewhat surprised one afternoon when my $21.95 mail-order canvas canoe kit arrived at the front door.

Within a week the sleek shape of the two-seater had begun to take form on the garage floor. The final procedures required wrapping the plywood frame in tightly-stretched canvas and fiberglass resin, and then coating everything with expensive epoxy paint, which was not included in the kit because marine quality paint cost almost as much as the kit. I selected a deep blue bottom color and pure white sides. Seeing as how the nearby shallow Lake Whitehurst was filled with stumps, Mom was dubious about the seaworthiness of a vessel made of canvas right from the get go. But she remained supportive of the venture providing I officially christened the new vessel to her liking: “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”. Very carefully, I painted “Molly B” on each gunnel in deep, midnight blue.

The “Molly B” was a fine ship.

Early one morning, Mom waved from the shore during the Molly B’s maiden voyage; I paddled off like a ghost across the quiet and misty lake into a new and independent wave of childhood.

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