Back during my larval stages, the Old Man would take us kids out to White Rock Lake any time we were still in Dallas over the weekend. Originally the water source for the city of Dallas, back before it grew so large, the little lake was full of catfish and if you knew just where they hung out, crappie.
He called them white perch back then.
If we weren’t fishing, Little Brother and I ran the banks, looking for any kind of kid trouble we could get into. Mama always had some stale bread saved back for the ducks that sat around waiting for handouts.
One hot Sunday afternoon in August we charged down to the water, flinging bread at the ducks that mostly stampeded toward the water. All except for one female mallard that simply remained where she was.
“Hold up, boys.” The Old Man studied the little hen. “She’s in trouble. Don’t scare her into the water.”
“I believe that if she’d been scared, she’d’ve run like the others.”
He gave me that familiar disgusted look adults give their children.
“There’s something around her neck.”
“The males have rings around their necks.” Little Brother’s knowledge garnered the same look, this time from both of us.
I couldn’t let it pass.
“Who put a nickle in you?”
“I can talk if I want to. You’re not the boss of me.”
The Old Man cut off our argument, which would continue as soon as we were out of earshot.
“I mean she’s tangled in something.”
I knew in an instant what he meant. Commercials on television told us that the plastic rings holding six-packs together were dangerous to wildlife, and here it was in the flesh. The ring was tangled around the mallard’s head and neck, and like a bridle, one strand was a clear bit in its beak.
“Poor thing can’t eat or drink. I bet it’s starving. That’s why she didn’t run. I bet she don’t have the strength.”
“What are we gonna do?”
He studied her for while.
“Let’s see if we can catch her and cut it off.”
She wasn’t as out of it as he thought. If you’ve ever seen a greased pig contest, you’ll have an idea of what unfolded in the next few minutes. As we approached the little duck, she jumped to fly, but the plastic ring interfered.
Instead, she hoofed it, not for the water, but down the bank, leading us on a Marx Brother’s chase. Each time we bent to pick her up, she took off again. Little Brother made several sensational dives, but she easily avoided his attempts.
“You mean kids quit chasing that poor duck!”
I looked up in my endeavors to see a matronly woman with six kids watching from a distance.
She was graced with the Old Man’s look that chilled her anger and resolve.
As she and her brood retreated out of sight, I finally made one more lunge for the hen and she seemed to run into my hands.
“Good catch!” The Old Man reached into his pocket for the Old Timer three-blade pocketknife he always carried.
“Don’t hurt that duck!” The woman’s voice carried across the manicured glass.
“The duck’s not the one that needs to worry,” he muttered as he opened the long blade. “Hold her gentle but don’t squeeze.”
“Dad, don’t we eat ducks?” Little Brother leaned in to watch.
“We do during season, and when we shoot ’em after they have a chance to fly or get away.”
“She had a chance to fly.”
“Not a good one.” He slipped the sharp blade under one of the rings and it separated like the edge was red hot. The Old Man could put an edge on a blade you could shave with. “She’s gonna get loose after I cut this one in her mouth. Turn her loose when I get the plastic off.”
The little hen was completely still when he finally cut her free. I set her on the ground and she took her time walking down to the water. I thought she’d fly away, but unable to drink and eat for no telling how long, she had one thing on her mind.
She stepped off into the water and took a drink of water, then she drank some more, and drank and drank and drank.
Little Brother processed what he’d seen as we walked back to the car.
“We can shoot ‘em with shotguns, and eat ’em, but when we catch city ducks with our hands, we have to let them go. Is that it?”
“Something like that,” the Old Man said and on the way home, I counted the days until duck season. It was two and a half months away.
That was a lifetime when I was a kid, and counting from right now here in the middle of August, cool weather and duck season is just as far away.