How to Kick a Duck
Recently I learned that Mr. George Plimpton's book Paper Lion, in which he describes his experiences with a professional football team while disguised as an athlete, was still selling briskly. As this had been going on for a year or so it was patent that Plimpton must be wallowing in pâté de foie gras, vintage Puligny and matched Purdey shotguns, while I am barely able to afford pastrami, off-year sneaky pete and a beat-up pump-gun. At about the same time I read an article in a weekly sports magazine in which Sam Baker of the Philadelphia Eagles was quoted as saying, when telling of an unsuccessful try for a fifty-yard field goal in a driving rain, "It was like kicking a wet duck."

While I was assimilating that simile it occurred to me that although temperamentally unsuited to being abrased by linemen or contused by red-doggers, I could nevertheless experience in some degree the sensations of a pro-footballer without the discomfort and inconvenience of being maimed, and thus might, perhaps, qualify for some of the crumbs from Plimpton's platter. Hurrying to the telephone I called Duncan Dunn, whose commercial shooting preserve near Princeton raises several thousand mallards every year, and asked if I might borrow a duck.

"What do you want it for?" Duncan asked, and when I said I wanted to kick it he thought for a minute. "By George," he said, "you've finally hit on a technique --- I recall last year you tried a shotgun without much success. I presume you want a low-flying duck?"

"I don't give a hoot how it flies," I said. "I'm going to kick it on the ground."

"A true sportsman," mused Duncan, and told me I could have one of his ducks for experimental purposes the next day.

Arriving the next morning I found him puttering with the pheasant pens, but he came back to the clubhouse with me and produced a drake mallard in a wooden cage. "Knowing you're a gentleman as well as a sportsman I assumed you wouldn't want to kick a female," he said. I agreed, and asked him where I'd find a faucet. "If you're thirsty," Duncan said, "there's beer in the game-cooler."

"I'm no thirstier than usual," I said. "I need the faucet to wet the duck."

"You can't wet a duck," Duncan said. "If you pour water on a duck it runs off like water off a duck. You'll have to make do with a dry duck."

"Look, Duncan," I said. "If Sam Baker had meant a dry duck he'd have said so. Whereas he specifically said a wet duck. If you think I drove seventy miles to kick a dry duck you've got another think coming. Where's the faucet?"

"I don't think you drove seventy miles to kick any kind of a duck," Duncan said. "I don't think, period. In this business, I can't afford to. On the other hand, though, I don't go around kicking ducks. There's a faucet right behind you, by the bench."

I took the mallard out of the cage, turned the faucet on and held the duck under it. It didn't seem to be getting very wet, but after a while it began to feel heavier, and while I was trying to decide if it was just my arm getting tired a car pulled into the yard and a skinny little bald-headed man got out. "My name's Pritchert," he said to Duncan. "I'm an inspector for the New Jersey League Against Cruelty to Animals. We check on shooting preserves, and if you don't mind I'll look around."

"Help yourself," Duncan said. "Be my guest. What I'd like to see, though, is somebody from the New Jersey League Against Cruelty to Shooting Preserve Operators." While Duncan was explaining some of the cruelties inflicted on him by various types of shooters, Mr. Pritchert came over and watched me for a minute. "What are you doing to that duck?" he asked.

"I'm wetting it," I said.

"That's what he thinks," Duncan said. "He's been holding it under there for ten minutes, and it's no wetter now than when he started. The only thing he's wetting is the property. Why don't you pinch him?"

"Why are you wetting it?" Pritchert asked, more suspicious than ever.

"So I can kick it," I said, changing the duck to the other hand as my arm was about to drop off.

"Ha!'' said Pritchert triumphantly, and then he stopped and thought a minute and said, "Kick it?"

"That's right," I said. "I suppose that sounds kind of kooky to somebody who isn't a writer."

"Why in the world would you suppose a thing like that?" Duncan said, and Pritchert said, "Kicking a duck is cruelty, mister. I'm obliged to warn you. You kick that duck and we've got an airtight case against you."

"If he can't kick any better than he shoots," Duncan said, "you wouldn't have a snowball's case in hell."

"Chance in hell," I said. "Good Lord. Snowball's chance in hell. Case in hell doesn't make sense."

"Well, now," Duncan said. "That's very good. You stand there holding a duck under a faucet that you drove seventy miles so you could kick it, and you're saying I don't make sense. Mama mia!"

"What's that?" Pritchert asked.

"Italian," I said. "It means his mother. It's an expression."

"Not that," Pritchert said. "That cage. Is that what you keep your ducks in? That little bitty thing?"

"What do you keep yours in," Duncan said, miffed. "A suite at the Waldorf Astoria?"

"He doesn't keep them in that," I said. "That cage was just for the one I needed for kicking."

"Look," said Duncan, "are you going to run that faucet all day? This place is a quagmire already, and that duck's still dry as a bone." It was, too, and my arms were so tired I turned off the water and put the duck back in the cage.

"Keeping a duck in that thing is cruelty," Pritchert said, "and no two ways about it."

"I agree," Duncan said. "Why don't you arrest him and take him into Trenton. Or anyway get him the hell out of here so I can get some work done." I figured things were getting out of hand, and even if the duck had been sopping wet I had sort of lost interest, and so I let it out of the cage. It hopped out and waddled over and stood under the faucet, which was still dripping. Pritchert took out a notebook and asked me my name; I told him and he wrote it in the book. Duncan said, "My name's Duncan Dunn. The duck's name is Marvin. I wish both you guys would go away."

"Marvin what?" Pritchert said, and while he and Duncan were having some sort of a discussion I got in the car and drove home. Who needs Purdeys?

--- From The Best of Ed Zern
©2004, The Lyons Press
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