I bet you never had a duck in your basement. I did. But, before I get to the duck, there was another time I pranced with poultry in a Fowl Ball.
For several years, Dad kept laying hens. Looking at chicken pictures, I suspect they were Foghorns: white bodied with a red crest. Like Foghorn Leghorn. Like in the cartoons. Like where I learned most of what I know about animals. Like the birds and the bees.
Dad had built a shed at the back corner of our property, behind his garden. He turned it into a chicken coop. I was holding out for a KFC.
He was motivated to do that after a chicken had been loose in our neighborhood. Yes, right in the midst of metropolitan Montague, it came running down Mohawk Court and toward our house. Dad caught it. I’m sure he put up posters, stapling them to all of the utility poles, announcing the capture of a Foghorn Leghorn look-a-like, in case some little kid was mourning the loss of his beloved. However Dad came to determine the poultry was a penniless pauper and not a parading pet, he took it in.
If you have one chicken, you have to get more, right? I’m sure that mom just shook her head when that was Dad’s conclusion. Dubious as Mom often was about Dad’s “projects,” she made good use of the eggs.
One summer afternoon, a chicken had flown the coop. Since Dad was at work, I had to catch it. I learned the following, very quickly: if you chase a chicken around your back yard, it will think you are playing and run just quickly enough that you can’t catch her.
Chicks. Always playing hard to get.
Finally, I caught up to her. I grabbed at her, tentatively. Note to self: tentatively does not work in snatching a squawking chicken.
Try again. Let her calm down. Walk slowly. Be gentle. Speak sweet nothings. Reach down. Grab firmly.
If you have never taken hold of a live chicken, update your bucket list. It is a unique experience. The folds of feathers give way like, well, folds of feathers. Sort of like jumping into a pile of leaves: soft and cushy before you hit something firm.
My hands penetrated the feathery to the firm. I held her body both tightly and gently—not bad for a seventeen-year-old with no dating experience—as I walked her back to the coop. She didn’t put up a fuss. For days afterward, we cackled and cackled about the event.
Unlike a chicken in a back yard, a duck in a basement never calms down. I had no chance to find out if the Mallard in my cellar had the grab-ability of a Foghorn in my yard.
The second and fourth year I attended seminary, we lived in a two-story house—one that reminds you of a farm house, but it was in town. One day, there was a duck in the basement. Later, when I told my brother seminarists about it, they suggested that he must have gotten in when we had left the back door open (no way; even our kids never left it gaping open) or when bringing in groceries (and we didn’t see him?). Or, surely, there is a large enough hole, somewhere in the foundation, that he slipped through (I inspected that baby like a kid searching for Easter eggs: no hole). How Mike Mallard came to be a cellar dweller remained a mystery.
With the chicken, I just had to be calm and grab slowly. With the duck, there was no calm to lead to a slow grab. I cornered him, over and over. He quacked frantically, over and over. I tried humor: “What did the duck say when he bought a tube of Chapstick? Put it on my bill!” This duck was not daffy.
I got a blanket. As my mom often said when spanking us, “This hurts me more than it hurts you,” the wings of my heart were flapping harder than his at what I knew was coming.
I dropped the blanket. He moved. I retrieved the blanket. As those shampoo bottles prescribe—wash, rinse, repeat—I dropped, retrieved, reloaded.
Learning theology was easy compared to this. I am neither street-smart nor duck-bright.
Almost ready to think I’d never succeed, I succeeded. I dropped the blanket with him square in the middle . . . and throwing a worse fit than one of my young kids when bedtime arrived before they thought it should.
I reached down to gather him in. He was quacking and flapping, flapping and quacking. I held on for dear life. Made my way quickly up the basement stairs. Out the closed-as-usual back door. Into the back yard.
Not wanting to injure him, I was pleased that he had settled down enough that I could crouch down and open the blanket. He got out of there faster than the folks in the back row at my former church.
I’ve lived in several houses after that one. The greatest basement disturbance since were those two teenaged boys in the Port Hope parsonage and their rock-and-roll guitar and drums. I never threw a blanket over them. I just enjoyed the beautiful noise.