When I lived in Oregon, I was in a lot of plays. I started (and ended) my professional acting career, serving in the ensemble for the Lewis and Clark Pageant, an annual summer play on the riverbank in Seaside designed to commemorate the expedition and desperately tie our little rural/tourist corner of the world to something monumental in history. I was one of two children in the play (we were both about 8-10 years old), and we danced in the scene in Missouri to celebrate the expedition’s departure, then played Native American children who encountered the expedition, and at one point I think I also played the equivalent of a cabin boy on the expedition itself. Mostly I was backstage and watched the various scenes as the real keelboat floated on its tether and various dramatic and vaguely historical happenings unfolded before the summer beachgoers. I also spent a tremendous amount of time with journeyman actors on the rural Oregon circuit, having some of my first non-school contact with adults who were not of my family. And I got a social security number and card, a prerequisite to collecting my nominal paycheck for the performances. I don’t know if it was standard procedure to not issue these things at birth in 1980 or if it was just that my parents resisted such norms at the time.
I also began my most serious and earnest writing project to date there, and one decidedly more original than the more substantial one that followed (that being The Legend of Enutrof, an embarrassingly derivative rip-off of Brian Jacques’ medieval fantasy novels starring talking animals). Enutrof was a few years later, dipping into the New Mexico years, and topped out at about 135 pages before I realized just how unoriginal it was. But the prior effort, crafted mostly during the mosquito-bitten summers in the twilight pageant of my 9th summer, was called Duckland. It reached about 50 or 60 pages before I gave up, though these were handwritten pages in my unimpressive scrawl, so it probably translates to something more like 20. This was based mostly on the largest and most vocal community to adorn the pageant’s stage, a flock of ducks.
(Incidentally, Google informs me that a flock is usually what a group of ducks is called in flight. Apparently it’s either a raft or a paddling in the water. If I’d just casually dropped “a paddling of ducks” there, though, I think you might have thought I was one of those kids who tortured animals from a young age. I was not. Without that connotation, though, I kind of like that. Though a raft is reminiscent of the omnipresent keelboat that was a key feature of the stage, so maybe we should go with that.)
The ducks were ostensibly wild, but functionally domesticated in the way that so many approachable animals become when they have ongoing contact with human communities that cultivate their presence. The riverbank where the pageant was held was reasonably traversed with tourist traffic taking in the pastoral scene even when the show was not on, and the show only increased this presence. Inevitably there would be a lot of children, or older folks, and they would bring bread, so by the time I met this raft of ducks (weird, right?), they were far more likely to waddle toward strange people than away from them. All while making that low murmuring sound that can be translated as a very soft quack, but really sounds more like Donald Duck at half volume and one-third speed.
The ducks were endlessly fascinating to me, even though I had ducks of my own at home to tend to and play with. These ducks could fly, though they mostly did so only when spooked to lift off the water, take a long arcing bank, and then land splashily again a few yards away. They had specific habits and social structures, unique personalities, and group tendencies. I got to the point where I could pick out many of them from the crowd between their appearance and proclivities and of course started naming them. Naming them quickly became a story and the story soon went into pencil-on-notebook-paper efforts that piqued the interest of many fellow actors as I chugged away at it.
Duckland‘s protagonist was Jimmy Richter-Duck (all of the last names were *-Duck, which I guess was a bit redundant, and there was definitely something about an earthquake in Jimmy’s past, maybe when he hatched?). An outsider and iconoclast, his primary issue with duck society was its slavish devotion to the cycle of the sun. Why should a duck go to sleep just because it’s dark out, Jimmy inquired of his fellow fowl. Jimmy stayed up late and even slept in during the morning, boldly resisting nature’s precepts. He started winning other converts to the cause of night-owling (-ducking?) when I ran out of steam on the project. There were other subplots too, but I’d have to dig through the archive boxes in Albuquerque to be sure of their nature. I think Jimmy had a romantic interest who he really wanted to stay up late with, as well as a rival duck of some sort who constantly derided him.
It’s much easier in retrospect, as it often is, to see echoes of my own arguments with my parents about bedtime reflected in Jimmy’s struggle, though that was a battle I won fairly early in childhood, unlike haircuts and the eternal skirmishes over food. (As I prepare for my own potential fights with a possible child down the line, it strikes me how my parents never had a chance on any of these issues in the long-term. Or would I have been so committed to them in adulthood had they not been arguments in childhood?) But I’d like to think there was also something more fundamental or universal in Jimmy’s resistance to nature, even amongst a more obviously nature-bound group like ducks (as opposed to how humans perceive themselves). Of course, it was pretty clear to me at the time that the ducks perceived themselves more like people do than like people perceive ducks. And this is more than a “what’s water?” query from a fish. It should be obvious to anyone whose spent extensive time with communities of animals that they have elaborate communication, something I think is only fit to call language, along with daily tribulations and variation to rival our own. Duckland at times felt almost as much like journalism as it did fiction.
I remember that my scribbling attracted the specific attention of a particular actor who I probably spent the most time backstage talking to. My image of him is a little hazy, but he was definitely overweight, with glasses, and a bit of a nerdy demeanor. He talked to me, as most of the actors did actually, like an adult, and even read some of my writing. After perusing some pages of Duckland, he asked if I wanted to be an intellectual. I said unequivocally yes. He told me that I was wrong, that one shouldn’t be too intellectual. Feedback that, when I relayed it to my father, he was horrified to hear. I still cannot think of this guy or even that whole summer without almost immediately thinking of that series of conversations, how passionately my dad defended being an intellectual and intellectual pursuits, and how hot under the collar I felt for even allowing myself to talk to someone who decried the approach.
I wish I could remember his name, but I don’t. We would play chess during longer stretches of waiting backstage. It’s also obvious, of course, that he was an intellectual, a serious and sensitive one, and that he regretted his own path at the expense of something more socially acceptable or popular. Or easy, perhaps. That he spent his time backstage of a vaguely dweeby semi-professional play hanging out with a precocious nine-year-old rather than, say, any of the actresses. That to the extent that he could pass on advice, it was to avoid his fate.
In the end, I’m with Jimmy Richter-Duck. You’ve gotta make your own path. Walking through Audubon Park yesterday, basking in the overheated glow of a gorgeous day filled with the freedom that only the recently resigned (and not destitute) can feel, I saw some ducks, heard the low murmur of their conversation. And hoped that the rest of that guy’s life was longer on opportunities and shorter on regrets. I’ve collected plenty of regrets myself, but being an intellectual isn’t among them. Nor is any single time I’ve gone on a walk in search of ducks.