Seventy-five years ago, two duck hunters returned empty-handed from a hunting trip. They had drowned their sorrows with a little too much whiskey, and decided to play a prank by putting their live duck decoys (legal at that time) in the fountain in the Peabody Hotel’s lobby. The next morning, many of the hotels guests gathered around the foundation to admire the new guests. The Peabody Hotel recognized a good marketing angle and invited the ducks to take up permanent residence.
Almost five years ago, I traveled by land cruiser towards the sacred Mount Kailash in Tibet. On the return trip, we stopped in Saga for the night. Given it was the auspicious year of the Horse, many pilgrims were headed for Mount Kailash and the roadhouse was full. The innkeeper made room for our group in the kitchen. There I met a duck. I called her Alice.
Four nights ago, a large crowd and I watched the Peabody ducks parade along their red carpet to the beat of John Philip Sousa’s King Cotton March. I went to sleep that night anxious since I had not yet settled on what I might say in my award acceptance speech the next evening. The following morning, while showering I glimpsed over at the soap dish and saw a duck. Yes, as you can imagine, most everything at the Peabody Hotel is adorned with ducks: stir sticks, coasters, and stationery, to name a few. Even the butter in the restaurant is shaped like a duck. Ducks. Ducks. Ducks. It is like when friends and family discover you like something and they proceed to get you it for every birthday and Christmas.
I had been feeling a self-imposed pressure to be creative in accepting the Karl Rhonke Creativity Award and I had already thought of and then rejected many ideas. Staring at the soap, I had a revelation, and I finally knew what I would say that night. I would read an excerpt from my Everest book: the story of Alice the Duck.
“Driving into Saga, there was no room at the inn so our guide arranged for us to sleep in the kitchen of a Tibetan guesthouse. We didn’t mind as we had been bouncing around in the land cruisers for twelve hours and were just glad to stop playing gyroscope. There were only five narrow benches for six people, so, as the youngest, I volunteered for the floor. Fortunately, a mattress covered with yak-skin topped the dirt floor, since it was used for spitting, blowing noses, and general disposal. I added my self-inflating Thermarest mattress and sleeping bag, and I thought I had the best bed in the house. So did the duck.
Yes, the kitchen came with its own duck. Since I had fed her the leftover bread from our dinner, she imprinted on me and claimed me as her own. The term ugly duckling was too kind for her, though her warm and welcoming spirit shone though her beauty challenges. She was a truck stop duck decorated by broken white feathers with uneven black splotches on her back. She carried an overall cast of grayish-brown from her dusty environs, and it was hard to call her feet orange. She had no pond and little opportunity to preen. I called her Alice.
At some point during the night, I awoke to a warm heaviness on my hip. Puzzled at first in my sleepy state, I shifted and my load suddenly quacked. Despite duck clumsiness, Alice had the soul of a lap cat and, thus, spent the night on the TA treadmill. As I turned, she rotated from hip to back to belly to the other hip. The next morning Alice found herself, despite clipped wings, flying across the room when I found the four fecal packages she graciously left on my sleeping bag overnight.”
Of course, as I read the story, I embellished with it with connections to the local ducks in the Peabody Hotel by placing three of the duck-shaped soaps on the podium. The audience was soon laughing aloud and I gave thanks for the morning’s inspiration. The next morning, I was thrilled when the conference organizers announced that I was Honourary Duck Master for the day. I spent much of the day in joyful anticipation and couldn’t wait for five o’clock to arrive signaling my stint with the ducks.
I arrived early to introduce myself to the five mallards in the foundation. Once the Duck Master got the ducks to walk down the fancy steps out of the foundation, it was my job to keep them moving along the carpet towards the elevator. Duck-headed cane in hand, I kept all my ducks in a row and moving in perfect beat to the march. Camera flashes fired rapidly like a prairie lightning storm in the heat of summer.
The ducks and I strutted into the glass elevator to wave and quack at the assembled crowd. One floor up, the duck caravan waited to transport my feathered charges to their $90,000 “Duck Palace.” I wheeled them home, fed them lettuce, tucked them in, and returned to the gift store to receive my certificate of Duck Masterhood and to choose a rubber duck from the hotel gift store. Friends waited for me and I told of the exciting moments of being the honourary Duck Master.
When I look back, I see the past events of seventy-five years, five years, and four nights culminating in those exciting moments on the red carpet. Funny isn’t it, if we look closely at how we come to be experiencing something, we can notice that we are the sum of everything that comes before, while living out life only one precious second at a time. In some ways, I could say that I climbed Everest because some duck hunters didn’t get lucky one weekend in 1932.
The conference was great and I enjoyed visiting Arkansas. We had a powerful keynote from one woman who was part of the “Little Rock Nine,” the teenagers who were at the center of the desegregation crisis of 1957. I visited Central High today–the center of that historic time, and I’m still reeling at the depth of hatred that can be fuel.
I didn’t manage one iota of training discipline while at the conference so haven’t managed much in the way of physical activity. “I was due a rest week and did spend four days canoeing,” are words I use to console my guilt. It’s less than two weeks now until I leave for Chile. I’m camped out in a truck stop motel on the outskirts of Little Rock for the next two days until I fly to Omaha to present at a Girl Scout Leadership conference. I’m hoping the rest and the few extra pounds I’ve packed on will serve me well during the challenges of high altitude life.
Thanks so much for all of you who weighed in on the title of my book. Opinion seems split half and half and a few other suggestions have come in. I’m thinking I’ll sit with the conundrum for a little while longer and then make the call. I hope you are well.