Fred Is Dead
I have always loved animals as much as Elly May Clampett of the Sixties sitcom, The Beverly Hillbillies.
Dogs. Cats. Rabbits. Chickens. Ducks. I grew up in a backyard full of beloved critters — spending time with them, talking to them, loving all over them, kissing them gently like they were my babies.
In 1973, Tom T. Hall released a single that summed up the way I feel. His blockbuster began with the line, “I love little baby
ducks.” Well, amen to that.
When I was a little girl, our ducks occasionally hatched out a brood in the springtime. I picked them up, held them up to my face to feel their fuzz on my skin and listened to their sweet little chirps.
Watching them waddle around the backyard with the mama duck was one of my favorite pastimes. Sometimes, we filled a large washtub with water and tossed them in, marveling at their innate ability to float, dive, swim, and walk on the bottom. One year, we threw them in the neighbor’s above-ground pool and let them swim around for a few minutes. When the time came to get them out, we’d reach for them and they’d pop under water and escape our grasp. Then they started pooping in the pool. We laughed so hard tears streamed down our faces.
As happens in nature, a few times our ducks raised ducklings with physical disabilities. Sometimes the duck wouldn’t make it to maturity. One time, a male duck with a defective leg survived to adulthood.
We considered calling him Hop-along Cassidy, but instead, we named him Fred. He waddled with a limp and was much slower than the others, but we loved him anyway. He was part of our backyard circus — part of our family. Then one day, Fred was gone.
“Well, I guess a neighborhood dog probably got him,” my mother suggested sincerely. “That’s how nature works.”
I was sad, but I accepted it. Our chickens and ducks disappeared all the time. But in the case of Fred’s disappearance, there was no sign of a struggle in the yard — no blood stain or pile of feathers. Fred had vanished without a trace.
A day or two later, my brother was at home and after hearing about the missing duck, he belted out a Curtis Mayfield song from the Seventies. “Freddie’s dead. That’s what I said.” I wasn’t amused at his attempt to make me laugh at the situation.
A week after Fred’s mysterious disappearance, Mom and I were working in the backyard mowing grass, sweeping off the patio, etc. My father had parked his yellow, whale-sized Plymouth Fury in the backyard underneath a pecan tree, and my mother had passed it a few times as she mowed. Mom and I soon realized that a foul odor was emanating from the trunk of the car. She went inside the house and retrieved the keys.
The large metal trunk released a loud squeal as it rose. The stench nearly knocked us both to the ground. That’s when we realized it wasn’t a foul odor, but more of a fowl odor — a dead fowl odor. There, alongside the spare tire, jack, jumper cables, and an empty can of Coca Cola was a decaying Fred.“ What in the . . .” Mom said. She turned and marched into the house. I knew not to follow her.
I later learned that as my father rushed off to work one morning the week before, he had accidentally backed into the lame duck. The other ducks managed to get out of his way, but Fred caught a tire and died at the scene. In a hurry, my dad tossed him into the trunk and peeled out of the driveway. He meant to dispose of the duck before coming home that afternoon, but he got distracted and forgot that Fred was in the trunk, for an entire week.
I knew my father didn’t mean to kill Fred so there was no transgression to forgive. I also realized his actions were kind and out of love — trying to save me from the pain and anguish of finding the dead duck in the yard after he hit Fred. Had he remembered to dump the duck’s body before returning home, we would have never known what happened. But of course, that’s not how the story unfolded.
For days, I mourned Fred’s passing, and for days, we aired out the trunk of the Plymouth. Finally, the stink dissipated and so did my heartache.
The story of Fred is just a tiny piece of my childhood, but it speaks volumes. It reflects how my childhood shaped me — how I learned to love, celebrate life, mourn death, feel compassion, care for others, take on responsibility, deal with sadness and loss, forgive, move on, and so much more. And at the heart of the story — the lesson — is a hobbling, handicapped duck named Fred. Rest in peace, sweet Fred.