So, the other day, I went in the gutter to pick up chicks.
Actually, it was a storm drain. And they were ducklings. And my buddy at work, Joe, was my wingman.We pried up storm grates and estimated depth from street to bottom of drainpipe and jumped in and carried toy-sized ducks to a mama duck.
I couldn’t help but think of being a dad, and how we deal with kids.
Specifically, other people’s kids. When I saw Joe contemplate a dive into the deep, I figured he’d dropped his keys. Or mobile phone. Or possibly a ham sandwich. (I’d dive in the sewer for a ham sandwich, provided it was on sourdough bread.
With Colby cheese and mayo with Old Bay seasoning. And it was in a name-brand baggie).
“There’s ducklings in here,” the bearded Californian said as he descended to the darkness. “I was taking pictures of them for my son, and they all fell in.” Mama had duck walked across the grate without incident.
Let the duck extraction begin
Ten or 12 babies – were they all hers? – followed in their mama’s webbed footsteps, but with feet no bigger than gummy bears, they dropped through the grate openings one after another.
Ten or 12 stood to quack in the grass with mama while the rest of the brace (that’s what you call a group of ducks – I looked it up) quacked in the echoes underground. Joe passed each tiny duck, one by one, to me, and I deposited them in the freshly mown grass.
Two dashed across the parking lot, jittering between tires of parked cars, until I herded them up the curb and back to the downy bunch in safety.
Nine, 10, 11, but not 12. No. 12, we’ll call him Chippy, took off down the drainpipe.
I’m not familiar with the ecology of the suburban drainpipe. I suspect the gators and boa constrictors of urban legend are just that – legend. But, my luck, a missing limb or close call would make me famous as the proof such underground terrors exist.
Joe climbed out, and we listened.
We could hear Chippy’s quacks as he headed toward the next drain. I wasn’t quick enough. He turned left and headed up the next pipe. Then, silence. Not the silence of a mountaintop, though.
It was more like that ominous silence like when Han, Luke, Chewie and Princess Leia were stuck in the Death Star track compactor.
Chippy, though, must have seen daylight or smelled the swamp water. He burst out of the drainpipe into a fenced-in area with rocks big enough to be his mother. He struggled to climb them, so Joe jumped the fence.
Chippy, for all his bravado, deftly pooped and peed on my hands after Joe delivered him to me and I carried him to his mom.
We stood there, Joe and me, messy hands aside, glad for the reunion on the grass. It wasn’t until then that I wondered about the drake. Isn’t that the way? I began to wonder about the deadbeat duck.
I imagined him chasing pigeons and hens at the local watering hole, while mama duck raised the brood. I wondered what kind of a hellion she must be, here with 20 chicks under her wings, scarcely able to take care of such a harvest.
Thankfully, I stopped thinking about that.
We don’t know if the drake died trying to protect these babies, or if mama duck adopted a dozen in an emergency. Maybe dad drake was recruited into the duck air force. All that mattered – or should have mattered – was that the kids got out safely.
Because they’re kids. No matter their circumstance. No matter that they shouldn’t have been in such a dangerous place, or that one and then two and then 10 or so made the bad decision to walk across that grate that morning.
They’re babies. So are other people’s kids.
Rather than bench them because they’re slower than others, or frisk them when they linger in the toy department and can’t afford to buy anything, or interrogate them if they waste a perfectly good graham cracker, we should love them.
Mama duck didn’t fight Joe and me that morning. Maybe she knew. Maybe as one who had already done some rescuing, she knew when help arrived. And she was big enough not to judge a couple of dudes who wouldn’t think twice about picking up chicks in the gutter.
Or, ducklings in a sewer.