Four quick horn blasts from a locomotive broke the quiet of the night in Tyler, North Carolina, as a freight train raced toward a road crossing near a cotton mill three blocks away. When the engineer sounded the alarm, nine-year-old Dean Farley, wide awake in bed and staring at the ceiling, took it as a signal to act. He threw back a brightly colored quilt his grandmother made him and slipped out of bed. It was Good Friday 1953. The boy’s burgeoning independent streak, driven by a thirst for knowledge and adventure, was about to outrun his ability to recognize and avoid pitfalls. Hard lessons about life lay ahead.
It had turned cold inside the house. The heat was turned down very low, as was the custom when the family retired for the evening. The boy shared a room with his brother Davey, who was sound asleep in his own bed as the moon cast beams into the room lightly filtered through the sheer curtains on the windows. Thin and pale and short for his age, Dean shuffled in his pajamas across the wood floor out of the bedroom, past the bathroom door and stood in front of the door to his parents’ bedroom wondering if he should speak.
After hearing his parents talking inside the bedroom, he decided it was OK to call to them through the door.
“Can I bring mine in?” he asked.
There was no answer.
“It’s cold out there,” he said.
“Don’t worry. They’ll be alright. Go back to bed,” came the voice of his mother, Laura.
Dean dutifully went back to his room, crawled back into bed and tried to fall asleep. He hoped that he would soon set aside his worries about his new pet, a fuzzy days-old baby duck. It was one of two snoozing out on the enclosed back porch inside a shoebox with small round holes cut on either side.
A half hour later and still awake, Dean decided he should at least check to see how the ducklings were doing. There was no harm in that. He threw back the quilt, stepped out of bed and tiptoed barefoot out of the bedroom. He turned left and moved past the oil burning heater standing on his right in the center of the small two-bedroom cottage. He continued into the living room and cast a fond glance at an old mahogany upright piano barely visible straight ahead. He had been taking piano lessons since the beginning of the school year and was quickly learning to read and play music. He turned left again into the doorway of the kitchen. He walked slowly across the linoleum floor past the dinette table with its lime green Formica top and rippled chrome edging. He brushed against one of the dining chairs. The rubber tipped feet made a faint noise as they scraped across the floor.
“Shhhh,” Dean muttered to the chair and to himself.
He stood at the door leading to the small back porch. The enclosed porch had screened windows on the upper half of the wall on either side of the screen door. Dean hesitated for a moment. He looked outside from the kitchen through a four-panel window in the upper half of the door. He wondered if perhaps he should leave the baby ducks undisturbed, as his mother advised. Recalling that his plan was merely to check on them, however, he cast his doubts aside. He took hold of the doorknob and turned it slowly. Opening the door gently so it would not make a noise, he stepped down barefoot onto the cold concrete floor of the porch, sending a chill through his body. Awakened by the sound of the boy’s arrival, the two ducklings let out bursts of trilled cheeps inside the shoebox. Dean removed the lid and looked inside. One of the frizzy critters was dyed sky blue. That one belonged to Dean. The other was colored vivid lavender and belonged to Davey.
The boys’ father, Hank, had presented the boys with the shoebox containing the ducklings when he came home from work that evening. They were overjoyed to have their very own pets. Hank worked long, hard hours at an asphalt highway paving company where he was lead mechanic on big road graders and pavers. Daddy smiled to see his two sons so delighted by the impromptu gift. For Dean, it brought back fond memories of how thrilled he was to have his very first pet when he was five years old. It all started when a friendly German shepherd wandered into the yard wagging its tail while Dean was playing in the front yard of a house on Baxter Street where they used to live. The dog stood just in front of the boy facing him, seemingly waiting to be petted. Dean reached out cautiously and patted him on the head. The dog moved closer and Dean ran his hand across his back. The dog licked Dean in the face. Dean smiled and gave the dog a hug around the neck.
“Wait here,” Dean said.
The dog dutifully sat down and waited, as if knowing what was about to happen. Dean ran inside to get some table scraps in a bowl and brought them out to feed him. When his father came home from work, Dean implored him to let him keep the dog.
“Does it have tags?” Hank asked.
“No,” Dean answered, not yet knowing why that was so important.
“Please let me keep him,” Dean begged.
“Alright,” he finally said after a long silence.
“Oh, thank you,” Dean replied.
“But make sure he gets fed. He will be your responsibility,” his father told him.
“He’ll have to stay outdoors,” his mother added.
Dean asked his father what name he should give the dog. Hank suggested the name Rusty, after the color of the dog’s coat. Dean liked that name. So, Rusty he became. The dog became a devoted companion and followed Dean everywhere. He would lie down near the boy when Dean would sit on the front porch and daydream for long stretches on lazy afternoons. A neighbor told Laura that Rusty was quite a big dog for such a small boy.
“The dog’s very gentle,” Laura reassured the neighbor.
When the family went to visit grandparents on either side of the family, Rusty would chase them for the first block of the journey, running after the family’s black 1948 Pontiac sedan with its white wall tires. He would bark all the way before falling so far behind that he gave up running and would scoot on back home.
“You shouldn’t chase the car,” Dean would admonish Rusty before leaving on each trip.
It was all to no avail. Rusty would chase the car anyway.
One Sunday when the family left to go to his grandparents in the country, Rusty was more agitated than usual and ran after the Pontiac for more than two blocks, making a heroic effort to keep up longer than usual. As he fell further behind, Rusty barked louder than usual. When he finally gave up the chase, he made a high-pitched crying sound.
“Please, can we stop and let Rusty go with us this one time?” Dean asked.
“I’m afraid not,” mother said.
“He might get lost since he’s run so far from home.”
“Don’t worry, he’ll find his way back.”
“But he wants so bad to go with us.”
“He’ll be alright.”
Dean felt helpless and worried. Something was not right.
When the family returned home at the end of the day, Dean learned he was right to worry about the dog. Rusty was not there jumping and barking to welcome Dean home. He was gone forever. Dean never knew where his pet wandered or what happened to him. Every time he remembered Rusty, such as when he would see another German shepherd or even another large dog like a golden retriever, a Labrador, or a collie, he felt sad and longed for his lost companion.
Now worried about his new pet, Dean shivered as he picked up the blue duckling he had chosen as his. The little creature stopped cheeping as soon as Dean held it in his hand. Davey appeared on the back porch. He had awakened, noticed his big brother was not in his bed and went looking for him. Davey looked inside the shoebox to check on his pet. It was cheeping loudly.
“They’ll freeze out here,” Dean warned Davey, an exaggeration of the peril by any measure.
Dean was four years older than Davey. Because of the age difference, he sometimes felt like it was his duty to tell his brother about life. He did so in part because he wished someone had explained more about how the world works when he was younger. He never paused to consider if he should, in fact, be offering any advice, however well intentioned. Maybe he was not yet as wise as he thought he might be. To be sure, Dean was aware there was a lot he did not understand. So much of the world remained an impenetrable mystery to him. It was part of the reason he was so passionately curious and eager to explore and gain knowledge. Yet, despite his devoted quest to understand the world, the more he learned the more he realized there was much more that he needed to learn. He began to realize that as he became more aware of the enormous reaches of the unknown, the knowledge gap between what he knew and needed to know was growing, not shrinking. Life was like a bundle of mysteries wound together in one enormous tangled ball of yarn. Unraveling and disentangling the various threads seemed like a daunting, if not impossible, task.
Dean was not trying to be a rebel. He sought guidance from those older and in authority and listened to what they had to say and observed how they conducted themselves to take in all he could to help him understand the world. Being so young and having so little experience, he felt that at times he had to make a stab at figuring things out for himself when answers could not otherwise be found. Above all, he wanted to know why he should or should not do something. To his parents’ chagrin, Dean was inclined sometimes to make up his own mind, even when he was misinformed or his deliberations were less than adequate. He could fall prey to an impulse to try something new and different to see what the result might be. When parental orders came down, he might ask why.
“Why are you so stubborn?” Laura once asked Dean after he yet again questioned her about something she wanted him to do.
“Just do as I say,” she would finally tell him, tiring of articulating explanations to a boy with an insatiable curiosity.
When that failed, she would utter the words all parents are eventually compelled to say, “Because I said so.”
In the final hour of that Good Friday, Dean was about to reconfirm his mother’s verdict about his stubbornness as he revised his understanding of his mother’s warning about leaving the ducks on the back porch as just a bit of advice and not a command.
“Bring that one in, too,” he said, enlisting his brother in his disobedience. Davey followed him inside with the shoebox containing the other duckling under his left arm and the lid in his right hand. Dean closed the back door behind him.
Back in the bedroom Davey placed the lid back on the shoebox with his pet inside and very sensibly slipped it under his bed. Dean placed his pet on the chair by his bed, where it stopped cheeping and settled into a sitting position to sleep on its webbed feet. Dean made a dash to the bathroom for a hand towel, brought it back and wrapped it loosely around the tiny duckling to form a nest for him.
“You gotta stay warm,” he whispered to the pet.
The moon came from behind a patch of clouds and cast a beam through the window and across Davey’s bed, bathing his face in moonlight, as he quickly fell back asleep. Davey’s pet had gone quiet, too. Indeed, now the whole house was silent. Dean curled up under his quilt, with only his nose and forehead and a wisp of sandy hair visible above it. Soon he began to feel warm and dozed off.
The little duck, at first warm and content to sleep in the towel wrap, slowly over the next hour started to feel the cold of the night as the temperature continued to fall.
“Cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep,” the little duck broke the quiet with his call.
Dean awakened. He pulled the quilt down away from his chin and leaned over to get a closer look at the noisy creature in the moonlit room and picked it up.
“I wish I had another shoebox,” he said, not thinking he could just stash the pet in the shoebox under his brother’s bed.
“Cheep, cheep,” came a seeming reply.
“You gotta go to sleep,” he said, placing his pet back on the chair. The critter was not consoled and began cheeping again. Dean picked it up and again it quit cheeping. There seemed to be only one solution.
“You can sleep next to me. You’ll be warm here,” he said.
Dean placed the pet in its towel nest on the bed near his upper left arm. It stopped cheeping. Finally, warm and content, Dean and his new pal fell into a deep sleep. Morning came. Waking later than usual, Dean looked down at his pet cozied next to him. He picked it up. It was limp but still warm. Its bill, yellow before, was purple and black. Dean’s eyes widened and his mouth opened in alarm.
“Wake up. Please wake up,” he begged.
A crease formed across the boy’s brow. It dawned on him that by placing the baby duck next to him he exposed it to terrible consequences. The duck’s bill was discolored because the pet could not breathe through the holes in its bill – its nose, so to speak – because Dean’s arm shifted in the night and extended over the duck’s bill. The shift was so gradual the baby duck did not wake up and pull its bill back out of harm’s way. Instead, its life ebbed slowly away from lack of oxygen.
“No. It can’t be,” he said.
Davey awoke and sat up in bed. Dean looked over at him, raising the limp baby duck in his right hand to show his brother.
“Something’s wrong with mine,” Dean said, his voice flat.
Davey jumped out of bed and opened the shoebox. His pet started cheeping. It was OK.
Dean got out of bed and dashed to the kitchen with his pet to show his mother, who was preparing an oatmeal breakfast. Laura looked down at the baby duck with its limp head and body. She sighed with a world-weariness born of memories of her own childhood. She had grown up during the Great Depression as a farmer’s daughter and was well acquainted with how vulnerable and transitory life can be for farm animals and pets.
“He won’t wake up,” he told her, hoping she knew some sort of secret that would revive the pet.
She looked closer. “It looks like he suffocated,” she said.
“I brought him indoors to keep him warm. He slept next to me,” Dean offered in his defense.
He had already indicted himself in his own mind for the pet’s demise and now felt like he was standing trial in the witness chair being cross examined by the prosecutor on a charge of wrongful death of a beloved companion.
“You shoulda left him on the back porch,” Laura said.
“He woulda froze,” Dean offered half-heartedly.
“It was not that cold,” his Mother replied.
“I guess not,” Dean conceded, accepting the truth that his misinformed good intentions led to a tragic end for his pet.
“Guilty,” came the verdict from a voice inside him. Dean felt a terrible pain in his stomach as he thought about his blunder.
As on most Saturdays, Hank rose early and headed off to work in his pickup truck before the boys woke up. Dean was spared having to show him what happened to his new pet so soon after receiving it as a gift. The boy marched outside holding the duckling ceremoniously in his cupped hands with his arms extended straight out. Then setting it down gently in the yard, he dug a shallow grave in the red clay soil with an old bent spoon, place it in the grave and covered it with dirt. He constructed a makeshift cross from two twigs tied together with a string and stuck it in the ground to mark the spot.
Davey was still fascinated by his pet and decided it was his job to teach it to fly.
The younger son had already shown himself to be keen on learning quickly how things work, both living and inanimate. Only last Christmas Davey received a small red record player with a couple of vinyl recordings of children’s songs. First, he played the records over and over, astonished the machine could make music. He laughed as he played “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic” so many times Dean was almost ready to ask him to give it a rest. Soon enough Dean stopped hearing the song because Davey had become far more interested in understanding how the machine worked than in enjoying the music. By Christmas night, he had taken the record player apart by using the tip of a case knife, as a table knife was known in the South, to remove the flat-head screws holding it together. He laid out all the pieces across the floor.
“You broke it,” Dean said, wondering why a perfectly good toy would be so quickly destroyed.
“No, I did not,” Davey insisted.
The next day Dean heard the record player blaring again. He went closer to look at it. Davey had reassembled all the parts. Dean was impressed.
So, it was no surprise that in the days following Easter, Davey set out to give flying lessons to his duckling as another step toward understanding how things work. First, he would push the duckling from behind, taking no note of its very small wings, too small to lift the body of the duckling no matter how hard he might try.
“Fly,” he would tell it.
The pet would walk a few steps and stop, making no effort to flap its wings. Clearly, prodding the pet was not enough to get the job done. Finally, Davey placed his small pupil on the metal countertop of the roll-up cabinet on the back porch. Then, explaining to his pet that he should flap his wings, he would push the critter off the edge of the counter with his left hand while holding his right hand ready to catch it if it fell, moving his left hand quickly lower to form a cup with his right hand.
“Fly,” he would say, pushing it off the ledge and then catching it.
“You’re hurting him,” Dean would say.
“No, I am not,” Davey countered.
“He’s too young to fly,” Dean offered.
“He needs to learn,” Davey replied.
The prior summer that same fascination with flying creatures made Davey chase and catch June bugs. He would tie a string to one of the legs of a captive June bug, as so many boys do, just to see the beetle fly in circles around him. While other boys might eventually remove the string, and let the June bug fly away, Davey kept his flying in a circle so long it finally pulled off its own tethered leg to break free.
Davey also liked to see grasshoppers jump when he touched them.
“Hoppergrass,” Davey would say when he touched one and then he would laugh when it jumped high.
“Grasshopper,” Dean said seriously.
“Hoppergrass,” Davey responded.
Dean shrugged. It was no use trying to get him to say grasshopper.
Davey was nothing if not persistent, convinced that repetition of his instructions would eventually lead his young pet to fly. After all, he remembered hearing on the radio that Mama birds push their babies out of the nest to help them learn to fly. On his final attempt at being a flight instructor for the surviving duckling, however, Davey failed to move his hands fast enough to catch it. When the baby duck’s webbed feet crashed onto to the concrete floor of the porch, it broke a leg. Davey created a splint for its fractured leg and let it rest in a sitting position. He gave it water and fed it by hand in hopes it would heal. But, instead, it grew weaker and died. Davey, too, was crestfallen.
“Mine died, too,” he told Dean, showing him the limp duckling.
“I’ll bury it next to mine,” Dean responded in sympathy.
Dean took the lavender duckling from Davey’s hand and marched it outside, holding it in his cupped hands with his arms extended again in ritual respect. He dug a second tiny grave and buried it next to the blue one, marking it with a second improvised stick cross of two twigs tied together with string. Now there were two tiny stick crosses side by side. Dean felt another twinge of guilt, even though he was not responsible this time. Sorrowful at how soon the lives of the little ducks had come to an end, Dean pondered his dim grasp of the vulnerability of life to sudden harm and death. A week later a heavy rain came and washed away the little crosses. The boys had nothing to remind them of the boisterous young pets they were so thrilled to welcome into their lives.