In my last story about our fishing experiences as kids in Sacramento, California, I wrote about Mr. Lewis, the piscatorial guru of our very poor Oak Park neighborhood. My two younger brothers and I spent every day of our summer vacations at William Land Park, until I turned fourteen when I had to take a full time job to help support the family; but that’s another story.
We would ride our communal three-seat bike (and that’s yet another story we’ll come to in time) and, later, our own individual bikes, to the park and fish for anything that would bite. When the fishing was slow, we would feed the ducks, shameless beggars, with some of the pasta or bread dough that we stole from Nonna to be used for fish bait.
Two particular ducks became so accustomed to this that the minute they saw us coming on our bicycles they would noisily follow us to the water’s edge and pester us until we broke down and fed them some doughballs. We became very fond of these two derelicts. Before long, they started to climb into our laps and let us pet them. It’s amazing how friendly and personable ducks can be if you let them. And, of course, if you feed them.
We named them Heckle and Jeckle after the two magpies who were cartoon stars at the movies. The ducks would answer to their assigned names and we loved them dearly.
One day, we came to the park and no Heckle or Jeckle in sight. We searched everywhere and finally, in desperation, my brother Pete swam to the island in the middle of the pond. There, he found our friends. Jeckle had a broken wing and Heckle was miserable and bedraggled. We were heartbroken and decided that our friends had to come home with us and recuperate.
When we got close to home, Robert stopped suddenly. We almost collided with him as he turned and asked: “What’s grandma going to say?” None of us had thought about that and our hearts fell.
Nonna was a kind heart wrapped in a ruthless exterior. Her priorities were her grandkids, her garden, her chicken coop and her rabbit hutch. That’s what put food on the table and her attitude to chickens and rabbits didn’t bode well for Heckel and Jeckel. She took one look at them and made us swear that none of the chicken or rabbit feed would be wasted on two pet ducks. Only if we promised would she allow them into our household.
So we promised.
Now, every day at the park was spent at the drainage ditches with nets given to us by Mr. Lewis, catching bags full of baby carp that hatched in surprising numbers. The ducks loved to eat the little fish by the hundreds and when they heard our bicycles coming they would skip, jump, fly, cackle and then gorge themselves on carp.
We loved our web footed friends so much and even tried to bring them indoors but we could never get them past Nonna.
One day, when school had started and we could no longer spend all day catching food for Heckle and Jeckle, we came home and couldn’t find the ducks. We looked everywhere to no avail and when we gave up, Nonna consoled us and fed us our dinner.
When we were through eating, Nonna asked if we enjoyed our chicken. We would never dare answer ‘no’ but we did tell her that it seemed a little fishy. Only then did we realize that we had eaten Heckle and Jeckle.
Robert screamed at Nonna. Pete and I were devastated. Nonna was impervious. In her view, the ducks were a little tough but, so what, the time had come for them to make their contribution to our well-being and, she pointed out, we had never had a problem eating the chickens and rabbits she killed.
We all grew up some that day but I still wonder if Nonna ever had second thoughts about murdering our web-footed friends. Probably not. They came way down the list of her priorities, at the top of which was her implacable dedication to feeding her hungry family.