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Catching Ducks

I grew up with stories. My mother was a bibliophile (and a lover of National Geographic - she had a continuously running monthly subscription to that wonderful magazine from 1968 to 1989) so our house always had shelves upon shelves of books. Those shelves contained worlds and universes, including the classics like Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels, Through the Looking Glass, Moby Dick, Treasure Island and many more.

I grew up in Africa, so I was surrounded by stories anyway. The tribal myths and legends shared with me by the cheerful Zulu woman who looked after me as a toddler. The ghost stories my grandpa Pete used to tell the kids around the campfire, with the cackling of hyenas in the night forming the prefect soundtrack for his creepy tales. The radio serials I used to listen to after school sometimes (South Africa's first public television broadcast didn't occur until 1976, so I was a radio listener, folks).

And then there were the stories told by my other grandpa, on my mom's side. When I was maybe thirteen or fourteen years old he told me a story about catching ducks, and I'd like to share it with you here. OK, stick with me dear reader - it actually does get quite interesting, I promise.

He wasn't my biological grandfather (he was my mom's step-dad), so my siblings and I were told to call him "Uncle Frank." We used to go to my grandparents' house, a large rambling place set in half an acre of lush garden in an affluent area of Johannesburg, every Sunday for lunch. Occasionally they'd take us out to a fancy restaurant on a Saturday night, and I suspect that my adoration for good food, good wine and good service comes from those special evenings when Uncle Frank would open our minds to such new experiences. He was an architect, so he also opened my eyes to the wonders of great design: Frank Lloyd Wright, Norman Foster, Le Corbusier, Antoni Gaudi.

His real name was Franz Ludwig Jarezki and he was born in 1911 in Charlottenburg, a leafy, affluent suburb of Berlin, Germany - though his family had its roots in Poland. He was born to an architect father and a housewife mother, and as a Jew growing up in Germany at that time you can probably imagine at least some of the ways in which his life was influenced by that simple accident of birth.

He told great stories. Not stories of great adventures and far-flung places, but stories about his life, seen through his unique perspective. It was probably one of the greatest formative experiences of my life to go to Uncle Frank's house every Sunday for lunch and then just sit on the patio after the meal and listen to his stories.

Uncle Frank was, in his own words, one of the lucky ones. Along with his brother and sister, he managed to escape Nazi Germany in 1936, having been randomly allocated to the first boat on which he could secure a berth - which happened to be sailing for Cape Town, South Africa. His brother and sister were smuggled onto different boats. His sister ended up living in Shanghai, China and his brother made a new life for himself in Toronto, Canada. The story of Frank's journey was but one of many that he shared with me, but it was when I asked him about why his family had to flee their homeland in the first place, and why they didn't see what was happening until 1936, that he decided to tell me a story about catching ducks.

According to him, there was once a tribe of Africans who built their village near a slow, meandering stream. The stream had many eddies and pools, and every Spring a flock of migratory ducks would arrive and occupy the largest of these pools. Since this happened only once a season, duck was quite the sought-after delicacy in this particular tribe's Springtime menu. It was tricky to get one though, and at first many valuable arrows were lost as they tried to shoot the ducks from the shoreline.

The tribeswomen were extremely good at various crafts, and someone came up with the rather brilliant idea of making duck decoys - clever constructions of cloth, feathers, twine and wood that fairly closely resembled an actual duck. These were fitted with rawhide straps where a duck's feet would normally be, and this is how they were used...

A hunter would go down to a sheltered spot, upstream from the duck-pool and out of sight of the ducks, and he would tie the decoy duck to the top of his head, with the rawhide strips running under his chin. He would slip quietly into the water and wade out until he was almost fully submerged (the stream wasn't very deep), clamp a hollow reed in his mouth, and bend his knees until the only thing showing above the waterline was the decoy duck on his head...with the tip of the hollow reed sticking up beside it.

The hunter would wear a hide belt around his waist, and proceed to wade (and occasionally drift) downstream towards the flock of ducks, who were presumably occupied with doing ducky stuff in their duck-pool. The slow appearance of what looked like just another duck floating towards them didn't cause any panic in the majority of the flock, though I like to think that one or two of the more observant critical thinkers in the flock may have eyed the newcomer with a certain wary suspicion. Perhaps these more cautious ducks paddled away a little bit as the newcomer approached...

The majority, however, being of a less observant nature, would happily let the decoy duck float in among them as they paddled about - at which point the hunter would simply reach up, grab an unlucky duck by the feet, drag it quickly under the water and wring its neck. At this point, the nearby ducks would often panic, and sometimes a large portion of the flock would take off in a flurry of feathers. But by now the semi-aquatic hunter had one dead duck's neck tucked under his rawhide belt, and all he had to do was stay where he was until the ducks calmed down, or until the disturbed flock landed back on the water again. Then he'd drift over, and before too long he'd have a second duck for that night's dinner.

At this point I was beginning to wonder if Uncle Frank had something besides tobacco in the cigar that was ever-present near his right hand. I was also beginning to wonder if my grandmother was giving us duck for Sunday lunch.

But then Uncle Frank looked me in the eyes, searching for my undivided attention, and said "think of the ducks as the Jews living peacefully in Germany in the late 20's and early 30's, and think of the duck hunters as the Nazis. Those Nazis didn't just suddenly show up outside Jewish houses one day, wearing their SS uniforms, shouting, waving guns and flashlights and herding Jews onto trucks, you know.

Oh no, at first they were just ordinary people - your neighbours, your co-workers, local shopkeepers, Germans who looked very much like their equally ordinary Jewish compatriots. The initial slow, insidious spread of poisonous Nazi ideology happened largely through these ordinary Germans, and it was these ordinary people who ended up being the ones who informed the SS about Jews hiding in the basement of a local house, for example.

We would hear rumours, of course. But many Jews simply couldn't believe that the Nazis would ever do some of the things they were rumoured to be doing. A small number recognised the danger and fled shortly after Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, but most people at first didn't recognise the hunters for what they were. And for more than six million Jews, the recognition came too late."

You have to admit, that's quite a story.

It's stories like that one that made me love Uncle Frank, even though he was not an especially demonstrative man. His life was remarkable, and I sometimes wish I'd trained to be a film-maker, because some of the stories he told me and some of the photos and documents he showed me definitely fall into the category of "you couldn't make that shit up."

Frank Jarrett died in a retirement home in Stockton, California in 2009 at the age of 98. He lived a long, long life and he saw and experienced so much. He spoke five languages, held a 2nd Dan black belt in Judo, built one of the biggest historical theme parks in Africa, and would sometimes play classical music on his grand piano like a virtuoso. I often used to tell him that I wanted to download his brain into mine.

Anyway, dear reader, I hope you look around you at the world we live in today and see the duck hunters floating down the river. Those duck decoys can be pretty damn convincing, so keep your eyes open and your bullshit-detector in good working order.

You always have to be a little bit suspicious of ducks.

Image: copyright Gary Larson and Universal Press Syndicate.

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