It wasn’t the worst Father’s Day present ever: Children everywhere have given their fathers gifts that are far more troubling. Exhibit A? Anything at all from the Sky Mall catalog. Nothing says love quite like a Hobbit chess set or tan thru swim trunks. But this gift was up there.
I was a 10-year-old Webelo. Webelos, generally, are fifth-graders transitioning from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts. The term is shorthand for “We’ll be loyal scouts,” not the Native American word for “boys who don’t bathe.” That May and June our den was working with little jigsaws, small sheets of plywood, and wooden pegs. One of my friend’s fathers was helping us craft tie racks shaped like ducks for our dads, because Father’s Day was nearing and every dad in the 1970s wanted nothing more in the world than a badly made tie rack shaped like a duck.
I have never been good at crafts or any project that involves a tool with a serrated edge. My friends know this. The other day, I was in my yard trimming dead branches from the bottom of an evergreen with a handsaw, and my next-door neighbor, Judy Brown, walked by and asked, “Do you have a permit to use one of those?” She said that her 81-year-old mother-in-law, Bev Brown, has an electric chainsaw that she loves. That evening when I asked my wife if I should get an electric chainsaw, she burst out laughing and reminded me that I am not Bev Brown.
I should also admit that I was never one of those kids who could ever color between the lines. It wasn’t that I was so creative; it was that I was so inept.
Which brings me back to my duck. I did a spectacularly bad job of cutting it and a worse job of painting it. It looked nothing like a duck. It looked like an amoeba. My duck was, far and away, the worst duck in the den. We’d finished painting our ducks on a Friday afternoon, and the plan was to let them dry overnight in our den leader’s garage and then pick them up on Saturday morning. We would present them to our dads on Sunday.
I had warned my mom as we went to retrieve my duck that it was kind of a train wreck. I was embarrassed by it and, in truth, disgusted with myself. The self-loathing meter was off the charts.
When we arrived, however, the first thing my mother said when she saw my duck was that she liked it and my dad would love it. This wasn’t a mother’s love; my mother always called it exactly as she saw it. Something had happened to my duck overnight and it actually looked pretty good. It was even recognizably a duck. Instantly I understood what had occurred: The night before, my friend’s dad had performed some serious plastic surgery on the amoeba. Meticulously he had shaped a duck’s bill and wings and webbed feet. He had repainted it so that the colors on the feathers didn’t run into the colors on the face. He had given the creature back its eyes.
I was furious. Looking back, it was clear that this father thought he was doing me a favor. It’s possible that what began as a tiny touch-up simply grew into a full fashion makeover. But his work was a ringing indictment of mine.
It would be three years before I would tell my dad that his Father’s Day duck was largely the den leader’s work. I confessed this when we were packing up the house to move from Connecticut to Florida. I said he didn’t really need to bring the duck with him.
But he did. He pointed to my badly painted “Happy Father’s Day” on the front and my nearly illegible signature on the back. “Those were the only parts I cared about,” he said.
Happy Father’s Day.
(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on June 16, 2013. Chris’s new novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” arrives in three weeks. You can learn more about it here.)