I think it was about 1990. It was a great airshow. I loved working in Canada. I’d flown into Red Deer, Alberta in my 100 HP Cub. My flight had taken me over the Canadian Rockies and through Banff. It had been a spectacular trip as my little Cub motored around the peaks. My then-wife had driven the “Duckmobile” from our previous show in Idaho. It was a Chevy one-ton pickup with a topper. We could carry all our sound equipment, costumes and props in it, along with the dogs. Behind the Duckmobile was a large trailer that the Cub normally rode in. It also contained the large cage in which the Acme Ducks lived. They had lots of room, including 110 gallons of water so they could bathe and dabble and make a mess, which is what ducks like to do.
Why ducks? I’d gotten into the airshow business with a novel comedy act. It was basically a little play featuring Krashbern T. Throttlebottom, his partner Ace the Wonder Dog, the Acme Ducks and the Duck Lady. Krashbern and Ace would arrive at the air show but would not be allowed to fly because, as the announcer would explain, it took “big bucks” to afford the aircraft, training, wardrobe, etc that it took to be a famous airshow pilot. Krashbern, being none too bright, thinks that the announcer said “big DUCKS”, so he orders the ducks from the Acme Duck Company. His ducks arrive in a huge cardboard box and he takes off to do his routine. But he’s failed to pay the Duck Lady and she pulls out a 12 Gauge shotgun and shoots him down. With smoke trailing from the crippled plane, Ace the Wonder Dog bails out. Krashbern collides with the big box of ducks when he lands and there are ducks everywhere. Ace herds the ducks up, the Duck Lady accepts a ride in Krashbern’s dilapidated airplane “in lieu of payment” and the three take off and fly into the sunset… leaving the ducks in the care of the furious airshow announcer. It was silly, but successful. We did the act for fourteen years. My young son, Hooper, appeared in it, complete with greasepaint, when he was one year old at our last performance.
The show at Red Deer was very successful. One of the high points was the fact that the jet team was The Snowbirds. I loved working with the Snowbirds. For one thing, this Royal Canadian Armed Forces jet team attended the briefing just like any other act. It was not lost on us that when the airboss asked the Snowbirds’ rep when they were going to start, the Canadian pilot looked over at my wife and said, “You just tell us when we’re on, Duck Lady”. Wow! For a civilian air show performer, that was a pretty refreshing attitude! They even let Ace the Wonder Dog sit in one of their jets!
We had a long way to go after the show on Sunday.
We’d disassembled the Cub and loaded it into the trailer. Our next show was the following weekend in Cambridge, Minnesota. We’d have to drive 825 miles across Canada and we planned to cross the border at Dunseith, North Dakota. Then we’d have another 475 miles to Cambridge Minnesota. It was a fairly comfortable drive if we wanted to be there in time for a press day on Thursday or Friday. But there was a young guy at the FBO at Red Deer who offered to make it easier. He was a fun young man and he said he’d love to go with us to help drive and be a “duck wrangler”. He said he’d find his own way back after the show in Minnesota. Gratefully, we accepted and the three of us headed out of Red Deer on Monday late morning. We had a leisurely drive across Canada, arriving at the border crossing next to the International Peace Garden in Dunseith, North Dakota. I drove up to the Customs window, having absolutely no idea of the trouble I was in. For you see, I was about to earn the title of “Duck Smuggler”.
Perhaps, if I’d had the good luck to deal with a different customs officer, things might have gone differently. But, no, I drew the losing hand. I stifled a chuckle when I read his nameplate. “Clodworthy” *, it said. He also had a badge, a big gun and an equally large midriff.
“Watcha got in the trailer?” the customs officer asked.
“An airplane and some ducks”, I replied. He could see Jessie and Molly in the truck. Jessie played the part of “Ace, the Wonder Dog”. Molly was her double. If anything ever happened to Jessie, Molly could play the part. She was my insurance. Jessie was always ready to go and healthy as could be. Molly got sick all the time and even had the bloody squirts all over the elevator at the lovely old hotel in Red Deer. So much for insurance.
Clodworthy asked me to open up the trailer. I did so and he poked his nose in and checked out the airplane. He then turned his attention to the ducks.
“You got papers for the ducks?” he asked.
I smiled, sharing the joke.
“Aw rats! I forgot the papers,” I replied with a chuckle.
And then it turned serious.
“You have to have papers in order to bring those ducks into the United States”, he said, sternly.
I’d recently read a novel by Joseph Wambaugh in which he referred to the condition of a cop taking himself too seriously as being “badge-heavy”. Clodworthy was definitely badge-heavy. He was also very firm. He said that there was no way that I could take my ducks into the United States. I explained to him that they were all full-fledged avian citizens of the United States. They had all been hatched in the U.S. and until less than a week ago they had been there. Oops. Now I had let the cat outta the bag. The Duck Lady had illegally smuggled ducks into Canada without health papers. Luckily, Canadian Customs was a lot easier to get along with than their U.S. counterparts. They hadn’t cared that the Ducks had no papers.
Now, I know what you are thinking. After all, great minds think alike, right? You’re thinking, “What about all those migratory ducks and geese in the MILLIONS who fly back and forth across the U.S. Canada border every year? THEY don’t have papers!
As my mouth was opening, a little voice in the back of my head said, “don’t say it… it’ll just rile him…”
“What about the millions of ducks who fly right over your head, back and forth across this border every year?” I challenged.
The badge got really heavy all of a sudden and for the first time, Clodworthy asked me if I was trying to be funny. It wouldn’t be the last time and each time his temper began to flare.
Realizing that I better mollify this ignorant bureaucrat, I asked him if there was some way that we could get health papers for the ducks. I looked into the cage. The ducks were slurping water, preening, and looking altogether guiltless. Clodworthy volunteered that there was a state veterinarian and if I could talk her into it, she could issue health papers. He gave me her number and I called her. I explained to the vet that my ducks needed health certificates and asked her if she could take a look at them and perform the issuance. She reluctantly agreed but said that it would take a couple of hours for her to get there.
The Duckmobile was parked in the impound area and we cooled our heels. I took the dogs for a walk, read a book, told flying stories to the new roadie and tried to be patient.
Here came Clodworthy.
“Let me see everyone’s I.D. and we can get that part done while you’re waiting,” he offered. Like a moron, I was gratified by his cooperative attitude.
As he looked at the temporary duck wrangler’s Canadian I.D. his little mental alarm went off.
“What are you going to do in the U.S.?” he asked.
The young man stuttered and said he’d just volunteered to come along and help us out.
“You mean you’re working in the U.S.?”
“Well, I’m just helping out…”
“I can’t let you in to work. You’re taking a job from a U.S. Citizen.”
Now, this conversation went back and forth a couple of times with me doing everything I could to keep from telling the customs officer that he was the biggest moron I’d met in a long time. Did he think there was a shortage of Duck Wranglers in the U.S.? Evidently he did, because he told that young man that he wasn’t allowed into the United States to steal a two-day gig from a U.S. duck wrangler. Within an hour or so, our Canadian friend was on his way to the bus station to skulk back to Red Deer on the dog.
The veterinarian showed up and I thought that perhaps my luck had changed and my ordeal might be coming to an end. She seemed very nice and introduced herself. We shook hands and she asked, “Where are the papers for the ducks?”
“Uh, they don’t have papers… that’s why you’re here, to issue them papers!”
“Oh, no, they have to have papers and then I can inspect them and validate the papers…”
I’d had it. It was time to take action.
“Okay”, I said to Clodworthy and the vet. “We’re going back to Canada”.
“Don’t think you can try another crossing”, Clodworthy threatened. “Every station along the border knows about you”.
In my new role as a duck-smuggler fleeing from justice, I hopped in the Duckmobile and we roared off. I stopped long enough to put the ducks in their little catch cage and hide it under luggage in the back of the Duckmobile. I paused at Canadian Customs.
“Where are the ducks, eh?” the Canadian agent asked.
“I left them in the U.S.”
He waved us through. We’d noticed that just next to the border was a park called the “International Peace Garden”. It was a beautiful place and featured a labyrinth of nice ponds. I pulled up alongside one of the ponds.
I pulled the catch cage out and opened it at the edge of the water. The ducks waddled out and into the water where they paddled around happily quacking and dabbling. They were great ducks. Most of them had been with us for a long time. The duck lady shed a tear as she said “goodbye” to her charges.
We charged back to the border. We waved at the Canadians and then pulled into the U.S. border check station. Clodworthy hitched up his big pistol belt and sashayed up to the truck.
“Where are the ducks?” he asked.
“Ducks? What ducks?” I asked.
Boy, did that piss him off.
As I recall, he said something like, “don’t get smart with me or I’ll have everything you own spread around on the ground here while I go through it and you won’t get outta here for a LONG time!”
I’m stupid, but I’m not THAT stupid. I apologized and explained that I’d left the ducks in Canada.
Clodworthy searched high and low for the ducks. He looked in the truck and he looked in the trailer. Good thing he didn’t check the feed bucket where I’d hidden my .357 magnum. I imagine that would’ve been a real find for the potbellied cop.
Pissed, and probably somewhat relieved, he waved us through.
We had spent a day clearing customs. We now headed for Cambridge without a duck wrangler or, for that matter, any ducks for him to wrangle.
We were a bit behind schedule and the biggest problem we had was that we knew it was going to take some time to find some more ducks to replace the newly-naturalized Canadian ducks we’d left behind.
I was fuming, worried and stressed. We drove through the night.
The next morning we arrived at Cambridge and followed the directions we had to the airport. There, just as we’d been told, was “Airport Road”. We turned right and could see the airport hangars up ahead. We saw something else as well. Right there at the corner was a handwritten sign. It said, “Ducks for Sale”. My luck had changed.
The ducks were five bucks apiece and I bought seven of them. Within thirty minutes, Jessie was herding the new ducks along a hangar wall and into the catch cage. After several such maneuvers, they’d realize in their little duck-brains that if they “ducked” into the catch cage, that pesky pooch would leave them alone. In another thirty minutes or so they had their roles down pat and were veteran air show performers-to-be.
The next day members of the press were treated to a sample performance by the Acme Duck and Airshow Company, featuring Ace the Wonder Dog and the Acme Ducks. That weekend the show went off without a hitch.
The ducks from Cambridge stayed in the show for years.
Customs officer Clodworthy was on my “P.O.S.” list for quite a while. That’s the list of people you will punch on site. Eventually I learned the value of forgiveness. My rage was replaced by mild contempt. I no longer have a “P.O.S.” list and my opinion of Canadian Customs is higher by a long way than that of the U.S. The incident also instilled a distrust of my own government that I will carry to my grave.
That was before the TSA. Wouldn’t it be funny to try to smuggle ducks across the border now… and to have them wear little turbans? Maybe not.
*Names have been changed to protect the ridiculous.