by Margaret D. Stetz
Crime was common in New York City when I lived there as a child. But I never expected to be a victim of it on Long Island, at Lollipop Farm. This happened in 1959 in front of a crowd that included my parents; yet there was nothing that anyone could do. My father, a police officer, had never seen an attack so brazen in the Manhattan subway stations that he patrolled, or a perpetrator so confident of escaping punishment that it didn’t even bother to waddle away. Yes, waddle. I was mugged by a duck.
There was no “Nature” in the part of Queens where I grew up, unless you counted the monstrous green hornworms on the tomato plants that my mother tried growing in flowerpots. To expose their urban daughter to the natural world, my parents set out once or twice a year, in a used car that didn’t always survive these trips, for game farms and petting zoos. Bear Mountain State Park was an all-day excursion, which meant leaving at dawn with a packed lunch—thermoses filled with reconstituted frozen fruit punch and sandwiches of bologna on white bread—for the chance to row across a lake and, in my case, to ride on the back of a smelly, overworked pony. The Catskill Game Farm was also far away, but on the sole occasion when we managed to drive there, it provided the excitement of watching my mother locked in combat with a goat that fastened its teeth on the hem of her long cotton dress and chewed as fast as it could, hoping to swallow it. Closer to home, in the town of Syosset, was Lollipop Farm. That, too, turned out to be a one-time visit, however, after my unhappy encounter with a criminal duck.
Lollipop Farm, which shut down forever in the late 1960s, was known for two things. One was its miniature train, which traversed the length of the property, carrying children past gated enclosures housing sheep, pigs, donkeys, and a few (spitting) llamas. The other was the free lollipop distributed to every young visitor who passed through the entrance. This was what I found most exciting. The lollipops were small but delectably round—not like the usual flat ones that poked awkwardly at the insides of my cheek—and attached to thin wooden sticks. (Cardboard sticks would come later.) As soon as I was handed mine, I jammed it eagerly into my mouth and entered not only Lollipop Farm, but Lollipop Heaven. Not, however, for long.
Immediately past the entrance was a marauding group of ducks—fat, white, and moving swiftly towards those of us who had just arrived. Clearly, they were used to catching in their bills whatever got thrown to them from the bags of animal food sold at the admissions counter. But I didn’t have anything in my hands. Whether my parents were hanging on to those bags, or whether they’d decided not to waste money on the farm’s already well-fed inhabitants, I don’t remember. What I do remember was a large duck coming right up to me. I may have leaned forward out of curiosity. But everything happened so fast, that I can’t be sure. One moment, I was a happy child, contentedly sucking a lollipop. The next, the entire lollipop, stick and all, had been wrenched from my mouth and was gone—down the duck’s gullet in a single gulp.
I did what I usually did, when unpleasantly surprised: I began screaming. Screaming and crying. The farm’s employees must have been used to these occurrences, as well as to my sort of reaction, because no one came over to ask what was wrong, let alone to offer a replacement lollipop. My parents, of course, tried to calm me, but I was having none of it. I had been robbed by a nasty, vicious bird, and nothing was going to make me feel better. I went on sobbing and sobbing, until my parents realized the day was spoiled. We would have to turn around and head for the parking lot. I wept all the way home.
In retrospect, of course, I understand that Nature imposes its own form of justice. There is no way that a long wooden stick could make its way comfortably through a duck’s digestive system without causing irreparable, probably fatal, damage. The pain I felt at the loss of my lollipop was nothing compared to what that greedy bird was sure to experience in its gut. For whatever reason, though, my parents chose not to enlighten me about the duck’s likely fate. I left Lollipop Farm believing that crime did pay. There was danger, moreover, at every turn, even from harmless-looking animals.
Was I wrong? Many years later, when I began reading Darwin, I felt that I’d found someone who would have known what to say about the duck and lollipop. Survival of the Fittest. I was weak, and the duck had been stronger. And smarter, too. Instinct (or observation) told it that whatever happened on that farm, no one was going to wring its neck, least of all me.
I did get my own back, in a sense, when I was twelve. It was the last of those visits to parks and preserves—my parents’ final (and futile) attempt to make me comfortable in environments without sidewalks or newsstands. The morning before we drove to the Nature Center in Stamford, Connecticut, I’d had my mother’s idea of a hearty meal: a large glass of milk with a packet of artificially flavored strawberry powder dissolved in it. This was something called an “Instant Breakfast.” (My mother, an enthusiastic but awful cook, was keen on packaged foods.)
I can’t recall when I started feeling queasy. It might have been on the way, or just after we’d arrived. But by the time we were walking across the quaint wooden footbridge over the pond, I was full-on nauseated. That’s when I stopped, looked down at the white ducks swimming below, and heaved waves of pink liquid on top of them and into the surrounding water. It wasn’t a deliberate act of vengeance, and none of those ducks was guilty of my earlier mugging, but it still felt like the closing of a circle.