Big Duck at 80: He Talks About Birth, Eggs, a Liar & a Good Time

An enormous snowy white duck, 30 feet long, 20 feet high and 18 feet wide, roosts by the side of the road on Route 24 in front of some wetlands halfway between Hampton Bays and Riverhead.

It’s one of the most photographed creatures on eastern Long Island, appearing on postcards and in schoolbooks alongside windmills and lighthouses, and it is visited by tourists, grammar school kids on outings, mothers and fathers with small children, and, on Christmas Eve by Christmas carol-singing boys and girls who stand in front performing for an assembled crowd. The duck—it is called The Big Duck—for the occasion wears a red elf’s hat, a wreath around its neck and beautiful Christmas tree lights that decorate it from stem to stern and get lit up at night. And then on Christmas morning, the Big Duck wakes up to find presents left leaning up against him. [expand]

See a Gallery of The Big Duck Through the Years

This month, the Big Duck turned 80 years old. There was a big celebration for him on the lawn next to him last Saturday and Dan’s Papers went with microphone and recorder in hand, to wish him happy birthday and hear his thoughts on this his 80th year.

“How is it to be eighty?”

“Well, it’s a good start. The Sphinx of Egypt, I’m told, is 3,000 years old, so in Sphinx years, I’m barely a month old.”

“But you have lived a long time.”

“In human terms, yes.”

“Can you tell us what it was like in the beginning?”

“Well, no I can’t. I was too young to remember. But I do remember the lies that Mrs. Maurer told me.”

“Lies?”

“Well, she told me that in 1931, I was made by her husband Martin, a duck farmer, of wood, chicken wire, cement and plaster. And he made me and put me in front of his duck farm by the side of the road up in Riverhead so people could know they could drive up and buy duck eggs and broilers inside.”

“That does seem pretty far fetched when you put it that way.”

“You’re damn right it is.”

“But you are hollow inside. People could walk in and out and buy eggs and ducks.”

“I think you’d get pretty hollow inside if this woman who was supposed to be a friend told you these lies over and over.”

“But people have gone inside?”

“Not on my watch. Nope. I’m a duck.”

“But a big duck.”

“Yes. There are big ducks and little ducks. Just like with you people there are giants and dwarves. How tall are you?”

“Five ten.”

“So you’re middle-sized. Well I’m big.”

“You know, back in the 1930s when you were built…”

“Born.”

“When you were born, there were all sorts of giant statues of different sorts out along the highways, especially in California. They were meant to attract people to shops and restaurants as a form of advertising. Giant hot dogs. Giant strawberries. Giant coffee pots.”

“That has nothing to do with me.”

“What has been your favorite time during these years?”

“Well, it has to be Christmas, of course. And then there was that big parade.”

“Parade?”

“In 1987, after Mrs. And Mrs. Maurer died, a developer bought the farm and announced he was going to drive roads through and build a housing development here. He wanted me off the property. The developer said nobody would buy lots if people were going to look out their windows and see me every day. I don’t know why. They thought I was some kind of freak. Like I would freak them out or something.”

“You are quite something.”

“So then, you know what happened? The County bought me and one day moved me three miles down the road in a big parade, baton twirlers, marching bands, Mayors and County Supervisors and everybody, to the entrance to the Sears-Bellows County Park. And they put me there.”

“But you’re not still there.”

“No. The State came in and told the developer to get lost. The development was on endangered wetlands. He went bust.”

“So then they moved you back.”

“Yup. Another big parade. That was in 2004.”

“People tell me there was a time, about 20 years ago, when super model Christie Brinkley broadcast the story of the Big Duck from a low-powered radio station in a shed just behind you. You could drive toward the duck and when you got within a mile, coming from either direction, you could hear her tell the story.”

“Are you asking a question?”

“Did you ever meet her?”

“That was a big disappointment to me. I’d heard she was going to do this and I was really excited to get to meet her. But in the end, she never came. Some County workers brought a cassette player and a tape. So that’s what was in the little radio station here. It was just her voice. They had it broadcasting over and over until I was just so sick of it. Even though it was her. Then, finally, after a year, they took it away.”

“Were there other disappointments?”

“No. Just that one. That was the only disappointment.”

“Do you remember much about your growing up?”

“Oh yes. I have a photographic memory.”

“Care to tell me about it?”

“Well, there was the Great Depression. Then there was World War II, then the Cold War. I remember when Franklin Roosevelt was President. And Harry Truman.”

“Do you remember when Herbert Hoover was President?”

“I was too young. But I’m told he stopped in.”

“Did he buy anything?”

“What?”

“Buy anything?”

“How could he buy anything? He smiled, bent down, said I was a cute little tyke and he patted me on the head.”

“That was it?”

“Then I remember Korea and Vietnam and the moon landing and President Reagan. Nice man, him.”

“How do you know about all of this?”

“I talk with the other ducks. They fly south. They are worldly wise. They come back and tell me things. That’s another thing I found to be a great disappointment.”

“What’s that?”

“I can’t fly. I’ve tried. It just doesn’t work and I don’t know why. Some kind of disability I think. But you know, you learn to live with these things.”

“People say you have the most beautiful eyes.”

“I do. They light up at night. Lovely red peepers. They are very special.”

Mrs. Maurer said before she died that her husband bought an old set of Model T Ford taillights for your eyes. And they’d turn them on at night with the electricity from an old gasoline generator sitting on the ground in the back.”

“More lies. Do you see any generator? I don’t see any generator.”

“No. But it doesn’t mean it wasn’t there before.”

“She’s a completely discredited liar. You can’t believe anything she says.”

“Did you do anything special today?”

“It isn’t my birthday yet. I was born on July 1, 1931.”

“So this celebration was early.”

“It is.”

“Well, do you expect to do anything special on July 1?”

“Yes.”

“What?”

“I am going to lay an egg.”

“Okay.”

“You think I’m making this up? You’ll see.”

 

*         *        *        *

 

A second celebration of the 80th birthday of the Big Duck will take place at 230 Elm Street in Southampton on July 9 at 7 p.m. The big duck says one way or another he will waddle down for that, provided he’s fully recovered from the egg laying. We shall see. [/expand]

BACK TO Dan Rattiner's Stories