Private Joke, Major Pun and General Hilarity

Almost forty years ago, my brother and I were returning to our parents’ house after some hours spent with friends playing Dungeons and Dragons. Yes, we were Early American Geeks.

It was late in the fall, and it must have been about 3 a.m. — I was driving north on Highway 111 and we passed field after field of vegetables, alfalfa and sleeping cows. Neither of us had said anything for miles, not exactly sleepy but getting mentally ready to go to sleep.

The fields were dark and the stars were bright, the air had the clarity that it only gets in that season and at that time of night. It must have been a new moon with no large glowing orb or crescent shining overhead. In the silence and darkness, we kept our thoughts to ourselves.

Suddenly, white hot light stabbed the sky from the edges of a field we were passing. Arrays of massive strobes as big as refrigerators on every side of the field poured out energy in one synchronized pulse, as if the night were God’s camera and it came equipped with flash bulbs. The light reached horizon to horizon for only an instant, bright as day, sudden as lightning but without a sound. A moment later, the night returned and silent armadas of stars sailed an inky sea above us again.

I knew what had happened and paid no attention. Don at only sixteen had never been up so late traveling on country roads in our part of the world before so he had never seen anything like that sudden brilliance. I guess he waited a three beat for me to make some comment but I didn’t, probably thinking about something else. After a long quiet moment, he gasped, “What the fuck was that?”

“A duck light,” I said. Farmers use strobes like that to scare off migrating ducks from landing in their fields on winter nights but I didn’t explain and he didn’t ask. Simple when you know what it is.

I drove on and neither of us said anything more. A few minutes later, I parked beside our parents’ house and we carefully and quietly went around to the back. I stood at the top of the steps using my keys to unlock the door when Don nudged me.

I half-turned toward him as he asked in a strangled whisper, “All that — just to light a duck?”

4 thoughts on “Private Joke, Major Pun and General Hilarity

  1. Not quite the way I remember it. I think you’re combining memories there but, hey, you’re old and you can do that. 🙂

    Also, I wouldn’t have said “fuck” at that age. I was way too goddamn straight laced then for that type of vulgarity.

    The epilogue to this story would be about how long we laughed our asses off out behind the house. So hard and so long that we finally woke mom. And trying to explain why we were laughing — to our mother who never had that particular taste in humor — just added more stitches to our already splitting sides.

  2. For weeks after, someone would say something inane or inconsequential and one of us would say the line again. We got more mileage out of that “duck light” than I think we did out of any other joke I can remember.

    Just recently, Don was talking about some code he was writing using a built-in hack in a programming language called Ruby. I had an opportunity to use a variation on the classic line but someone or something interrupted and I didn’t get to ask him, “All that — just to type a duck?”

  3. I’d have pissed myself with all those lights going off. Then I would have pissed myself again at the ‘light a duck’ line.

    I’m still pissing myself at the fact that he says you’re old and can do that.

    My late mother in law saw life that way too, only used the excuse for herself. Mind you, she was nearly ninety.

    • Don’s memory is that we were already home when the duck light went off about half a mile away. I may be conflating the time when I first saw one and had to drive home alone wondering what the hell had happened. It wasn’t till the next day that I described it to my father and he told me what it was and what it was for. Sadly, I didn’t think of Don’s classic line at the time and had to wait probably six or eight years for one of the best laughs I’ve ever had.

      Another confusion of time and place is that Mom and Dad lived in three very similar homes over a period of about twelve years. Don remembers this as happening in El Centro and I’m pretty sure it happened in Brawley because I remember falling backwards off the steps, laughing, and Don catching me which I can’t visualize happening at the El Centro house.

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