MAN ABOUT TOWN: A Tree, A Woman, and 14 Ducks

man-about-town“There’s a story in everything,” claimed William Sidney Porter, better known as O. Henry, one of the best short story writers of the 20th century. I should have listened to him – after all, he’s the only famous person ever produced by my hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina. After ignoring his advice I learned that the master knew of what he spoke.

In this case, I was walking up South Virginia Avenue, toward Broad Street, when I saw quite a commotion. Three police cars, lights flashing, had cordoned off the street where two or three tree service trucks were parked. Half a dozen workers were cutting up a huge section of a tree that had fallen onto the sidewalk and into the street.

I had just bought a new camera and I wondered if I should go get it and take pictures for the paper. No, I decided – hopefully we’re printing bigger news than “Tree Falls on Street – Police, Work Crews Respond.” So I went on my way.

IMG_1008The next day I was walking our dog Lexie when I approached a lady who also walks quite a bit in the neighborhood. We had seen each other many times but never exchanged anything more than a nod or a smile. I think she’s Vietnamese, and I didn’t know if she even spoke English. But indeed, she does. Seeing me, she launched into a blow-by-blow account of her near-death experience the day before:

“Evlee day I walking on that side of sidewalk, in shade – Yes-day I walking under tlee when I heah sound – I look up and tlee coming down!” It missed her by inches.

There was more – much more. This was the third time in her life that a tree had fallen on her, or almost on her. The previous time, a tree fell on her house, crushing the roof right next to where she stood. She recited the accounts with many details, which involved her daughter, and other relatives, and God’s will that she live. 

I tried to tell her how ironic the whole experience was, because I had seen the fallen tree section the day before but didn’t think it merited a story in the newspaper. Now it did, but I had missed the picture. At least that’s what I wanted to tell her, but I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Finishing her saga of the three trees, she started again at the beginning, for emphasis. Lexie finally lay down on the sidewalk. I waited for my chance to interject but it never came. Any really important event merits three tellings ­­- it was her turn to star and she knew it. After the third telling we went our separate ways.

Arriving home, I encountered my neighbor Jen, who proved a better listener. After patiently hearing the whole account –- the police cars, the camera left at home, the Vietnamese lady and the three tree-fallings, the irony that she was impelled to tell me the story, unaware that I wrote for the paper, etc., Jen replied, “Is that the Duck Tree?”


Here’s looking at you . . .

“The what?”

“The Duck Tree. Every year the same duck builds a nest in the tree. The City’s going to cut it down, but they’re waiting for the eggs to hatch.”

I had never heard of a duck nesting in a tree. How could that be? I found out. The tree (yes, it was the Duck Tree) has a hollow about 4 feet from the ground, which is where the duck makes her nest. One evening I saw her, and got the picture. (She didn’t seem to mind the flash, which must have been pretty minor compared to when half her house had come crashing down.)

* * *

The next encounter was pure serendipity: My wife and I were riding bikes up South Virginia, and she noticed that someone had stuck a pie pan into the tree hollow. That didn’t look good so we stopped to investigate. The ducks were gone. Then some neighborhood kids told us that the ducks were under a bush. I raced back to get my camera. It was a scene straight from Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings – Mama Mallard Duck marching toward the neighborhood swimming pool, trailed by 13 ducklings in obedient formation.


duckling on step597

Later, at Winter Hill Pool, our Polish lifeguard J.J. gave me an update. Mama Mallard and her brood showed up at the pool, but J.J. had not come all the way from Poland to put up with a flock of ducks in his swimming pool. He shoed them away, and they haven’t been seen since. I like to think that they made their way down to Tripps Run, not far away.  The mama duck is pretty experienced in these matters, after all.

Below is a picture of the bronze sculpture in the Boston Garden memorializing Make Way for Ducklings.

boston ducks flipped 600

After writing this story I read in the News-Press that Joseph Inabnet had posted a 60-second video of the chicks in the tree on Youtube. Here it is:

MAN ABOUT TOWN appears Mondays in The Falls Church Times.

July 6, 2009 


2 Responses to “MAN ABOUT TOWN: A Tree, A Woman, and 14 Ducks”

  1. Mary Nguyen on July 29th, 2009 11:32 am

    RE: “‘Evlee day I walking on that side of sidewalk, in shade – Yes-day I walking under tlee when I heah sound – I look up and tlee coming down!’ It missed her by inches.” ……

    Was it absolutely imperative to your report to quote a woman with an accent like she’s a moron who cannot speak English? You obviously knew what she was trying to say. It’s insulting.

  2. George Southern on July 29th, 2009 1:02 pm

    Ms. Nguyen —
    I feel bad that you were insulted by my attempt to insert dialect in the story. Please believe me that I did not intend to belittle my Vietnamese neighbor by depicting her speech. But in fact, much of what she said I did not understand. Her accent was very thick, and that fact was part of my story. It is in no way a reflection on one’s intelligence to have an accent; I myself speak five foreign languages, all of them very badly, but that does not make me a “moron” anymore than it does my Vietnamese neighbor. In fact, I have tremendous respect for anyone, particularly an older person, who makes the effort to speak a foreign tongue. America’s greatest author, Mark Twain, popularized the use of dialect to more colorfully and accurately depict his characters. He did not do it to insult or belittle anyone, nor do I.

Feel free to leave a comment. Please increase the credibility of your post by including your FULL NAME and CITY. All comments are subject to editing for courtesy and content.