The Jaws of Life

by Rick Gilbert


A small vice held a two foot by two foot piece of plywood. An outline of a duck was penciled on the wood. My five year old hands gripped the coping saw tightly. As best I could, I followed the thin faint line. The saw kept twisting. It wasn’t easy. I kept at it, carefully sawing away. Finally… the last cut, and the extra wood fell to the floor.

The next day, all of us kindergarteners nailed six inch by four inch squares of plywood to the bottom of our ducks. Next we opened paint cans, and gleefully began painting, white for the body of the duck, blue for the base, and the duck’s eyes. By day’s end, my duck sat quietly with the others as the paint dried. I felt so proud. 

When I showed it to my mother the next day, the first thing she noticed was how jagged the cuts were. Then, she pointed out that the blue paint of the eye had run. The final blow came when she compared my duck to one of my classmates, “Why can’t you do it as well as Johnny Broyer?” I fought back the tears.

That tiny indignity happened 65 years ago, just at the end of World War II. I wore little sailor suits to Hillside School in the hills of Berkeley. I was cute. I had loving parents and a happy childhood. Why, then, does this tiny incident still hold sway over me? Whenever I move, the duck comes too. 

The duck is some weird symbol of all my failures in life… not the ‘A’ student, not the Eagle Scout, certainly not the craftsman. Why don’t I just toss it in the fireplace, watch the yellow flames devour the eye with the running blue paint,  and be done with it? In some perverse way, the duck, labeled “Rickie, 1944” on the bottom, has a grip on me like the “Jaws of Life” they use to rescue people from wrecked cars, only in reverse. The “jaws of the duck” are not rescuing me, they are keeping me trapped.

My mother’s off-handed criticism locked me in some eternal battle with that little piece of painted plywood. Like a flesh eating zombie from “Night of the Living Dead,” this duck follows me through life, imaginary arms outstretched, mocking my successes and celebrating my failures. 

The fact is, I don’t like pain. I don’t get some perverse psychological satisfaction from wallowing in real or imagined childhood traumas. This is not grist for the psychotherapy mill, “So, Rick, why do you hang on to this painful memory? What are you getting out of it?” says the therapist. Oh, bullshit. No, there is more to it than that.

The truth is, I parade my every success past my 65 year old pal. Not to just thumb my nose, saying, “Neener, neerer Mr. Running Eye.” No, my satisfaction is much deeper. The duck has caused me to examine why success comes when it does. It is clearly not through the standard “straight A student road to success.” No, I have developed other tools. 

Like a student with dyslexia who learns “work arounds” to master academic information, I use creativity and unusual approaches to problems. My life’s philosophy has become, “Let’er Rip!,” meaning ‘go with the passion, and damn the torpedoes.’ It works most of the time.

My duck is a reminder, not just of my failures, but also of my strategies for success. We all have work arounds. Sometimes, reminders of that come from the damnedest places. 



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