Back Off, Man—I’m An Ornithologist: My Brief Career As A Teenage Duckbuster

Back Off, Man—I’m An Ornithologist: My Brief Career As A Teenage Duckbuster

He knew he was probably too late when he saw the sparks. Not just sparks, really: massive bolts of machine-made lightning, lashing bullwhips of crackling energy. At least he no longer had to worry about moving with stealth; the doctor was too consumed with the work at hand to notice him, in thrall to a task of equal parts science, black magic, and madness. A hunchbacked servant, his crooked fangs gleaming in the brilliant light, cowered in fear and fascination as the thing, the monster, convulsed under the Promethean energies the doctor had unleashed upon him. An inhuman cry filled the cavernous stone room.

“QUACK!”

Also, they were ducks. The monster. The doctor. All of them. People-sized ducks, actually. Except the Igor one. He was just a normal mallard. But in a burlap tunic. With a hunchback.

This seems to be the story I was trying to tell with a picture I drew when I was thirteen. I can only assume the doctor’s name was Duckenstein. I mean, he was a mad scientist, and also a duck. Of course, following that thread of logic, Dr. Frankenstein would actually have been called Dr. Humanstein, but I was sticking pretty close to a certain theme during this period, so I’m willing to bet that I meant for him to be Dr. Duckenstein. Or possibly Ducktor Frankenstein.

But, the hero of the story: that was me. I was one of the Duckbusters. And I had an energy blaster that was going to evaporate the ducks, sending them back to the wetland netherworld from whence they came. At least I think that how it was supposed to work. But I should probably back up a little bit.

I started junior high with an empty space in my soul roughly the size and shape of a GI Joe man. I had loved my Joes a lot; people even called me GI Jack. But, I had very reluctantly given them up just before entering seventh grade. I was a weird kid, but I wasn’t an idiot. I knew that playing with toys, not to mention running around during PE pretending to shoot guns at imaginary Cobra soldiers, would amount to social suicide.

I’m not sure where I got the idea that filling that void with waterfowl was a better choice, but I blame Weird Al Yankovic.

In 1984, Huey Lewis sued Ray Parker Jr. over the musical similarities between Parker’s Ghostbusters theme and Lewis’s earlier release, “I Want a New Drug.” By the late 80s, even Weird Al’s parody had come and gone. But a dubbed cassette of “I Want a New Duck” was passed to me, samizdat-style, by my friend Tyler, a Jehovah’s Witness whose parents didn’t want him to have it in the first place. It was a revelation on par with other kids hearing punk rock for the first time, and no doubt, the melodic DNA shared with Parker’s song subconsciously influenced my vision for Duckbusters.

I say “vision” as if there was a lot to it. It was Ghostbusters, but with evil ducks instead of ghosts. But, you’ve probably already gathered that.

Tyler was the first to join the ranks, presumably because as a Jehovah’s Witness in a small town, that was what passed for rebellion. Of course, we weren’t going to go around busting real ducks. I mean, c’mon. But, I guess I thought of us as something like high-concept storytellers, although plots, if any, were anemic. We almost never wrote anything down, so it was maybe kind of like role-playing, if by “role playing” you mean “idly talking about shit.”

For me, the thrill was in the world-building: laying out floor-plans of locations, making blueprints of anti-duck weapons, and populating the universe of the Duckbusters. I stuffed a folder with character sketches of the increasingly numerous duck villains, often cramming several onto a page like I couldn’t bear to take the time to grab a fresh sheet.

I quickly ran out of supernatural motifs to layer upon the ducks, so I grabbed from pop culture of all sorts. There was Powerduck, a clear analog to Robocop and also Judge Sqwawk, a sort of hybrid of Judge Dredd and the Punisher who was a chicken instead of a duck for some reason. Doctor Ducktopus had not only as many wings as you might guess, but also a holstered pistol for each one. I drew ninja ducks, commando ducks, bandito ducks, Crocodile Dundee ducks, and Freddy Kreuger ducks. I also did a sketch of a guy in a scuba suit with a squid for a head, but that might have been for something else.

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Back in the real world of seventh grade, though, my focus was on marketing; there was no need to keep something as brilliant as the Duckbusters a secret. I persuaded my English teacher to let me hang a poster outside her classroom, designating it our headquarters and listing the team members. This didn’t just include Tyler and myself, but also some guys I had penciled in to beef up the ranks: friends from elementary school who had started to move in more popular circles now that we were in junior high. It should be noted that I did not ask their permission nor give them advance notice before adding their names to the now very public Duckbusters roster.

I also created a code name for each person, most of them something swamp-animal related. I knew the poster was working to build the Duckbusters brand when an upperclassman yelled, “Hey, Fruitfly!” at my friend Frank, who sighed, slumped his shoulders and muttered, “Thanks, Jack…” He seemed mortified.

I know, right? What the hell was his deal? I had included him on my crack team of waterfowl elimination specialists and that was the thanks I got?

Of course, I couldn’t realistically expect the rest of the Duckbusters, voluntary or otherwise, to match my level of commitment. A predisposition for mental fixation that would later take a number of forms, including but not limited to compulsively unplugging small appliances, obsessively seeking out Teenage Fanclub b-sides, and worrying that my therapist secretly thinks I’m an asshole, was at the time centered around Duckbusters, and I focused upon it with the myopia of a true zealot. I certainly endured my own share of junior high teasing, called “dork” by girls and “fag” by boys, and I found the poster on the floor at least once a week, a casualty of either malice or gravity. But, I was undeterred.

Then, one day after lunch, I rounded a corner to find a large crowd of students gathered behind a reporter from a network TV affiliate as she taped an on-location bit with her cameraman. I don’t know why they had come to our school out on the fringes of their broadcast range, but it didn’t matter; I wasn’t going to let this opportunity go to waste. Stuck at the back of the crowd, I waited until what I assumed to be the reporter’s sign-off before jumping up and shouting as loud as I could, “DUCKBUSTERS RULE!!!” I think I also may have kicked up my heels and done something like jazz-hands.

Almost everyone turned to look at me with expressions that collectively expressed disgust only slightly tinged with pity. The reporter, however, didn’t seem to notice, and I don’t know if I made it onto the air. I do know that the reporter would later resign from the station after peeing on and setting ablaze her boyfriend’s bed in a fit of jealous rage, which, I think, serves as a pretty good example of how we can all succumb to obsession from time to time, even those whose careers previously seemed to have been on an upward trajectory in a midsize media market.

And, just as the full, crushing weight of consequence settled upon the reporter’s shoulders only after her pee-fire was extinguished, it wasn’t until later that I recognized the failure of my Duckbusters publicity stunt and acknowledged the toll my obsession was taking.

A tall kid, a basketball player named Eddie was dumping books into the locker above mine the next morning. He looked down at me, both literally and figuratively, with distaste.

“Why’d you scream ‘Ghostbusters rule’ at the news lady?” he asked.

“What? No. No!” I protested. “It was Duckbusters. Duckbusters rule.”

“I heard it was Ghostbusters.”

“Why would I yell Ghostbusters rule?”

“Why would you yell Duckbusters rule?”

“Because that’s my thing!”

He didn’t seem convinced.

“You’ve seen the poster, right?” I pleaded.

“I ain’t seen no poster.”

Up until then, I had just kind of assumed that Duckbusters was the talk of the school. The realization that this was not remotely the case, the understanding that the real story circulating was of dorky GI Jack spazzing out about Ghostbusters on television, was dispiriting, to say the least.

It would probably make for a better ending if I could say that this feeling of futility coupled with a dawning sense of shame brought about a climactic close for the Duckbusters: that I quit cold turducken. But, it wasn’t like that. At some point, the poster fell and I just didn’t put it back up. As with most obsessions, the grip relaxed so gradually that I don’t remember the real end.

Still, it’s hard not to see the drawing with Duckenstein’s monster as a sort of valedictory. On one side of the page is the mad ducktor, obsessively forging yet another webfooted creature. On the other side is the young man, poised to finally put a stop to it.

Flipping the switch to take his blaster out of standby mode, the Duckbuster crept around the edge of the room, looking for a clear shot. There was movement behind him, something from the sarcophagus. A mummy, probably. Okay, a mummy, obviously. No doubt, a duck one.

This was his last chance. He raised the blaster to his shoulder. He held it there and took a breath, pausing briefly to take one last look around the world he’d made.

Illustration by Sam Mitchell.