by Dana Snyder-Grant
The Beacon (Acton MA) 

"Connections" column

“Let's find a shady place by the river to watch the ducks,” I say eagerly to my husband, Jim, as we stand on a meadow in Randolph, New Hampshire in the White Mountains. We follow the sign, PATH, into trees by the Moose River, at the base of 5,000 foot Mount Madison and Mount Adams. It's noon on a warm, summer day and we have come up here to watch the town's annual duck race. This is the epitome of summer: relaxation, letting go, fun, and fantasy combined. Let me bring you with me as six hundred yellow rubber ducks come alive.

Duck races are inspired by the game of Pooh sticks, a pasttime that Winnie-the-Pooh created on a bridge with his friends when dropping sticks into a river on a lazy, peaceful summer day. They would lean over the other side of the bridge to see whose stick would come out first.

Watch yourself transform on another lazy day as rubber ducks, instead of sticks, become live beings who float, or race, on the river. You have bought and named a few ducks earlier that day or that month, but you have no responsibility for them.

The proceeds of this race will go to the town's public library. Owners of the top finishers on the Moose River will win prizes, donated by local businesses and residents. The grand prize – box seat tickets for the Red Sox - will go to the last place duck.

As Jim and I walk on the path towards the water, a band of teenagers, carrying long poles and wearing yellow duck helmets, walk across the grass towards the dam, where the ducks will begin the race. I think these kids have the coolest job in the world.

“It's the stuck duck patrol!” I cry out, remembering this crew from previous years. These young people will wade in the river and rescue ducks that drift to its banks and get stuck in rocks and branches in the water.

Jim and I find a shady spot by the water's edge. We look around and see other Randolph residents. Jim's cousins, Guy and his red-haired son, Frederick, pass by us and wave hello. Downstream, we see flags at the finish line. After a short wait and a loud toot from the town's fire engine, the race coordinator calls out, “Let the race begin!” We wait a few minutes and then, looking upstream, we see the first sighting of yellow, and soon, hundreds of flashes of yellow come into view. “The duck are coming, the ducks are coming!” Jim shouts.

Community fun and relaxation become fantasy. The best thing is that you are rooting for all the ducks, because you don't know which one is yours. A large cluster of ducks pass by us, and soon, smaller groupings follow. Then, ducks come by one at a time. Cheers come from downstream at the finish line. The first duck has completed the race. But winning seems irrelevant right now. It's the lazy, peaceful day that matters.

More ducks drift by us; the movements of some seem intentional. They've become real ducks to me now, actually racing against each other. One drifts near me and gets stuck in a branch. “Over here!” I call out to the duck patrol, and a water-laden teen in duck garb sloshes through the water to the rescue.

Relaxation allows the fantasy play to happen. I see teens on duck patrol peer for lost ducks and rescue a few. A minute or so later, when I think all the ducks have passed by, a lone duck drifts into view from behind a log, and slowly meanders past me. I think, “That's me. Easy, slow and steady. Last, but not least.”

We all come out of the trees onto the grass. I see Jim's mother, age 90, with her sun hat on, with her slightly younger sister, Betty. A woman who I recognize but whose name escapes me, stands behind a table and begins to call out the top duck finishers – their owners and numbers – and their prizes. Jim's mom wins four quarts of blueberries. Others win pedicures, massages, dvds, or a cord of split lumber.

After 10 minutes, I am hardly listening, for I never win anything. But that's not the point today. Jim Meiklejohn, a long-time family friend, walks by Jim and me and says with excitement, “Last duck wins the Sox tickets!” We are only fair weather fans, but I smile, anyway. A minute later, I vaguely hear, “Snyder-Grant, #242.” I'm oblivious, until I hear Jim's brother, usually mild-mannered, say excitedly, “Jim, isn't that yours? It's the last one!”

Jim walks up to the table, to much applause, and picks up the winning envelope. He returns and hands it to me. Stapled to the envelope, is the winning ticket with my name, and the word "LAST" written at the top in large letters. Sure enough, inside the envelope are the two box seat tickets - for another day of play in September.

Dana Snyder-Grant is a social worker and a free-lance writer who lives in Acton. Her new book, Just Like Life, Only More So and Other Stories of Illness, can be purchased at Willow Books in Acton or on the internet at http://www.justlikelifeonlymore so.com/

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