John Carlson: Mastering Memphis’ Ducks

With spectators lined up to watch, ducks walk the long red carpet. Photo by Katie Carlson.With spectators lined up to watch, ducks walk the long red carpet. Photo by Katie Carlson.

By John Carlson—

When I was younger I wanted to race Indy cars, be a fighter pilot or, as I matured and discovered what was truly important in life, own a White Castle franchise.

But now, I have attained my ultimate goal.

I am a Duckmaster.

Make that an Honorary Duckmaster.

It was quite a while back when I first heard about Memphis’ superb hotel, The Peabody. Particularly noteworthy were the ducks that have walked through its stunning lobby twice a day since 1933, much to the delight of admiring crowds. While the ducks are under the direction of the hotel’s Duckmaster, he or she is ably assisted in this daily endeavor by an Honorary Duckmaster.

Learning of that, I suddenly had a new dream.

Walking the ducks.

So I began harping on it incessantly. Say that my wife Nancy and I were arguing about my being such a jerk. My rebuttal was always, “I wouldn’t be such a jerk if I ever got to walk the damned ducks!” Or say I gained a few pounds? “I’d stay slim and trim if I could walk the ducks!” Or maybe I left my best pants in a heap on the floor three nights straight? “I’d pick ‘em up and pull ‘em on if I were preparing to walk the ducks!”

But truthfully, this whole time I was kidding. In my wildest dreams, I never thought that a lowly guy like me was Honorary Duckmaster material.

Then the weekend before Valentine’s Day, Nancy and I with our daughter, Katie, plus son and daughter-in-law, Johnny and Stephanie, were on a mini-vacation in a car just outside of Memphis. Out of the blue Nancy received an intriguing text. It said it was about our “Ducky Day Family Package,” going on to note it included a Peabody collectible duck toy, some Peabody duck cookies, a Peabody Duckmaster T-shirt and …

… my appointment as an Honorary Duckmaster!

Two hours later I was walking ducks down a red carpet. Before that, though, came The Peabody’s intense Duckmaster qualification course. I studied the physiology of ducks, the basics of duck psychology, and select passages from Dr. Brant Merganser’s outstanding textbook, “The Sociology of Duck Family Structures.”

OK, I am lying about all that. The only thing resembling a book anybody cracked open in the course of my Duckmaster certification was Nancy’s checkbook. I suppose it’s possible, though, that I also underwent a Memphis Police Department background check, just to make sure I wasn’t some kind of, you know, duck weirdo.

But my education in this escapade came mostly from Kenon Walker. A very nice man, he was dressed in a red military-styled tunic with yellow braiding that looped from his left epaulet. As befits the person who is both The Peabody’s official Duckmaster, and its historian, Kenon also carried a cane topped by a beautiful brass duck head.

With his coaching me in my responsibilities as Honorary Duckmaster, I listened carefully, replying “yes” and “uh-huh” and nodding my head affirmatively a bunch of times.

Unfortunately, hard as I tried to concentrate, half of Kenon’s words went in one ear and out the other as the spectators for that evening’s duck walk began congregating. My problem? Nerves. They were really getting to me. By the time the event was about to begin, I was mortified to see fully half of Memphis’ population gathered in The Peabody’s lobby to witness my coronation.

That may be a slight exaggeration, too, but I bet there were two-hundred people there, including a bunch of little high-strung, duck-loving kids lining the red carpet. These were kids who wouldn’t take kindly to a duck dropping dead on its red-carpet stroll, if you know what I mean.

Finally, it was time for what I’d been awaiting, as I was handed my very own cane with a brass duck head on it.

Kenon closed a wooden gate inside a moat ringing a beautiful fountain in The Peabody’s lobby. Then in practiced fashion, five talented mallards – one guy and four ladies – waddled their way onto a platform, then over the side to the red carpet. From there it was just a matter of us solemnly following this stately duck procession toward an elevator door where Nancy was waiting. This left plenty of time for me to flip some Queen Elizabeth-type mini-waves at the admiring spectators, which I figured was fully within my rights since I waddled as much or more than the ducks did.

Their duty done, The Peabody’s ducks ride an elevator to their penthouse. Photo by Nancy Carlson.

Their duty done, The Peabody’s ducks ride an elevator to their penthouse. Photo by Nancy Carlson.

After entering the elevator, Kenon shot us up to the hotel’s roof, onto which we filed out before accompanying the ducks to their fabulous rooftop penthouse.

For the record, I’ve lived in far worse places than these ducks do.

That done, I bid adieu to Kenon and my quacking companions, for whom I owed my exciting new take on life and its possibilities. I’d been the Honorary Duckmaster. Now I could almost believe that somehow, someday, I would own a White Castle franchise.

Back down in the lobby Nancy, the kids, and I seated ourselves at our table – the one reserved for Honorary Duckmasters and their families. Thirstily knocking back a few sixteen-buck Manhattans, I tried to act nonchalant under the envious stares of the miserable wretches crowded around who recognized me as that day’s king of the quackers.

Would they ever share such fame? Such glory? Such underpants? By that I mean the celebratory black boxer shorts Nancy bought me in the souvenir shop, decorated with a duck on the butt and the word “Quack” across the crack.

Probably not.

But when a couple supplicants hesitantly made their way to my table and humbly asked for my advice, I told them: “Never quit waddling after your dreams.”

Believe me, being The Peabody’s Honorary Duckmaster is everything it’s (sorry) quacked up to be.


A former longtime feature writer and columnist for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, John Carlson is a storyteller with an unflagging appreciation for the wonderful people of East Central Indiana and the tales of their lives, be they funny, poignant, inspirational or all three.  John’s columns appear on every Friday.