Why the duck?

A question frequently asked at the Dawnwatcher’s reunions is, ‘Why is the star prize always a duck?’ 

Back in 1967/8 a young LCpl Dave Ovens arrived in Singapore and was immediately taken under the wing of the more ‘experienced’ Cpl Brian Unsworth and myself.  Part of his induction was a short course in ‘haggling’ and refusing to accept the first offered price for anything – an idea foreign to all Brits at the time. That first weekend we introduced Dave to the Friday night routine – drinks in the 8 Int Coy Sgts Mess, then a taxi to the Hotel Singapura followed by the Princess Garni and finally Bugis Street.  When we left Bugis Street, in the early hours of the morning, we turned left instead of our usual right turn towards the taxi rank.  We found ourselves on Queen Street and were stopped in our tracks by the noise of a large quantity of ducks quacking away.  Surveying the scene we could see the ducks, all sitting on the road or pavement, while the local duck market was conducted around them.  Astounded that the ducks were not all fleeing the scene but patiently awaiting their fate, whilst chatting away to each other, we decided to explore further.  We approached the nearest ducks and Brian picked one up by its neck, revealing that its feet were tied together with raffia, and therefore answering our query regarding lack of flight.  Content that we had resolved the conundrum we were about to depart when the owner of the duck in Brian’s grip arrived with a cry of ‘two dolla, two dolla’.  Ovens, desperate to show he had learned a valuable lesson called out ‘one dollar’ and held up the money.  The trader, never one to miss a trick, called out ‘OK’ grabbed the money and we were now the proud owners of a duck.

It was probably at this point that I decided I had a soft spot for this particular duck and opted to ‘take it under my wing’, nursing it all the way back to Ayer Rajah Road in the taxi.  This in itself was not unsurprising; the living in members of CI Platoon already had a reputation for returning with stray animals – puppies, kittens and even a mynah bird before the duck.  As it was now the early hours of the morning, the sun having already risen, we crept into the hut, past the sleeping members of the unit, into the back room which contained our bed spaces and 3 others.  Not being completely out of it at this point, but still feeling over protective towards the duck, I secured it to the foot of my bed with a piece of string and spread newspaper all around it to cover for the inevitable mishap.  It was a few hours later that I was roused from my sleep by the nearby quacking of a duck.  Memories of the night before began to filter back and reluctantly I peered out from the bed clothes to see the duck looking at me.  Glancing around the room I could see that everyone else was still fast asleep.  Reaching into my bedside table I retrieved a pair of scissors, leaned out of the bed, cut the string and went back to sleep.  Having drifted back to sleep, it was some time later that I was again woken by the duck’s cries.  Leaning out of bed I saw the duck was still there and the string was neatly knotted together – there was no sign of movement anywhere else in the room.  Two further attempts to disassociate myself from the duck were equally unsuccessful and it finished up with 3 knots in the string and still no sign of movement elsewhere in the room.

When we finally roused ourselves, Unsworth and Ovens denied any responsibility for the duck, stating that I had emphatically taken charge of it.  The remainder of the ‘livers in’ found the story hilarious and offered no sympathy.  ‘What to do with duck?’  was discussed  with very few options offered until Dave Wakelam came up with a brilliant idea.
That evening we all gathered in the WOs and Sgt’s Mess for a party.  There was to be a raffle and now there was to be a new star prize: A duck dinner for two at a venue of your choosing There were a number of members keen to win the star prize, but that was not to be – the draw was fixed.  When the winning ticket was drawn it went to CSM Robbie Robertson.  Robbie and Tess were delighted at winning the prize until the live duck was brought into the room, handed to them with the message – ‘you can eat it anywhere you like’.  

That should have been the end of the story but, in 1969, 8 Int Coy moved from Ayer Rajah Road into Rowecroft Lines.  To mark this momentous event a party was to be held at the newly formed Intelligence Corps Club.  Various entertainments were planned, a film show directed and edited by the new genius Tony Byrne (having recently completed his projectionist course), a magic show by the hapless magicians McCrindle and Peaks, music courtesy of our resident DJ, Willie Lawson, and of course a raffle.  As soon as the word raffle was mentioned thoughts immediately sprang to the ‘duck’.  When it came time to draw the ticket for the star prize of ‘a duck dinner for two at a venue of your own choice’ there was anticipation around the room.  The winning ticket was drawn and announced.  There was no claimant.  The number was repeated.  Still no claimant.  The organiser’s scanned the room and immediately identified the problem – Patience Liley was deep in conversation at their table and had not checked her tickets.  There were now cries from around the room, from those not in the know, for the ticket to be drawn again.  This could not be happening.  The number was repeated and one of the organisers sidled up to the head table and quietly suggested that everyone should check their raffle tickets.  Surprise, surprise Patience had the winning ticket.  Patience and Mike came up to collect this magnificent prize and were somewhat surprised to be handed a piece of string and told to pull on it gently.  As they did so, all eyes traversed the length of string as it went out of the door and, as it was slowly reeled in, to the duck which waddled in attached to the other end.  The duck left that night with Mike and Patience but rumour has it that it was given to their amah.

Once again this should have been the end of the story but when the SDWS was resurrected in York in 1989 there was to be a raffle to raise funds .  The organisers of York, Dave Wakelam and Dave Peaks had no doubt what the star prize should be,  but obtaining a live duck in York was not as easy as Singapore.  Having finally located a duck farm just outside York they set off to make their purchase.  The owner of the farm was very protective of his ducks, which he claimed were very sociable creatures, and was extremely reluctant to sell a single duck.  He asked what we intended to do with the duck, and looking into his eyes there was no way we could come clean about the raffle so we had to look for an alternative.  Having now decided that the draw would no longer be a fix, the star prize in York went to Dave Foster, who seemed strangely reluctant to come and claim his prize which was in a cardboard box held by Dave Wakelam.  His concerns were accentuated by the apparent movement from within the box and the duck sounds coming from Wakelam’s hidden duck lure.  In the end he accepted the prize and opened the box to find  a frozen duck – the best we could achieve after our failure at the duck farm.
The ritual of the star prize having a duck theme has continued at all reunions since.

Dave Peaks [SDWS Historian]

Dave Peaks very eloquently describes the origination of the original duck, purchased on a Bugis Street reconnaissance, but his story has a certain “blank area” to it.  This of course relates to the constant re-appearance of the duck in his bed space, together with an ever increasing number of knots in the string tying it to the leg of his bed.  Now, perhaps, after 45 years the truth can come out. I occupied the first single bunk on the right when entering the accommodation block and woke up early one morning to find said duck sitting on the end of my bed with a bit of string hanging from its leg.  Having partaken of a couple of sherberts the previous evening I did what any sensible young soldier would do when confronted by a strange animal in the early hours of the morning – I turned over, went back to sleep, and hoped it would go away.  No such luck – it remained and the quacking was keeping me awake.  It didn’t take a genius to work out who the instigators were, and, as Dave Peaks comes from the same town as me I tied the duck to the leg of his bed.  Returning somewhat smugly to my private bunk as sleep once again beckoned.  Alas once more the damned duck appeared on the end of my bed and started its infernal racket again.  Back to the rear room, re-tie said duck to said bed leg and once again hit the land of nod.  It appeared to be Groundhog Day, because the damn duck re-appeared once more in my bed space, only to be re-returned to the back room.  Hence the ever increasing number of knots in the string.  The duck was not the only thing getting irate by this stage. The next time I saw the duck was later that morning when I walked across the unit car park to the ablution block.  Hearing a noise coming from one of the bathrooms I peered in, to find Noddy Jones on his knees besides a bath full of water.  He was pushing the duck up and down the bath and claimed that he was teaching it to swim!

Mick Conway